In what was probably the largest media event Marina del Rey has ever seen, the return of teenage sailor Zac Sunderland motivated the local boating community and inspired its surrounding city.
At a time in history where jobs are being lost and economy-related tragedy is behind every other door, Sunderland’s triumphant return to the harbor of Marina del Rey was a moment where people could rally around something positive — a 17-year-old who sailed around the world alone, becoming both the first person under 18 to ever do so and the youngest person on the planet to circumnavigate solo.
The celebration began with droves of local boaters heading into the ocean to meet up with Sunderland and accompany him into the harbor. Dozens of boats ranging from eight-foot inflatables to 55-foot luxury yachts headed towards the Islander 36 Intrepid, coming into view about two miles off the shore of El Segundo.
A mile later the boat was surrounded with supporters blasting air horns and screaming encouragements. Amid the confused seas of countless wakes and through the din of hovering news-copters, the young adventurer stood smiling, looking a bit overwhelmed, in the cockpit of the 1972 cruising boat that for 397 days carried him over three oceans and five seas to places many sailors will never see and that he will never forget.
Hundreds of onlookers occupied every available space at Fisherman’s Village while camera crews from all local news stations formed a media wall and aimed their lenses at a long-haired kid at the tiller of a sturdy cruising boat, who had just finished sailing 27,500 miles alone. Once the cleats were tied at the dock, the unassuming teen stepped from his rugged boat and hugged his mother Marianne — a hug that signified the end of a mission and the safe return of both an inspiring and scrutinized undertaking.
“I think society puts young people in a box — people 15, 16, 17 — and does not expect them to do much but go to high school and play football and stuff like that,” Sunderland spoke into the gaggle of microphones at the podium. “This just shows they can do a lot more with some strong ambition and desire. Just get out there and do your thing with all you got.”
In Sunderland’s return, all questions and doubts about his ability are put to rest. With only himself on whom to rely, the young sailor was faced with a handful of scenarios that could have meant his life had he not handled them the right way. Through catastrophic rigging failures, loss of communication, intense navigational challenges and near collisions with enormous ships, Sunderland pressed on, unwavering, day after sleep-deprived day.
And on the home front, it became clear that although Zac’s parents allowed him this controversial freedom, they would be with him every step of the way. They depleted their life savings and derailed their lives for 13 months so their first-born could chase a dream.
While there were critics in the beginning who bashed the Sunderlands, calling them irresponsible, in the end, the adventure was a clear showing of a deep dedication and love for a son. Interestingly, during the voyage, Marianne spent a good amount of quality time with Zac through the satellite phone system.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to get to know Zac so well during this time,” said his mother.—“We have spent so much time talking about anything and everything.—If he had been home, I never would have spent so much time with him.”
Now Zac is enjoying the feeling of being a carefree 17-year-old kid again, albeit one that is a guest on late night talk shows and news programs. As he acclimates back into L.A. living, he ponders his next move — another long-range sail? Mt. Everest?
“I have been thinking a lot about the trip and the places I have been in the past year,” Sunderland said. “It will be strange to not have an ocean to cross, but this journey is just the first of many adventures to come.”
To order part 1 of the Zac Sunderland documentary, Intrepid — The Zac Sunderland Story, go to www.zacsunderland.com/.