Sixteen-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland held a press conference at the Marina del Rey Hotel Tuesday, June 29th describing, for the first time, what exactly happened to her in the depths of the southern Indian Ocean where she lost the mast of her Open 40 Wild Eyes in an attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world.
On June 10th news spread like a brushfire that the young, but capable sailor — the youngest person to sail solo around Cape Horn — had activated two emergency beacons, signaling a life-threatening situation.
For 20 hours there was no contact with Abby, who was reportedly in a nasty storm, until a chartered commercial jet spotted her boat and made audio contact. The resilient teenager spent three days waiting for a French fishing boat to rescue her and transport her to a small and extremely remote island on the outskirts of Arctic waters called Kerguelan.
From there she traveled for days toward the more substantial Reunion Islands, near Madagascar off the coast of Africa, where she could catch a plane home. While she sat quietly on the French boat, plodding for days en route through the Indian Ocean, the world media descended on the story, feeding on the inherent controversial elements — often attacking Abby’s father Laurence for sending his daughter into harm’s way.
The June 29th conference began with a statement from Sunderland spokesman Lyall Mercer who stated that Abby wouldn’t be answering any questions about this element of the story, but he did read a statement from the Sunderland parents (Marianne and Laurence) who were not in attendance due to Marianne’s late-stage pregnancy:
“The past five months have brought many highs and lows for our family. We have watched our daughter achieve something great. While she didn’t quite complete what she set out to do, she traveled over 12,000 nautical miles solo and became the youngest person to sail solo around Cape Horn,” the parents’ statement said.
“Abby followed her dream and followed in the footsteps of so many other great Americans who loved life and adventure. We are immensely proud of her. We’ve also been exposed to intense personal criticism by people who don’t know us — most have not even met us. Abby should not be subjected to these hurtful attacks against members of her family — especially as what was being said was based, at best, on twisting facts out of context and at worst, on total fabricated lies.
“That said, we are forgiving people and are content to leave this criticism behind us and look toward [what] the future holds. We also accept that some people simply don’t understand. They don’t know Abby and the years she spent on sailing boats. They don’t understand her love for sailing and her dream to sail around the globe. They were not there when we planned every detail meticulously under the guidance of experts. They don’t know our family or the love we have for our children — a love that prevents us from ever endangering them,” the statement continued.
“We say this while recognizing that with any adventure, there are risks. After Abby traveled over 12,000 nautical miles, more than most sailors would ever dream of sailing solo, a rogue wave snapped her mast and stopped her journey. Abby’s experience and understanding, coupled with the expert team guiding her from home, meant she knew what to do and she responded with great professionalism. We are proud of her and are thankful to all those who assisted her and helped bring her home safely. We are thankful to God for his protection.
“We don’t expect or even ask for everyone to agree with our decision to allow Abby to follow her dream. But we do ask others to respect our decisions as parents just as we respect other parents who may make decisions for their children that we may not for ours. We support Abby, and as parents we will guard her as best we can, recognizing that parenting isn’t always easy for any of us. We stand by her in whatever she decides for her life in the future.”
Abby then stepped to the microphone, read a short statement essentially thanking the many parties and agencies responsible for her rescue and got to the business of answering questions that have been swirling around since the fateful day when the young adventurer nearly perished in an angry sea.
Calm and confident albeit slightly nervous in front of a staring collective media, she described the moment when her boat was rolled, saying the actual circumstance has been widely misreported.
“The storm I was in did not roll my boat,” Sunderland said. “I was hit by a rogue wave, once the storm was already dying down. The boat rolled fast — I didn’t really have a lot of warning.”
Sunderland said it had just gotten dark and she was down below working on her engine when she got slammed broadside by an enormous wave. The boat went over quickly, slamming her around the cabin of the boat. She said she wasn’t injured in any major way, but noted that she hit her head and “things went black for a second.”
After the boat came back up, Abby went outside to assess the damage to find that Wild Eyes’ most essential component, the mast, was no more. All serious sailors know that when the mast comes down, the next pressing concern is if it will then act as a battering ram and sink the boat. In this case, it had situated itself in a position that actually acted as a sea anchor and was safe for the time being, she said.
“The first thought was to jury rig,” Sunderland said, reflecting. “But I got outside and there was just no mast there — a one inch stub was left on deck. I was thinking if I could get the boom on deck I could rig up something, but my boom had snapped in half, so there was nothing left for me to jury rig with.”
After assessing her situation, Sunderland grabbed an EPIRB, pulled the ripcord and sent for the Cavalry. She sat helpless in literally the middle of the ocean, assuming that someone would eventually find her if she could hold out.
“Out where I was, I did not expect to see a plane,” Sunderland said of her prospects. “I expected to maybe see a ship eventually, but thought it might take days or even weeks for it to get to me. When I saw the plane I was in disbelief — it was a rescue plane obviously — as it was flying so low. It was a mixture of disbelief and excitement that they knew I was there and they were looking for me.”
Sunderland was rescued and brought aboard a French fishing vessel as her parents were subsequently skewered in the worldwide press, accused of being irresponsible enough to allow their child to make such a journey.
“To be honest, it’s extremely hurtful and it’s sad to see some of it,” she said of the media attacks. “I can’t believe people would say some of the things I’ve heard — to anybody. I make an effort not to read a lot of the stuff — I know what happened and that’s enough for me.”
As for the future, Abby seemed understandably unknowing. She said she will return to her schooling and go after her driver’s license. Although on that front she mentioned she’s a bit afraid of learning to drive, saying with a grin that she feels sailing around the world seems, by all accounts, a bit safer.
Her mother Marianne gave birth Tuesday, June 30th to a little brother for Abby and her siblings named Paul, after the captain of the fishing vessel that rescued the 16-year-old adventurer from the middle of the Indian Ocean. When asked if she would try the voyage again…she assured, she certainly will.