abby sunderland sails
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
While other 16-year old girls thought about prom night, Abby Sunderland had a different dream: To become the youngest person to ever circle the globe without stopping, alone on a 40-foot sailboat. "Go for it!" said her family. "What were they thinking?" said the world. Is this the story of a brilliant adventure—or really shoddy parenting? You decide.
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."
Abby Sunderland below deck
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
About eight weeks later, before a crowd that included several hundred people and a few camera crews in addition to her choked-up parents and six siblings, Sunderland sailed out of her home port of Marina del Rey and headed south into the Pacific. She'd stuffed Wild Eyes with a sophisticated array of navigational and communication devices, plus (among other things) a few schoolbooks, an iPod, and several hundred pounds of freeze-dried food. After almost ten weeks of sailing, she handily rounded the notorious tip of Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, known historically among sailors as the "graveyard of the sea" for its vicious winds and wreck-inducing crosscurrents, becoming the youngest person in history to do it alone. It took another month for her to spot the coast of Africa, but by the time she did, she had a faltering autopilot that forced her to pull ashore for emergency repairs in the South African city of Cape Town, causing her to downgrade her ambitions and abandon the "nonstop" part of her record attempt.

Sunderland remained poised, nonetheless, to become the youngest round-the-world solo sailor. If successful, she'd be edging out a handful of other teenagers, including Zac, her brother, who held the record for 42 days last year before having it swiped by a British boy named Mike Perham. Perham, in turn, was promptly outdone by Jessica Watson, a chirrupy 16-year-old Australian who finished her round-the-world journey this May, managed to do it nonstop, and in a made-for-TV twist, reportedly struck up a romance with Perham via satellite phone during her seven months at sea.

Twelve thousand miles and four and a half months into Sunderland's own journey, however, her fortunes changed. Deep in the southern Indian Ocean, an almost unimaginably empty and unpredictable stretch of water found well below Asia, in the frosty and largely dark latitudes above Antarctica, the teenager and her boat were walloped by a series of major storms with gale-force winds and battering waves the size of three-story buildings. As her yacht bucked and reared amid roiling white-water swells, as gusting, 60-knot winds knocked the boat over, shearing off the radar dome mounted on the mast, as the satellite phone she'd been using to communicate with her parents and navigational team back home abruptly went dead, Sunderland concentrated on what she had to do. But then the ocean made a last show of its might: A rogue wave—a towering wall of dark water—sucked the teenager's boat up its face, and then rolled it without mercy upside down. Icy seawater gushed in as Sunderland was thrown across the boat's cabin, hitting her head, briefly blacking out. Coming to, she felt the boat right itself but was quickly struck by a chilling realization: The ocean had swallowed her yacht's mainsail, snapping its 60-foot-tall carbon-fiber mast as if it were a piece of straw.

It seems fair to say that there are few places on Earth where a kid could be more alone or more at risk. The open waters running beneath Africa, India, and Australia remain both the fastest marine route around the globe and a frontier of the most extreme sort. The winds keen and roar, the clouds hang low, rains can be torrential; turbulent shifts in wind direction toss even large vessels off course. Sailors who cross this area of the ocean report that the conditions are often so stressful, they find it nearly impossible to eat or sleep. Robin Knox-Johnston, the British sailor who in 1969 became the first to complete a nonstop solo round-the-world voyage, has described it as "a miserable, mean, vicious place."

Drifting in the dark in her crippled boat, roughly 2,000 miles east of Madagascar, 2,000 miles west of Australia, and about 500 miles north of the Kerguelen Islands, a volcanic outpost controlled by France, Sunderland did the only thing she could to boost the odds of her survival. She triggered two emergency locator beacons, which would automatically vector her location and beam it via satellite to marine rescue centers around the globe. The message to her family would be worrisomely clear. She and her father, Laurence, a shipwright and lifelong sailor, had gone over the process more than once before she'd left on the trip. Using an EPIRB would signal only the most extreme duress.

And it would stir up a different kind of maelstrom. Within a few hours, Sunderland's distress had gone global—pulsing across newswires and the Internet. TV trucks were soon pouring into the placid California neighborhood where her family lived. Reporters scrummed outside the front door. Network news programs cut to maps showing the vast southern Indian Ocean at the untamed near-bottom of the world. What was a young girl doing alone in the middle of that ocean? What had that ocean done to the girl? And who was responsible for this? Was there some societal message about underparenting or overparenting, about recklessness or greed, to be wrung from Abby Sunderland's fate?
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?
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
A wispy 14-year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker spent much of the past year in front of various judges in the Netherlands, petitioning for permission to set off on her own round-the-world solo sail. Dekker, who was literally born on a sailboat, had announced back when she was 13 that she'd acquired her own boat and was planning to undertake the voyage. She had her sights set on beating both Watson and Sunderland as the youngest solo circumnavigator, but by last fall, Dutch child-welfare officials intervened, and a court placed her under state supervision until she and her parents could demonstrate that she was mentally up to the voyage and could make it safely. In an apparent snit, Dekker ran away from home in December, surfacing days later on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, requiring a police escort back to the Netherlands and yet another appearance before the judge. But her court-ordered psychological evaluation reads, in some respects, like a parent's dream come true. It notes the girl's good grades and her independence, deeming her "a hard worker, disciplined, serious, and showing perseverance."

Still, the report does not recommend a solitary, potentially perilous sea voyage. An appeals court in May reprimanded Dick Dekker, Laura's father, for having a "limited appreciation of the risks involved," claiming that he "overestimates" what she can do. Yet Dekker scored a victory in late July when a district court judge lifted her state supervision, clearing her to set sail. In what seemed more like a helpless shrug than an endorsement of the girl's dream, the judge wrote, a touch ominously, "With this decision, the responsibility for Laura lies with her parents."

As Laurence and Marianne Sunderland see it, there is more harm in underestimating a teenager than in overestimating her. Sitting in their living room with Abby before her departure, they ticked off a list of essential things they considered missing from many children's lives that were present, in spades, on a solo sailing voyage. There was mystery; there was challenge; there was risk. In their view, these were antidotes to the kind of malaise and complacency that plagued so many other kids questing for maturity.

Laurence, a native of Britain with a frank, brassy manner of speaking, talked of the "low expectations" placed on teenagers. He spoke about kids these days having "no life in their eyes" and how putting Abby—"Abigail," he called her—in charge of a boat immediately put her in charge of her own life. "It's not like, 'Clean your room and if you don't, you'll lose your phone for two days,'" he said drily. Abby's mother cited the number of otherwise bored and hovered-over teens who die in car accidents or get mixed up with drugs or simply never attain real independence from their parents.

"A lot of people won't let their kids out of the house," Abby chimed in.

"Or even out of their sight," added Laurence, emphatically.

Behind the house, a lone turkey was pecking its way around the perimeter of the yard—the last living remnant of Abby's many years as an apparently zealous and entrepreneurial member of her local 4-H club. According to Marianne, beginning when she was 9 and with little guidance from her parents, Abby expertly bred and raised rabbits, chickens, and turkeys, winning prizes for them and selling them for a profit at auction.

Marianne has warm brown eyes, a girlish, expressive voice, and the overall upbeat demeanor of a grown-up Gidget. With her husband and two eldest children hanging around the marina and obsessing over the lure of the ocean all the time, Marianne serves as the family's dry-land pragmatist. She drives a white Ford Excursion capable of holding all her children and can often be found shuttling them to and from soccer practice. She claims not to be adventurous herself. Instead, she homeschools her kids at the dining room table, takes them to church every weekend, and instills order by enforcing a chain of command based loosely upon birth order. ("Jessica, I need your help with Ben. He keeps jumping on Katherine.")

Both Laurence and Marianne mentioned several times that despite what people tended to believe about them, the decision to let both Abby and Zac go had not been made lightly. They had weighed the risks.

"What do I think of the ocean?" Laurence said. "The ocean scares me, and that's a healthy sort of fear." He added that the rewards, in their eyes, trumped the risks. "Frankly, life is unsafe," he said. "Life has a 100 percent mortality rate. We're all going to die, you know? I think the saddest thing about living, one of the saddest things about living, is getting to a ripe old age and never having fulfilled a dream in your life."
abby sunderland with her family
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
The next time I saw Marianne Sunderland, she was on television, looking spooked. She and Laurence and the rest of their family had spent the past 20 hours waiting for news on whether Abby—who a day earlier had triggered her emergency beacons from the southern Indian Ocean—had, in fact, survived. An Australian spotter plane had finally located and made radio contact with her. A French fishing boat would soon be dispatched to pluck her from Wild Eyes, which would be left to drift. The rescue operation would reportedly cost French and Australian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and once it was determined that Abby was safe, any sense of collective worry would be overrun by a fast-building and furious scorn for her parents.

Sitting beneath a set of klieg lights outside their house in the predawn darkness, Laurence Sunderland grimly went about defending the decision to let Abby sail. "You obviously don't know Abigail...or her upbringing, or her parents," he said, speaking generally to their detractors.

The question of Abby Sunderland's competence, of whether she had any business being out alone on the seas at all, remains open to interpretation. Jean Pierre Arabonis, a South African oceanographer and meteorologist whose company, OSIS, advises the shipping industry on how to navigate safe passage around dangerous weather, tells me he was mostly admiring of Sunderland's effort. He describes the place where she'd run into trouble as "one of the nastiest pieces of ocean that you can encounter," with reported wind speeds as high as 100 knots (115 mph). Arabonis commends Sunderland on having sailed 12,000 miles before running afoul of the weather, and added that in his opinion, there was nothing she could have done to avoid having her boat's mast cracked by a rogue wave. "If she had ended up in trouble because of a bad set of decisions, then fine," he says, "but what happened is that the vessel experienced a mechanical failure. It's got nothing to do with her age."

Adrienne Cahalan, an Australian meteorologist and professional sailor, describes that part of the ocean as a "wild, frightening place," and likens sailing it alone to playing a game of Russian roulette. Adults may choose to accept the hazards, she says, but it made no sense for children. "Why risk the precious life of a 16-year-old?" Cahalan asks. She tells me that when she was 20, an eager, aspiring, only moderately experienced sailor herself, she had dreamed of making a solo circumnavigation, going so far as to seek sponsorship. Her family and friends talked her out of it. "And I'm forever grateful for that," says Cahalan, who is now 45. "I was not ready. I was too young." The decision to accrue experience slowly has paid off through a long, successful sailing career, which now includes five world speed-sailing records and three circumnavigations. Her advice to young sailors? "Enjoy the learning curve of doing something over a period of time instead of trying to get to the top in a single bound."

It is Marianne I thought about most—as Abby rode the French fishing boat to safety, as she boarded a plane back to California, as she held a numb, slightly defiant press conference ("I've crossed two oceans; I've sailed around Cape Horn... the questioning of my age should have been over weeks, if not months ago"), and as she moved back into her room with her sister, in her house in the subdivision, the ocean seeming far away. I wondered if Marianne had regrets, and if she did, whether she'd need always to keep them private, to spare her daughter and her husband further scrutiny. Had this been a failure of vision or just a bit of ill luck?

When I reached her at home one day in July, Marianne was still processing what had happened to Abby. She said she'd done a lot of crying and praying during the 20 hours they spent waiting to hear if Abby was okay. She was well aware that she and Laurence were being criticized. "There are people saying we should be prosecuted for child endangerment," she said, trailing off, sounding pained. But she thought the only variable that led to Abby's misfortune was the one that every sailor faces—the randomness of the sea. On the question of regret, she remained unclear: "I haven't asked myself whether knowing what I know, would I do it again? I'm not sure what the answer is."

The Sunderlands' eighth child—a boy—was born just one day after Abby arrived back in the United States. Marianne and Laurence named him Paul-Louis—after Paul Louis Le Moigne, the seasoned French captain who'd sailed his boat hundreds of miles out of his way, who'd himself been tossed into the frigid swells and risked drowning during the protracted effort to fetch their daughter. As for Abby, Marianne described her as "settling in." Most recently she'd been pondering the ocean from the vantage point of a more typical teen—on a beach towel, slathered in sunblock and surrounded by friends. Abby was grateful and feeling humble, she said, but also undaunted. "She's talked a bit about trying it again, but not any time soon," said Marianne. "I told her, 'Next time you go, you have to be 18.'"

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