“He got to stop, but I get to go fast,” said 16-year-old Abby Sunderland as she sat 20 feet off the ground in the boat yard in her freshly painted Open-40 Wild Eyes, sponsored by Shoe City, which she plans on sailing around the world alone, non-stop and unassisted.
“He” is her older brother Zac, who completed a solo circumnavigation earlier this year aboard an aging cruising boat, Intrepid, becoming the first person under 18 to sail around the world alone.
Like her brother, Abby will probably face life threatening challenges, the caliber of which most will never see, with no one but herself to rely upon. Unlike her brother, Abby’s journey will be profoundly more difficult. That is, if she’s able to avoid serious breakage and indeed make the journey unassisted and without stops.
In 1999 17-year-old Australian Jesse Martin rounded the globe in 328 days in a 34-foot cruising boat, returning as the youngest sailor to make the circle. Recently, at 16, British sailor Mike Perham made the attempt in a boat not too dissimilar to Abby’s and was racked with equipment problems, forcing him to switch his plans to an assisted circumnavigation, which in the end, stripped Zac of being the youngest to go around the world solo.
Currently, another Australian teenager, Jessica Watson, 16, is chasing down Martin’s 11-year-old record in a sturdy cruiser that has so far protected her in the 72 days she’s been at sea as she makes her way to the treacherous Southern Ocean.
Abby, who turned 16 a couple of months ago, plans on leaving the Marina del Rey harbor within the next week. If Wild Eyes holds together for the feat, based on her age and speed of the boat, she would, in all likelihood, achieve the record.
But this will be no leisurely day sail and it will be far more daunting than what most cruising sailors encounter on a sail around the world. The difference between going through the Panama Canal and braving the Southern Ocean is enormous. This part of the world is one of the most inhospitable areas on the planet. Mammoth steep waves that commonly exceed 40 feet and lethal winds of 80 to 90 knots are what to prepare for in this unsympathetic freezing cold neighborhood. But the young, eloquent Sunderland seems aware, informed and quietly confident.
“Of course, I’m a little nervous about things, but it’s really just a healthy respect for the ocean,” Sunderland told The Argonaut. “It’s good to be a little bit afraid and I know that what I’m getting into is dangerous. But I’m also confident that I’ve got a great boat and I know I have the skills that I need to do this.”
While her brother braved the oceans of the world in a 1972 36-foot Islander designed for coastal cruising, Abby will be making the trip in a hot rod.
The Open 40 was built for this type of sailing. It’s a bare bones downhill racer that’s custom-made for shorthanded sailing in open ocean conditions. She will have the necessities that modern technology offers in the hopes of sailing alone around the world in six months.
It was Abby who originally had the notion to make the trip when she was an even younger girl, and her father Laurence has mentioned that Abby is probably a more innate and natural sailor than his eldest and accomplished son. She has logged more solo miles than her brother prior to his trip and has been chomping at the bit to make this journey for years.
The Sunderlands didn’t feel the home-schooled teenager was ready when she originally brought up the concept, but Zac liked the idea and ran with it. For her journey, Abby will get the benefit of a big brother’s advice on a very specific subject.
“He spoke to me a lot about just being extra careful,” Abby said of Zac’s input. “A lot of stuff happened on Zac’s boat that wouldn’t have happened had he taken a few extra precautions. I definitely learned a lot from Zac’s trip — about what to do and what not to do.”
From the docks of Marina del Rey Abby Sunderland will soon climb into the cockpit of Wild Eyes and make for Cape Horn in an attempt to be the youngest sailor ever to travel solo around the world. She appears frighteningly fragile, but when speaking to her it’s apparent that she’s a mature, articulate young woman with a goal that she’ll fight hard to accomplish. Like anyone in her position, the odds are against her, but she is well equipped and focused.
“I’m really looking forward to just getting out there,” she said. “It’s been really crazy the past few weeks here and I’m just looking forward to getting out there and getting going.”
To find out more about Abby Sunderland, her brand new shoe line or sponsorship opportunities, go to www.abbysunderland.com/.