I was about six miles offshore, alone in my 13-foot Boston Whaler pointing towards Catalina Island as I watched a girl, some might say is a child, sail off in a sexy, high-tech modern 40-foot-long racing boat, bound for an adventure most wouldn’t have the courage to make — regardless of age or gender.
Sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland set sail from Marina del Rey alone on January 23rd for a trip around the world without stops or outside help in an attempt to become the youngest person ever to accomplish such a voyage. The trip, that involves passing beneath Cape Horn in South America, an area of the world with notoriously dangerous conditions, has spurred a good deal of controversy within and outside of the boating community.
While Abby’s brother Zac made his own round-the-world solo journey at 16, he was assisted many times along the way and didn’t venture into the treacherous and foreboding Southern Ocean. Last year Zac became the youngest person under 18 to complete a solo circumnavigation and struggled to accomplish the feat. By all accounts, Abby’s task is far more difficult.
As the press began to assemble at the Del Rey Yacht Club before her departure, there was talk that protesters might attend to accuse the Sunderlands of child endangerment, though nothing materialized. But while there were no protesters, there was a feeling in the air that this was no fuzzy send-off for California’s favorite golden-haired sailor-girl.
When publicist Matt Tolnick started the conference, he reminded the press that there would be no questions entertained about any controversy. Such an opening cast a certain seriousness to the event that, combined with the stone-faces of Abby, Zac and their parents beneath the lights and lenses of a small army of local and national media, made for something of a heavy morning.
After Tolnick laid down the format, Abby’s father Laurence Sunderland began with some statements regarding the voyage but was reduced to tears almost instantly. His wife Marianne stood by supportively as he collected himself, while the serious expressions of both Zac and Abby indicated the reality of the situation at hand. Later, as the mood got lighter, Marianne spoke of the differences between her son and daughter in their similar pursuits.
“At first, I wasn’t as supportive of Abby’s trip as I was of Zac’s,” she said earnestly. “I knew Zac’s trip was the right thing for him and I never had a doubt. He proved us right — he really had what it took.”
She continued, “This Abby I’ve seen over the last monthÖthis incredibly tough and determined young woman, in place of the sweet girl that she had always been, has me really excited for her — this is something she’s been talking about for years.”
Marianne wasn’t the only one whose support was dubious. Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Association who was a champion of Zac’s circumnavigation, quietly questioned the timing of Abby’s journey and the ASA didn’t get behind her effort.
Some believe that gender-prejudice has played a part in the support, or lack-thereof, that Abby has received and she herself seems to be of that belief.
“There were people who supported Mike Perham [currently the youngest to sail around the world alone] last year — same route as me, same boat; he was 16 and a guy,” Sunderland stated with a noticeable edge. “They supported him before they knew of his route changes, but they don’t support me now.”
Perhaps it’s this acerbity and spirit that give a glimpse into the real Abby Sunderland — a competitive no-nonsense woman in the body of a teenage girl. Certainly her brother Zac proved all his naysayers wrong with a never-diminishing drive that brought him across the oceans of the planet with a story to tell. It was said by many writers and in many yacht club conversations that he left a boy, but would come back a man. With the benefit of hindsight, maybe he was a man all along.
“Does age matter? I think there is an age where, mentally, the passion can overcome the reason,” said Laurence Sunderland when asked how young is too young to allow a kid into such dangerous places. “I think [age matters] but I think it’s a determination that needs to be made by responsible parents.”
I, along with a mid-sized group of other well-wishers, escorted Abby out into the ocean. As the sizable mainsail of her 40-foot racer got smaller in the distance, I sat rocking in the eight-foot ocean swell and wished her the best on a voyage that could well make history.
Currently, Sunderland is recuperating from her first setback relating to her charging system. Upon heading down the Mexican coastline she realized that she wasn’t storing enough energy for all her onboard needs. The problem facilitated a stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico where her team met her and remedied the problem. The stop will require that Abby now complete her circumnavigation in Cabo, in what her team hopes to be around six months time.
“Even though it wasn’t intended that way, I’m looking on the past as a sea trial,” Sunderland said in her blog of the unexpected pit stop. “I found a few problems, and now they’re fixed. This time, I’m ready for the world!”