Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
Sunderland herself couldn't yet know any of this, though, alone and drenched, belowdecks in the furiously rocking cabin that had been her home for 138 days—a cramped Kevlar-reinforced bubble she'd spruced up with decals of cartoon sea turtles and taped-on photos of her friends and family. It could take days or even weeks, she knew, for rescuers to reach her. By necessity, she was focused merely on getting through.
At first glance, there is little that's yachty about the Sunderlands' home life. They live in a modest, low-slung bungalow in a tightly packed and decidedly landlocked subdivision in Thousand Oaks. The family itself is big and sprawling. The night before I arrived, Marianne and Laurence Sunderland had announced joyfully to their seven children—Abby is the second oldest, behind Zac—that Marianne was pregnant with baby number eight. The Sunderland living room has a big black sectional couch and shelves holding stuffed animals and Legos and canisters of Play-Doh. There was a battered-looking guitar belonging to Abby, a surfboard belonging to Zac, two old Australian cattle dogs belonging to everybody, and a refrigerator holding what seemed a staggering amount of food.
When I arrived, Sunderland was dressed in a pair of jeans and flip-flops. She wore silver hoop earrings and a tiny bit of eyeliner. Her younger sister Katherine always seemed to be leaning up against her as her other siblings milled around close by. Unlike Jessica Watson, her Australian rival, who comes across as plucky and assured, or her own brother Zac, who exudes a surfer boy's unflappability, Sunderland doesn't seem built for the public demands of being a young adventurer—the interviews and press conferences and wooing of corporate sponsors. She comes off as levelheaded and modest to the point of shyness.
Already she was aware that people were critical of her journey, having received some "rude and nasty" e-mails on her website questioning her competence and even her sanity. "Seeing that sort of thing just makes me want to do it more," she told me. "It's kind of like, 'You're going to see, in a few months, I'll be back and show you that, yeah, I can really do this.'" She was protective of her parents. The night before my visit, the Sunderlands welcomed a television crew into their home to capture early footage for a possible reality show about their parenting style and their kids' various adventures, which they were hoping to sell to a network. It was hard not to see this as an attention-getting gambit like last year's "Balloon Boy" hoax, in which an amateur scientist led rescuers to believe that his 6-year-old son was drifting over Colorado in a helium balloon—in hopes of landing a reality TV deal. But Sunderland thought a show about her family could help cover expenses: She estimated her trip would cost about $300,000, much of which was eventually taken care of by sponsors, the rest absorbed by her parents. (The TV show ultimately fell through; Laurence and one of the producers would later accuse each other of not having Abby's best interests at heart.)
Abby, for her part, was especially sensitive to any suggestion that she was being pushed into making a dangerous journey for the sake of a cheap form of fame. "This is a decision that I made," she told me. "I feel bad sometimes, like I've put my family where they're getting criticized for something that was completely my idea." The thought caused her to choke up a little. "I'm sure," she added, "that they'd rather I didn't even do it." Marianne Sunderland would later confirm this, saying that her initial response when Abby started talking about a round-the-world sail was, "Why don't you just get a job at [the grocery store chain] Vons?"
Sunderland insisted she felt plenty able to handle both Wild Eyes and the ocean, citing the fact that she'd lived on a boat for much of her childhood and had been sailing alone since she was 13, helping her father deliver yachts to clients up and down the California coast. She admitted to me in November, though, that she did not, at that point, know how to wire an alternator or take apart a malfunctioning engine, as long-haul sailors often need to do. ("I can always call and get some help," she told me, referring to the satellite phone she'd have onboard, allowing her round-the-clock access to her parents and a volunteer team of sailing experts back home.) She was hoping not to get injured and have to give herself stitches. ("Basically, I faint at the sight of blood," she said, lightly joking.) And then there was the fact that single-handed sailing is a notoriously lonely pursuit, while growing up with six siblings was most certainly not. ("I've never really been alone for more than a couple of hours," she said, nudging her younger sister, who was at that point draped like a cat over her lap. "Definitely, I think it'll be weird at first.")
The biggest pressure was one of timing. Sunderland had originally planned to leave on her trip six weeks earlier, but she kept encountering delays—with finding a boat, with finding sponsorship—and they were making her trip a more dangerous one. With each passing day the weather in the Southern Hemisphere would get nastier as the seasons moved toward winter, and Sunderland's eventual departure in January would put her in the lower latitudes at what many sailors say is the riskiest time of year, when the seas hold more drifting ice and the storms tend to rage at a higher pitch. When I asked why she wouldn't wait for a safer season, the young sailor acknowledged a startling conundrum. She didn't just want to beat Jessica Watson—she saw it as a necessity. Watson would wrap up her trip less than a week shy of turning 17. Sunderland, if all went well, would finish when she was closer to 16 and a half. She needed the fanfare of setting a record, she felt, in order to line up the speaking engagements and sponsorships—the spoils of a well-played adventure—which would help offset the costs that were quickly piling up. Her parents had just taken out a home equity loan, a fact of which Sunderland was well aware. Being young wasn't enough; it was about being the youngest. "If I don't have a record, I don't have media attention and I don't get my trip funded," she told me. "And my parents can't fund a $300,000 trip around the world."
Technology has done for daredevils what it has done for everyone else, from aspiring writers who blog to aspiring filmmakers who churn out YouTube videos: It has widened the stage for amateurs, creating more opportunities for aspirants of any sort to capitalize on the romance of "It's always been a dream". While the Earth's frontiers are no less dangerous than they once were, today's sailors, mountain climbers, and other envelope-pushing adventurers are abetted by GPS devices, EPIRBs, handheld weather-forecasting systems, and satellite phones, connecting them more easily to lifesaving information, support teams, and potential rescuers. Arguably, the risks are lowered. So, too, it would seem, is the minimum age to participate. In the first six months of 2010 alone, a 13-year-old American boy summited Mount Everest, a 15-year-old skied to the North Pole, a 16-year-old British boy completed the Marathon des Sables (a grueling, 151-mile race across the Sahara), and Jessica Watson glided triumphantly into Sydney Harbor to receive a hero's welcome after seven months alone at sea.
Their successes beg the question: If they make it, are the dangers and the costs then justified? And who is responsible for drawing the line between young and too young?
We Hear You!