At 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 14th, 16-year-old Zac Sunderland pulled out of his slip at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey while a crowd of well-wishers watched, waved and yelled words of encouragement.
The wind blew steady at about ten to 12 knots, crackling Sunderland’s brand new main on his Islander 36, built in the early 1970s, as he crept out powered by a new diesel motor.
He almost staged this same event two weeks prior, but the original gas engine took its last breath not long before the scheduled departure. Truth be told, it’s likely that Zac himself and the close-knit Sunderland family might well have been breathing sighs of relief at the setback, as it allowed them to further prepare the small boat assigned to carry a young skipper around the world in a record-breaking attempt.
The boat, named Intrepid by the Sunderlands, would have to be up to snuff if Zac were to achieve his goal of being the youngest man ever to sail around the world alone.
“It was a lot of work ñ I never expected it to be so much work,” Zac said in an interview the day before his leaving. “I know boats are always more work than you think — but I’m really excited about where the boat is right now.”
I spoke to Zac and his family more than a few times through the course of this preparatory odyssey. Back in April, soon after they made up their minds to definitely make the attempt, I met with him and his father Laurence where we discussed what was to come, in rather broad strokes.
Laurence was beaming with pride and excitement at the prospect of his clearly-intelligent eldest son embarking on not only a supreme adventure, but also one that stood to make history.
“I was excited,” he said that day, describing the moment when Zac indicated he wanted to shoot for the record. “I thought ñ yeah, someone’s going to finally pick up the gauntlet and run with it ñ do something that’s going to change the whole of their life. He’s laying down the foundation for his life.”
About a week and a half ago, I stopped by the boat to see how things were going and Laurence was there. He looked spent and I told him so. He said that it was incredible how much work needed to be done and how non-stop everything had become.
I had seen him and Zac’s mother Marianne on television the day before, politely answering a local reporter’s questions about Zac’s abilities and the strength of the boat, but today he stood in a cockpit full of tools and debris in the middle of an enormous project run on a shoestring budget under a tight deadline.
Weeks later Laurence, an undemonstrative confident man whose business it is to reinforce and strengthen boats like Zac’s, stood behind a podium in front of a crowd at Burton Chace Park gathered to see his son sail away alone. After uttering his first sentence about Zac leaving, he broke into quiet tears as a silent audience watched compassion-ately.
“The huge amount of support we’ve received has been unbelievable,” he said about the outpouring of help and sponsorship they have received to make everything possible.
Later, Laurence and Marianne brought together all of their seven children and continued:
“If you want to know what life’s about ñ it’s about family and I’m very proud of my family.”
I followed Zac out into the ocean with a parade of other boats. The sea was confused with all the wakes and air horns blasted as Zac raised his sails completely. A healthy breeze powered Intrepid as he headed southwest alone.
Zac’s first passage will be across the Pacific to the Marshall Islands. It was originally planned that he would go to Hawaii first, but he reevaluated the plan and decided to head to this small island made famous for the nuclear testing that has gone on there.
“The Marshall Islands are American-protected and they take American currency, so it should be a good first stop,” Sunderland said. “I’m not sure what there is to do there. I’ll probably stay there for two or three weeks to get over the first big passage. Then I’ll head off to the Solomon Islands.”
This unusually mature and ambitious 16-year-old young man looks to be back in Los Angeles while he is still 17. If successful, he will be the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone.
I returned to the harbor and was slowly passing by the park where Zac had just said his good-byes when I heard a man yell, “Hey!” from the flying bridge of a large powerboat. I looked up and it was Laurence, alone at the helm. I yelled over the noise of our combined motors, “How are you feeling?”
He paused and said, “Relieved.”
Zac’s parents plan on meeting him in the Marshall Islands when he arrives in what should be about four to six weeks.
To keep up with Zac, log onto www.zacsunderland.com.