Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
Before she set out to travel 25,000 miles alone in a sailboat, before she got into trouble with the weather and unwittingly launched an international controversy, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland knelt on the floor of her bedroom in California and showed me her ditch bag. This was late last fall in Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles, and Sunderland—a quiet girl with streaky blonde hair and a calm, sturdy demeanor—was trying to figure out what to bring on her voyage around the world.
Ditch bags are a necessity for any sailor. They are also sometimes referred to as "abandon ship" bags, which is to say they are stuffed with whatever you want to have with you on a life raft after whatever trip you're taking has gone very, very wrong. Sunderland's bag, a yellow vinyl duffel designed to keep its contents dry even while immersed, was a hand-me-down from her brother Zac, who was 17 and only a few months earlier had wrapped up his own 13-month circumnavigation of the globe. Zac's trip had involved leisurely stops at a number of ports and just enough drama—lightning storms, a hand injury, and a brief pirate scare off the coast of Indonesia—to be character-building without ever tipping into disaster. Sunderland had set her sights on a faster and more difficult sailing route than her brother's and hoped to complete her trip without stopping.
Why, honestly, would any kid want to do that? This is what everyone asked. Abby Sunderland's answer was always simple, and people either got it or they didn't. Most often, it appeared, they didn't. Because what she said didn't address the specifics—the small fortune it was costing, the fact that she had limited experience sailing alone in open seas, or that it involved utter solitude, a diet of mostly freeze-dried food, and sleeping only for short stretches while strapped into a narrow, planklike bunk. There was also the real possibility that she could die. On the imaginary balance sheet that weighed both the risks and the rewards, the rewards—the psychic payoff that comes with having achieved a near impossibility, with being the first or the youngest or the most brave—were far harder to convey. What she said, when asked what on Earth compelled her, was not the sort of answer people tended to take seriously, especially coming from a girl who'd just turned 16. But she gave it anyway. What she said was, "It's always been a dream."
When I visited last November, Sunderland was awaiting the arrival of her newly purchased boat—a high-performing, 40-foot racing vessel called Wild Eyes, soon to be delivered from the East Coast—which had been bought largely with funds provided by the local shoe store chain that was helping to sponsor the trip. That day she started pulling things out of her brother's old ditch bag, examining each item carefully before adding it to a pile on the floor of the small room she shares with her 5-year-old sister, Katherine. There were flares, some emergency blankets, a diving mask and pair of flippers, a flashlight-size emergency position indicating radio beacon known as an EPIRB, and a mildewed copy of the book Intrepid Voyagers: Stories of the World's Most Adventurous Sailors.
"You have to bring water and food to last you a while," she was saying. She planned to add more to the bag, including a medical kit, a flashlight, and a small water desalination pump, all of which seemed like small stays against the potential for enormous disaster, but Sunderland appeared blithe about it all. Fear, she had already told me, is a natural but unuseful emotion. This idea struck me as both highly sensible and also, against the backdrop of thousands of miles of open ocean, a little foolhardy. But I confess that what I felt in that moment was pure envy—for her spirit, her ambition, and for the pretty much guaranteed adventure that would ensue. More than anything I envied her the blitheness, that deep, beautiful, teenage feeling of unworry. "Honestly," she said, rooting around the bottom of the duffel, "you just hope you never use this."