Family and friends cling to hope that teen sailor will be found alive

Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old Thousand Oaks girl trying to be the youngest solo sailor to circle the world, lost contact with her family early Thursday in the southern Indian Ocean.

Relatives and friends of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, the Thousand Oaks solo sailor trying to circumnavigate the globe, were clinging to hope Thursday that the young adventurer would be found alive by rescuers converging on a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean.
A massive international sea and air search effort was targeting an area 2,000 miles southwest of Australia, where Sunderland’s emergency beacons began broadcasting about 5:20 a.m. Thursday.

The family lost communication with the girl a short time earlier.

A Qantas Airways jetliner with dozens of harbor patrol spotters on board was dispatched from Perth to look for the girl. It was scheduled to fly over the search zone late Thursday to try to establish contact with the teen. The nearest ships were still about a day away.

Abby was more than halfway through her quest to become the youngest solo sailor to circle the world. She had come through a day of 25-foot seas and 70-mile-an-hour winds, which tipped her sails into the sea several times.

But in their last conversation with Abby, she seemed in good spirits, according to a statement by Abby’s parents posted on her blog Thursday afternoon.

“The wind had subsided to around 35 knots [40 miles an hour] which she and [her boat] are quite comfortable with,” Laurence and Marianne Sunderland wrote.

Abby has all the equipment needed to survive, they added, and her 40-foot boat, Wild Eyes, has airtight compartments and is designed to stay afloat and right itself if it capsizes.

If the boat is indeed capsized, the first thing the pilots will see is a big red heart that Abby painted on the bottom around the keel, said Jeff Casher, a technical advisor and sailing coach to Abby. She said she painted it to make it easier for rescuers to spot the boat should she ever need assistance.

Family members theorized that she was injured, the boat had rolled over or the mast broke, but that she was still onboard. They note that she activated two of her emergency beacons, indicating she was alive at that point.

“If she can keep warm and hang on, help will be there as soon as possible,” her parents wrote.

But time was of the essence. Water temperatures were in the 50s, waves were still 25 feet or more, and storms were still active in the area.

Three French vessels were heading to the area from the territory of Reunion, off the African coast, but were hundreds of miles away.

Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., said the Southern Indian ocean is known in sailing circles to be a challenge. “There’s just not a lot of land in that part of the world,” he said. “You have to follow certain patterns because you need the trade winds. Where she is right now is in between Australia and South Africa. There is no way to be close to land at that point.”

Some had criticized Abby for leaving so late in the year. She departed from Marina del Rey on Jan. 23, later than she had wanted to because of equipment issues. She also was delayed along the way for repairs, which put her in her current open ocean run as the Southern Hemisphere storm season is approaching.

Outside the family home Thursday, Abby’s brother, Zac, who sailed around the world alone when he was 17, was questioned about whether it was responsible for their parents to allow her to undertake the journey. He declined to comment, but Casher did address the question.

“I was concerned going into this,” he said. “She’s 16, and she’s a girl. But she quickly disabused me of those notions. I know she’s tough.” One of seven children, with another sibling due any day, Abby is shy, Casher said. But she comes alive around sailors and on her boat.

Speaking with The Times before she embarked, Abby said she had to put up with her parents “trying to scare me out of it.” Most families “just never would think about something like” allowing a minor to sail the world alone, she said. But she said she had been on boats since infancy, sailing came naturally to her and she’s wanted to make this attempt since she was 13. Criticism made her “want to do it just a little bit more,” she said.

Her father, noting that the family is born-again Christian, told the paper they had carefully considered and prayed about the decision. He said he provided guidance, preparation and encouraged a spirit of adventure.

Sailing the ocean can involve periods of “sheer terror,” he acknowledged. But ultimately, he said, “The Lord is in control of everything.”

Early Thursday, family members and Casher were talking Abby through engine troubles. She managed to get the motor running again, according to her parents. But Casher said he lost contact with her at about 3:45 a.m., when Abby went to check on some equipment.

Zac Sunderland noted that his sister had three emergency beacons on the boat, one of them on her life vest. Two beacons were activated, he said, but the third, a deep-water device that is automatically triggered in 15 feet of sea water, has not gone off, he said. That has bolstered the hope that Abby is with the boat.

“It’s weird not being able to help and being at a distance,” Zac Sunderland said.

All day Thursday the family was huddled inside their house in a “control center” equipped with a navigation station and computers. Abby’s parents were on the phone with the Coast Guard and search coordinators.

Zac Sunderland was making calls to the island nation of Mauritius, which had a navy vessel about 400 miles – and two days – away from her location.

Late Thursday, the vigil in Thousand Oaks was hanging on word from the Australian airliner that was scheduled to sweep over the target search area. The pilots were hoping to locate Wild Eyes and reach Abby via marine radio.

The young skipper last communicated with supporters via a blog post Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours before she lost contact.

She described coming through rough weather and being “pretty busy out here.” A respite had allowed her to repair a ripped sail. She signed off noting the weather and waves were stirring again.

“The wind is beginning to pick up,” she wrote. It appeared she was facing 40- to 57-mph winds that night and gusts up to 70 mph, she said.

“So I am off to sleep before it really picks up.”

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