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Zac Sunderland sails home today after 13-month around-the-world voyage

July 16, 2009 |  6:00 am

Zac Sunderland inspects through long, brown hair the rigging on Intrepid in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Zac Sunderland is about to make history as the youngest person to have sailed around the world alone -- and the first person to accomplish that feat before turning 18.

Sunderland, 17, who departed Marina del Rey on June 14, 2008, is expected back in port, 13 months later, at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

There will be hundreds on hand to cheer and greet a teenager who courageously began this daunting task when he was 16 and celebrated Thanksgiving and, two days later, his 17th birthday while beating into a headwind off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

He enjoyed Costco spuds for Thanksgiving and a microwaveable cake for his birthday. And now, almost eight months later, he's about to enjoy a real party: a homecoming with friends and family who are sure to notice subtle changes in his personality and character.

"He left thinking he knew a lot about life. The difference now is, he does," said Laurence Sunderland, Zac's dad.

That may be, but as the mariner sees the U.S. mainland looming larger as he crosses the San Pedro Channel he's sure to experience strange feelings and maybe trepidation about reentering a world in which so many people reside and live such routine lives.

Zac said during a recent interview that one of the hardest things to deal with at sea was having no sense of normalcy and "never being anywhere at a certain time, always being someplace different."

Perhaps now the opposite will be true. How will he deal with the bustle of civilization after more than a year spent largely at sea? How will he handle living in a home full of siblings and parental rules and traffic and long lines in stores?

Easily, predicts Seattle's Karen Thorndike, who 11 years ago became the first American woman to solo-sail around the world. "The traffic issues and all the little problems you have are like, 'That's not even a problem,' " she said in a recent interview.

"Standing in line for an extra minute in the checkout line is not a problem. You've just risked your life going off and doing something remarkable and you've faced real issues about life and death -- that's a problem."

Zac Sunderland signs autographs at the Grand Baie Yacht Club in Maurisius before embarking for Durban, South Africa.

Zac has endured countless issues ranging from minor to severe: a pirate scare, ferocious seas, damaged rigging, long and monotonous windless periods in stifling weather, sleep deprivation and near-collisions with steel-hulled freighters.

But he has enjoyed exhilarating stretches of sailing as one with the wind. He has marveled at a night sky gleaming with stars and passed beneath brilliant rainbows spawned by squalls so dense they appeared on his radar screen. He has made new friends, experienced gracious hospitality in far-flung locales, and harbors fond memories he'll never forget.

He wasn't very good as a fisherman and ate poorly during long periods, and he lost weight. But that and continuous hard work keeping Intrepid sturdy and on course helped him develop six-pack abs, which he intends to keep, he told his mom via satellite phone not long ago, even if it means going to the gym.

I've followed Zac's journey since it began and have trouble picturing him as a gym rat, or working a 9-to-5 job, or even going to college. Zac, a home-schooled student close to finishing high school, is in fact coming home. But sooner or later, he'll be off on another grand adventure.

For an in-depth recollection of Zac's year long journey please see my story that appeared in The Times last week.

-- Pete Thomas

Top photo: Zac Sunderland inspects through long, brown hair the rigging on Intrepid in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Credit: Pete Thomas/Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: Zac Sunderland signs autographs at the Grand Baie Yacht Club in Maurisius before embarking for Durban, South Africa. Credit: Richard Munisami

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