In a conversation that’s now a year old, Laurence Sunderland said of his son Zac, “it was sort of an unplanned upbringing that has led him to this.”

“This” is a record-breaking solo global circumnavigation attempt aboard an aging 36-foot sailboat at 16 years old. Skepticism, controversy, inspiration, curiosity and awe all took turns as focal points in a story that, if all goes well, will be complete next month when Zac returns to the docks of Marina del Rey.

Sunderland, now 17, just made his way through the Panama Canal, where he got a full dose of ship dodging and brutal heat. The stoic and reserved young sailor is now back in the ocean from where it all began, but isn’t ready to take any breath of relief.

This last leg, a beat into the wind, won’t be easy and will likely involve broad tacks and a savage pounding that only an upwind voyage can dole out. To compound the risks, Sunderland’s return to the Pacific begins along with the Central American/Mexican hurricane season.

“This is probably going to be the hardest trip of my voyage,” Zac said in a recent television interview with KCET. “I’m sailing 3,000 miles dead into the wind and currents. I’ll be doing huge tacks and possibly heading quite a ways out to sea — I’ll have to do some creative sailing there.”

But after 24,000 miles of traveling, Sunderland will be prepared and in all likelihood inspired, to get back to where it all began — to return as the youngest person ever to sail around the Earth alone.

The 16-year-old left his homeport amongst great fanfare, but also a controversy that questioned his parent’s judgment and his own abilities. Laurence wept openly on a stage in Burton Chace Park before his son’s departure while his wife Marianne, surrounded by her six other children, stayed strong. A row of TV cameras and journalists recorded this relatively untested young man as he hopped in a small used sailboat that he had recently bought for $6,000 and headed across the ocean. Spectators cheered, but many worried as he sailed away in a boat he barely knew.

“It was very difficult to hear,” Marianne said of the negativity that was cast their way by some. “It is so easy with the Internet to—say anything you want, with no consequence.—Most of the criticism we have received has been misinformed.

“The people who have really cared about Zac and his safety and weren’t just—looking at the surface of Zac’s trip, have actually become avid followers and friends after discussion. We still get an occasional negative comment but I guess it is getting hard to argue the point that he isn’t capable.”

And capable he still needs to be. What the young sailor didn’t realize when he left Marina del Rey last June was the prospect of competition. At the time, his only competitor in becoming the youngest to venture solo around the world was a name in a history book — he simply had to return before he was 18 and he’d be all set, but now he has active competition in the likes of British sailor Mike Perham, also 17.

Perham, at 14, was the youngest person to cross the Atlantic and soon set his sights for the unassisted round-the-world record held by Aussie sailor Jesse Martin. With a big budget and a high tech custom Open 50 ocean racer, the 16-year-old Perham looked poised to break Martin’s record and in the process nullify what Sunderland was looking to achieve.

But Perham quickly learned that it wouldn’t be that easy. He has been plagued with equipment problems, forcing him to abandon the unassisted attempt and shoot for the same record that Zac pursues. In what’s turned out to be a bit of a turtle and hare story, Sunderland has marched his 37-year-old Islander 36 steadfastly around the world and should become the record holder. It’s possible that Perham could still scoop the record in the end, but that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Zac’s parents anxiously await the return of their son who they have worried about and encouraged so intensely for the past year. They have poured their life savings into the dream of their eldest child. In the simplest terms, a brave young kid got into a boat and sailed around in a circle. But in reality, a family gave everything they had for their son to take an enormous unprecedented daring risk.

“Before Zac left on this trip, we were praying for him to have a passion for something,” Marianne said.—“As a teen he had lost interest in many of the things that had kept him busy as a young kid.

“I have seen God’s hand on this trip from the very beginning and that has been an incredible—boost to my faith.—I’ve also learned that kids can indeed do—amazing things if given the opportunity and encouragement.”

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