The number of people who have circumnavigated the globe hovers just over 200. A far greater number have lost their lives in pursuit. In 2010, teenager Abby Sunderland set out to break records — when disaster struck. Her family’s efforts to recover her lost boat were in vain. But its story was not yet complete.
Born Into It
From an early age, when Laurence Sunderland was growing up on the southern coast of England, he learned the love of seafaring from his parents, a love he would pass down to his own children. A father of eight, he and his wife Marianne home-schooled their kids so that they could grow up around the water.
For three years, the family lived on a 51-foot boat, touring through California’s Channel Islands, then south to Baja California and mainland Mexico. In July 2009, the eldest child, Zac, became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe, at just 17. One year later, his sister Abby decided it was her turn to take the crown. She had no idea of the peril that awaited her.
Two Records To Beat
Having spent several years living on a boat, Abby felt that even at the young age of sixteen, she was up for the challenge. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, her father explained how he tried to dissuade his children’s sense of adventure by taking them sailing in rough weather. Unwittingly, he said that only ended up encouraging his children’s sense of adventure.
Laurence Sunderland described one day in particular, where he and Abby were sailing together in the middle of a heavy storm, their boat rocking uncontrollably. In the moment, Abby worked single-handedly to keep them afloat after an already grueling 20-hour day. But even that day could not prepare her for the adventure that she was about to set out on.
Buying A Boat
After Abby got her father’s approval to attempt the Guinness World Record, the Sunderlands took a trip to Rhode Island to purchase a boat for her. They finally settled on Wild Eyes, a 40-foot sloop constructed from fiber glass with Kevlar reinforcements. Essentially a souped up sail boat, the family chose her in part because she had recently won an open ocean race.
What better way to test out the boat than to sail it across (or, rather, around) the country? And so, Abby, her father, and brother Zac, set out into the Atlantic destined for Southern California, learning all the ins and outs of Wild Eyes along the way. But upon their return to California, not everyone was as excited about Abby’s trip as the Sunderlands.
Preparing To Go For It
Abby’s impending attempt at a world record had earned her considerable media attention in the months leading up to departure — but not for the reasons she might have hoped. A debate erupted as to whether or not Abby’s parents were being responsible guardians in allowing their daughter to attempt such a treacherous journey. Several critics were experienced seafarers in their own right, adding fuel to the fire.
One such voice was the first American woman to sail around the world. In 1998, Karen Thorndike began what she hoped would be a non-stop journey, but was delayed three years due to equipment failure and bad weather. 63 years old at the time of her trip’s completion, she said she wouldn’t have handled the exhaustion and fatigue as a sixteen-year-old. Would this throw Abby?
The Rules And The Route
Every year, a handful of circumnavigators attempt to break a record. Competition got to the point where the Guinness committee needed to establish rules, deciding the trip must start and finish in the same spot. It must hit two points on opposite sides of the earth. It must travel in the same direction, and the total distance traveled must exceed the equator’s length.
The planned route Abby plotted out was to begin in Marina del Rey in West Los Angeles, California. From there, she would sail to Cape Horn, then the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and back to Marina del Rey in ten legs, solo and unassisted. Abby would also need to cross the Equator in accordance with the Guinness rules. And so, she set off.
The Beginning Of A Long Journey
On January 23, 2010, Abby left Marina Del Rey harbor just outside of Los Angeles to start her six-month journey across the globe. For the first few days it was smooth sailing, but it wasn’t long before she realized there was trouble with her fueling systems. She was not generating enough power for the boat.
After only two days Abby was forced to make an unplanned stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This immediately ended her attempt at a record for continuous circumnavigation — unless she could make up the distance on the last leg of her journey. Undeterred, she set out to sea again. But this far from the only challenge that Abby would face on her way.
One Record Down, One To Go
Pulling out of Mexico in choppy water, Abby prepared herself mentally for what was about to be six months alone at sea. In the first three weeks since leaving Mexico, Abby was surfing the open ocean, blessed with sun-filled days out on the ocean’s vastness, ending in beautiful sunsets. On March 31, 2010, she broke her first record: by becoming the youngest person in the world to round Cape Horn.
At the southernmost tip of South America, rounding the treacherous Cape has long been considered a significant nautical achievement by sailors from all over the world. The area of ocean surrounding it is nicknamed the “Roaring Forties” for its intense winds and currents, and the latitude at which it is located. Abby managed to find herself in smooth weather, but her luck was about to change.
Three months had passed. Halfway into her trip, cold and rough weather, including heavy rainstorms, took its toll on Abby’s boat. Some of Wild Eyes’ systems were failing, including her autopilots. Abby needed to get back to land. By the time she pulled into Cape Town, South Africa, her engine was completely failing, and coughing black smoke.
It took a full two weeks to get Wild Eyes back in shape. Thankfully, Abby’s family and team flew into town to help with repairs. In addition to engine trouble, one of the ship’s compartments had sprung a leak, letting water into the boat. After making repairs, she set off for the most treacherous part of her trip yet.
Holding close to one-fourth of the total amount of water on the planet by volume, the sheer size of the Indian Ocean combined with its warm temperatures has made sailing across it an arduous task. Two days after Abby’s departure from Cape Town, the seas started to pick up.
Despite having left in pristine conditions, Abby now found herself in an increasingly dangerous situation. Keeping her boat afloat was becoming a 24-hour operation. Storm after storm was rolling through, and by the time Abby could find a patch of steady wind to make necessary repairs, she would get slammed again. It was a dire situation.
Bad Things Happen At Night
On a boat, all of the rough weather and things that go wrong seem to happen in the middle of the night. Many seafarers will tell you that at two o’clock in the morning, when you have had no sleep, sailing is at its hardest. It finally reached a point where Abby’s autopilots utterly failed and she was navigating the lost boat completely by herself.
To make matters worse, when Abby tried to drop her sail so she would not be at the mercy of the wind, she noticed that it was snagged on the top line. In order to free it, she would have to climb the mast and cut the line by her own hand. The prospects were daunting.
Staring A Storm In The Face
Climbing the mast was something that Abby had done many times during her training. But going up in the pitch black of the dead of night, with winds gusting at 30 knots, and wave after wave crashing onto the boat, is practically suicidal. Aware to the level of danger she was putting herself in, Abby called her family to speak to them — for perhaps the last time.
She steered herself into a patch of weather where she thought that she could make the ascent up, hung up the phone, and went out to the mast. Then, the unthinkable happened. The line had freed itself! Just like that the sail came tumbling down. In spite of the good luck, she was still in the middle of a storm.
Another Rough Night
With all of her experience and training, Abby had been in plenty of storms, both by herself and while sailing with her family. At this particular moment, however, she was caught in the most difficult conditions that she had seen in her life: sixteen hours of hard wind and rain wreaking havoc on Wild Eyes.
It was still hopelessly dark outside and she had just finished repairing her failing engine yet again. At last, the weather was starting to turn for the better. But just when she was sailing along smoothly, all of a sudden the boat was picked up and thrown onto its side by a 30-foot rogue wave.
Everything Went Black
After slamming her head into the gauges, Abby woke up on the roof of her boat, with water and debris floating all around her. This was the first rogue wave that she had ever encountered and the impact was devastating. Looking around in complete disbelief, Abby knew that her journey was over.
Completely stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the lost boat was wrecked to the point where Abby was unable to jury rig herself to land. With no other options, she set off her emergency beacons in the middle of the night, hoping that someone would come to her rescue. At this point, all she could do was pray.
Search And Rescue
Newspaper headlines read that Abby was lost at sea, and friends and family feared the worst. Then, on June 12, 2010, an Australian search plane spotted Wild Eyes, a white pin drop in a sea of blue. By the time rescuers reached the lost boat, she was missing a hatch, and dragging her sunken sail and mast behind helplessly.
The French fishing vessel, La Réunion, reached Abby 4,700 miles off the west coast of Australia, drifting helplessly in between French and Australian waters. The crew brought Abby aboard, rescuing her. She had lasted a full night and half of a day at the mercy of the sea. The French crew escorted Abby to land and sent her straight to the doctor. After her ordeal, would she be okay?
Doomed From The Start?
Besides being physically and emotionally exhausted from months at sea, and having nearly drowned, Abby was in good health. Shortly after her rescue, she was reunited with her family. The media, who had been covering Abby’s trip as it progressed, once again sparked the old debate as to whether or not she should have attempted the trip in the first place.
Some of Abby’s critics resurfaced, calling her plan doomed from the beginning. To sum up their argument, Abby had sailed on the wrong type of boat, in the wrong location (the southern Indian Ocean), and at the wrong time of year (winter in the Southern Hemisphere). These three major issues in planning, they said, were impossible to overcome. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
More Than An Emotional Toll
In addition to almost taking her life, Abby’s adventure cost quite a bit of money. Not including hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment costs (boats cost an incredible amount of money), the rescue effort alone cost $300,000. Deemed that it was not a threat to sea traffic, the lost boat Wild Eyes was left to sink in the open ocean.
Despite trying to crowd-source funds for the rescue mission, the Sunderlands were forced to tell authorities that they would not be able to pay the bill, leaving the burden to Australian and French taxpayers. Additionally, Abby’s rescue required considerable risk from the crew members of La Réunion, who had to board a tiny raft to save Abby. The ship seemed hopelessly lost.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, after nearly nine years floating at sea, a group of tourists spotted Wild Eyes off the coast of Kangaroo Island, in southwest Australia, her hull covered in barnacles. Ironically, while Abby might not have quite made it to Australia, her boat did.
Alerted to the discovery, Abby said that her heart skipped a beat reflecting on memories, both good and bad. While both Abby and her father admitted that while it would be cool to see what had survived in the boat, the Sunderlands have made it known that they will not be posing for any photo-ops with the old boat. The question lingers: will Abby try again?
The Story Lives On
The public was interested in Abby’s attempt at the world record since she announced her voyage in 2010. In the years following her rescue, Abby has spoken to crowds about her experience. Her story has even become assigned homework for seventh grade students in Southern California.
Abby is also an avid TEDx speaker, and has been interviewed several times about her harrowing experience. She co-wrote and published a book, Unsinkable: A Young Woman’s Courageous Battle on the High Sea and has her own documentary film. For a brief moment, there were even rumors that the Sunderland family would have their own reality TV show.
Risk Takers vs. Pragmatists
Every year, a handful of people attempt to circumnavigate the globe. There are even long-standing organizations dedicated to the challenge. The Circumnavigators Club was established in 1902, and its former members include astronauts Scott Kelly and Neil Armstrong, magician Harry Houdini (circled below), and even U.S. president Herbert Hoover.
But Abby’s accident also sparked debate about the risk of such adventures. To date, international law mandates any ship of any nation in the vicinity of a distress call to render assistance at no cost. Today, the law is being challenged by countries who are not so willing to foot the bill for those who put themselves in such wanton danger. But it seems that won’t be affecting Abby any time soon.
Per her most recent interviews, Abby has moved on from her thirst for adventure on the high seas. She married and settled down with a former Navy sailor in his home state of Alabama. By the time Wild Eyes resurfaced in 2019, the couple was expecting their fourth child.
After her rescue, Abby had expressed her desire for a second chance to sail around the world. To date that hasn’t happened yet, but it can’t be ruled out altogether. She is still the youngest person in the world to round Cape Horn unassisted, and her story will live on as an inspiration to those who follow in her footsteps.
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