On June 14th, 16-year-old Zac Sunderland departed from Marina del Rey in an attempt to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone by yacht.
After arriving in Hawaii some three weeks later, it was clear that young Sunderland was up to the task. While many other Los Angles teens might spend the summer meeting at malls, shopping with a parent’s vulnerable credit card, Sunderland battled 35-knot winds inside an open-ocean squall.
As the summer waned, Zac’s football buddies prepared for their senior year, while Zac prepared for the Torres Strait off the coast of Australia, a navigational maze of potential disaster.
At an age when most 16-year-olds are consumed with the social aspect of their lives, this quiet young sailor spends every day in solitude tallying the miles in an open ocean that most adult mariners wouldn’t dare.
“This trek that he’s on right now, in my estimation, is one of the more dangerous legs of the trip,” said Zac’s father Laurence when Zac began his jaunt from the Marshall Islands down to Darwin, Australia. “A lot of low-lying Islands, outstanding reefs, squalls, micro-bursts and things.”
As Zac was making his way toward this area that Laurence had confessed was one of the most feared routes of the entire world-circling journey, the ever-encouraging — albeit worried — parents lost contact with their courageous son for a relatively long time, causing them to entertain the notion of contacting search-and-rescue to hunt for their boy.
Marianne and Laurence ordinarily speak to Zac twice a day via his Iridium satellite phone. They also keep track of Zac by e-mail. For some reason, both of these methods were not operating and the loss of contact led the Sunderlands into a state of worry that was like nothing they had ever experienced.
At first, Laurence tried to remind his wife that they knew there would be times like these when contact might be broken, but as time wore on, they got pro-active. They called the satellite phone company to get the position of Zac’s last call. According to the information they got, he was way off-course, which made the Sunderlands’ hearts sink like a stone.
“Had Zac’s quest to become the youngest man to sail around the world alone met ill fate?” wrote Laurence in a blog. “Was Intrepid on one of hundreds of reefs in the area?
“The family mood had been somber throughout the evening. The children had gotten ready for bed and one by one fell asleep on couches, seats and futons. Nobody wanted to leave for bed without hearing that Zac was okay.
“It was late and we were emotionally drained. We prayed one more time before attempting to launch a full on search and rescue. If the boat had sunk, the automatic EPIRB [emergency position indicating radiobeacon] would have gone off. We knew that Intrepid was afloat.
“We looked more closely at the coordinates that Iridium had provided but could not understand two things: why Zac was so far off course and how had he traveled so far as to be on top of those reefs?”
After nearly a day without word from Zac, the Sunderlands began to contact the Australian Coast Guard for a full-blown search-and-rescue when they suddenly received an e-mail that read, “Hi mum. I’m OK.”
It turns out Zac had dropped his phone in the sink, rendering it useless and the e-mail was having intermittent problems. The positions Iridium provided were apparently wrong.
Currently, the family can only keep in contact with Zac through another cruising boat traveling the same path that is able to communicate with him via single-sideband radio (a refinement of AM radio) and then e-mail reports to the parents.
Zac has successfully negotiated his way through the Torres Strait and is nearing the coast of Darwin, where the 36-foot Islander will be hauled out and thoroughly inspected.
Zac should arrive in Darwin no later than Thursday, September 18th. After the boat is checked out, he’ll enter the Indian Ocean and make his way toward South Africa.
Laurence said of the ordeal: “Praise God for modern technology, a cruising network of true friends and God’s goodness.”