In the early part of 2008, shipwright and father of seven, Laurence Sunderland had a conversation with his 16-year-old son Zac about sailing around the world.
At first it may have been something of an intellectual discussion, but it rapidly became an idea that the Sunderland family began to strongly consider. They came to find that if Zac were to make such a journey and return home before a certain time, that he would become the youngest person to sail solo around the world.
The goal was lofty, ambitious and intriguing — particularly ambitious because neither Zac nor his father even had a boat. The elder Sunderland thought the process might be, if nothing else, a vehicle for teaching his eldest son a life lesson.
“I’ll help you fix up a boat, if you buy it,” Laurence said, stating emphatically that he wasn’t going to run out and buy Zac a boat — that the teenager would have to show some sort of commitment to prove he was serious.
Soon after, Zac was emptying his bank account for an Islander 36 that his father had serendipitously stumbled upon. It was then that all of the Sunderlands’ lives would be forever changed. The father and son would begin spending countless hours resurrecting the coastal cruiser to “blue water” strength and Zac’s mother Marianne would become an instant business manager/publicist.
“He’s laying down the foundation for his life,” said Laurence in April of 2008, two months before Zac’s departure.
The young man was poised to take on a challenge that men twice his age wouldn’t dare was experienced from years of family cruising, but untested as a solo sailor.
“It’s kind of interesting, I don’t really have any concept of what it will be like to be alone for that first leg of about 21 days,” he said prior to leaving from Marina del Rey last year. “But I’ll just have to deal with that as it comes.”
Dealing with it as it comes is exactly what Zac would be doing for the next 14 months. The family named the boat Intrepid and on June 14th, 2008, a boy, trying to remain calm, taxied out of Marina del Rey’s main channel in a boat he hardly knew among a throng of well-wishers. By this time the news media had descended upon him, with some heralding him as a fearless adventurer, others questioning his sailing ability and still others questioning his parents’ lucidity.
In an amalgam of controversy, encouragement and heartfelt concern, the local kid raised the main, unfurled the headsail in about 12 knots of breeze and made for Hawaii.
On Thursday, July 16th Zac is scheduled to return with the same quiet confidence he left with, but now all of his anxieties have been confronted and he can enjoy the satisfaction of achieving what no one of his age has done before.
“I have known Zac since he was a little boy. My son and Zac, our families, have spent a lot of time together at the island and ashore,” said family friend Capt. Richard Schaefer. “It’s hard to believe that the boy I saw playing in the sand on the beach, or shooting BB guns on our farm has circumnavigated the globe.
“When Laurence first told me of the plans, I didn’t give Zac much chance of success — maybe ten percent. This is one case where I’m glad to be wrong.”
Schaefer wasn’t the only one who thought it was possible Zac might fail. Clearly the odds were not with him. The project was under-funded, the boat wasn’t designed for the abuse it would endure and Zac was a teenage boy who admitted he’d rarely been alone.
What most didn’t know, perhaps not even Zac himself, was that his calm, rational, stoic approach would suit him superbly in the open ocean environment. On his daily blog he described many instances where he was pushed to extreme emotional and physical extents.
There were times where the vital components of his boat were breaking apart and he rose to the challenges with only himself to depend on. He fought sleep deprivation and navigated through passages that give even the most seasoned skippers a lump in the throat.
“The kid — scratch that — the man has got guts and perseverance,” Schaefer said. “He left a boy, but returns a man. This is the tradition and way of the sea.”
Thirteen months after he left the Burton Chace Park dock, Zac Sunderland has brought his boat home safely and in doing so, has become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. While there are two other young adventurers, British 17-year-old Mike Perham and Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson, who are in pursuit of the same accolade, it’s Sunderland who has set the bar.
But more important than any record, the Sunderland family is beyond proud that their boy has set his mind on a goal, an enormous one at that, and worked relentlessly to fulfill it.
“Before Zac left on this trip, we were praying for him to have a passion for something,” said Zac’s mother Marianne.—“As a teen he had lost interest in many of the things that had kept him busy as a young kid.
“I have seen God’s hand on this trip from the very beginning and that has been an incredible—boost to my faith.—I’ve also learned that kids can indeed do—amazing things if given the opportunity and encouragement.”
The first part of the DVD documentary “Intrepid: The Zac Sunderland Story” is now available for purchase at www.zacsunderland.com/.