On March 31st in a 20-foot sea and a 20-knot wind, a 16-year-old sailor who departed from Marina del Rey sailed her way into the record books by becoming the youngest person ever to sail solo around Cape Horn.
In her 40-foot boat Wild Eyes, designed for solo sailing, Sunderland is quietly and methodically silencing her critics as she gobbles up open-ocean miles in a bid to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone and unassisted.
In a campaign that arguably started with more critics than supporters, Abby is determined, upbeat and seemingly very comfortable in what has now been 66 consecutive days at sea (counting from her unexpected stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico).
She has now sailed in the infamous Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, latitudes that sailors have feared and battled through the course of history. The teenager has faced winds of over 40-knots and waves over 20-feet-high. At only 16, she has navigated the Southern Ocean before she’s navigated a car to the local supermarket.
“It is better in some ways and worse in others,” Sunderland said of how the Southern Ocean’s wrath matched her expectations. “The wind and waves are not as bad as I thought they would be (so far) but the cold and wet is really hard to deal with. I have a ton of warm layers made of all the latest and greatest cloths but my hands and feet are always cold. My hands are covered in tiny cuts that actually feel better when my hands are numb, but when they do warm up, like while I am sleeping, they really start to hurt.”
Most of Abby’s detractors, especially within the sailing community, are uneasy about the fact that she, unlike her brother Zac, who became the first person under 18 to sail around the world alone, can’t run and hide in a safe port when treacherous weather confronts her. She already had to be rerouted from an impending cyclone that was packing 50-60 knot winds and 30-40 foot seas. But she is clearly up for whatever comes her way. By all accounts she appears to be enjoying the rugged ride.
“The rolling around makes getting around the cabin pretty hard and painful, but after one very flat night I actually missed the big swells and the thrill of surfing down them watching the speed gauge as it goes right on up to 15, 16 and 17 knots,” said Sunderland. “Seventeen knots is my record so far.”
For a mother that has already seen one of her children circle the globe alone, Marianne Sunderland is once again two parts proud, one part anxious.
“Cape Horn was definitely a huge milestone, but she still has a lot of miles to cover in the southern ocean,” said Marianne of Abby’s monumental achievement. “We have entertained feelings of relief but are now back to the reality of getting her the rest of the way around.”
While she may have the benefit of experience after Zac spent over a year out at sea, the Sunderland matriarch says the feelings are very similar to what she went through with her eldest son.
“From a mom’s point of view it is very similar,” she said. “I think about her all the time and wish I could bring her home for a few days.
“I don’t tend to be a worrier but I do worry sometimes and there is always the thought of her in the back of my mind. A bit of worry and a bit of missing her mixed with pride and being happy to see her fulfill a dream. I’ll be glad when she gets back.”
In any journey of this magnitude, there’s always equipment-related issues the team is concerned with. In Zac’s case, some of it was rig-related.
For Abby, the autopilot is what is nervously being watched. For solo sailors, the autopilot is completely essential. It insures their ability to sleep, eat and get around on the boat without having to hand steer. On Abby’s Open-40 she began with two, and one is now broken, so she’s down to one. But the team is hoping that Abby will be able to repair the other so she’ll have a backup for the remainder of the journey.
“Abby has an excellent tech team and has become quite accomplished herself at trouble shooting and all things electrical and now hydraulic as well,” Marianne said. “We are confident that she will be able to keep the AP system functioning.”
Today Sunderland is sailing on a route headed below the South African coast and eventually to Cape Leeuwin off the coast of Australia. If all goes well at this pace she will circle the globe alone and unassisted, and become the youngest person ever to do so.
“She is tough, level-headed, determined, hard-working and learning all the time; she is really enjoying the experience,” said the mother of seven (soon to be eight) of her daughter’s will.
Then, without being asked, she said smiling: “No further Sunderlands talking of solo circumnavigations yet!”