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Is would-be global sailor Abby Sunderland, 16, old enough to take on the world?

December 14, 2009 |  9:32 am

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Should Abby Sunderland, who is featured today in a Los Angeles Times story, be allowed to sail around the world by herself at 16?

The same question -- and a lot of criticism -- hovered like a sodden cloud over her brother, Zac, who also set off when he was 16 and in July, at 17, became the first sailor in history to solo-circumnavigate the planet in a sailboat before turning 18.

There's no questioning the Sunderlands' sailing ability. The father is a shipbuilder and lifelong sailor. The kids have been on sailboats since before they could walk and have had considerable experience at single-handed sailing.

I recently spent 17 hours on Abby's boat, Wild Eyes, as she and her father delivered the racing yacht from Ensenada to San Diego (it's currently in Marina del Rey, being outfitted for the journey). It was a cold, uphill sail that lasted through the night. Abby did not sleep or venture below except to tend to sailing-related duties.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to watch Abby do much sailing. She was participating in a vessel delivery. It's what Laurence Sunderland does for a living, and the father was in control. But I had lots of chances to talk with Abby. She confessed that butterflies have hatched, now that her late-December departure date nears.

But that's understandable. She plans to attempt something Zac didn't: complete a nonstop, unassisted journey that involves rounding treacherous Cape Horn. However, the favorable weather window for that task is closing, so Abby might opt for crossing the continent via the Panama Canal. That would remove the "nonstop, unassisted" elements and a major obstacle from her adventure. 

Abby also stated on her blog that if the crew working to prepare Wild Eyes requires much more time, she'll be forced to wait until next year to leave. That would remove the "youngest-ever" element from her trip as Australia's Jessica Watson, also 16 but a few months older than Abby, is already more than 6,000 miles into her quest to become the youngest person to sail around the world.

But Abby wants to go this year. She said of the loneliness factor associated with a five-month (or longer) journey: "It's going to be hard at first, but after a while you get used to it and kind of get into the flow."

She said of the nasty weather she's likely to face below the populated continents in the inhospitable Southern Ocean: "You just reef right down, make sure everything's tight and tied up, and you go down  below." She'll be secure in a harness at all times while above-deck.

Zac, who was aboard a companion boat sailing next to Wild Eyes from Ensenada to San Diego, has helped Abby prepare from a mental standpoint. Abby said of her brother's adventure: "It definitely was kind of terrifying watching some of the things Zac went through -- pirates, bad weather, things breaking -- but that's part of sailing. It never made me change my mind or anything."

Abby, like Zac, will have a satellite phone and computer and will communicate with her parents daily. She'll also have a weather expert helping to plot her course. Zac said the actual sailing is the easy part and that sleep deprivation and associated fatigue will be her greatest challenge.

Asked if he was worried about his sister he said, "Yeah, definitely. It's a really dangerous thing. We try to limit the risk as much as possible, but it's a hairy place down there in the Southern Ocean, so hopefully she'll be able to pull it off."

To be sure, the Sunderlands have faith in Abby and her abilities, even if the critics don't.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: Abby Sunderland and brother, Zac, share quality time in Ensenada, Mexico, before she helps sail  Wild Eyes (in the background) to the United States to prepare the yacht for a solo-circumnavigation of the planet. Zac accomplished the feat aboard a different boat in July.



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