Adventure on the high seas

Thomas is a Times staff writer.

Zac Sunderland is alone on a sailboat off Indonesia, five months into a journey around the world, when he senses the worst kind of danger.


A large wooden vessel in the distance, rising and falling over the swells, is clearly on intercept course.

It does not show on the radar. It flies no flags. Its crew doesn’t respond to radio calls. Zac alters course, the pursuers do likewise.


What’s a 16-year-old to do? Zac isn’t sure, so, with his heart racing, he dials home on the satellite phone.

Laurence Sunderland has just begun Sunday dinner with his wife and six other children in their Thousand Oaks home when the phone rings.

A daughter answers and Zac’s shout erupts through the receiver, so his father snatches the handset and rushes into another room.

He calmly instructs Zac to load his .357-caliber pistol before announcing his plight and position on the emergency radio channel.

He then directs his son to be prepared to shoot to kill.

“It’s hard to tell a 16-year-old that, but this is real life, not a video game,” Sunderland says in an interview.

“I said if they have guns and they’re coming to do you harm, you’re going to have to shoot to kill. Otherwise you will be killed.”



Halfway to history

Zac Sunderland had long since discovered that trying to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone is not child’s play.

(He has until January 2010 to break a record held by David Dicks, an Australian who was 18 years, 41 days old when he accomplished the feat.)

Zac, who could not legally drive a car, had piloted the 36-foot Intrepid 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean during the initial leg to the Marshall Islands. He endured long windless periods as well as violent squalls and turbulent seas.

His parents were criticized for allowing their eldest son to trade a teen’s normal life for such a dangerous adventure, despite his extensive sailing experience.

Zac, who says he is chasing a dream, now has 12,000 miles under his keel. He’s due to arrive any day in Mauritius, off Africa, which will mark his halfway point.

But he’ll have little time to celebrate.

His beleaguered boat requires extensive repairs, and the most treacherous portion of his journey -- from Mauritius to Durban, South Africa, and around the Cape of Good Hope -- lies ahead.


“It’s been frustrating,” he said in an interview on election day, as a disabled front sail flapped wildly in the background. “Because whenever anything goes wrong, it always happens in the middle of the night.”

How long ago it must seem to the high school sophomore that he embarked from Marina del Rey on June 14, looking both heroic and naive.

Since then, he has lost weight and become hardened beyond his years. It was just four weeks ago that the presumed assailants in the 60-foot wooden boat sized him up as he sailed south of Indonesia, a reputed trouble spot.

When the boat closed to within a quarter of a mile, Zac said, without mentioning his call to his father, “I jammed some bullets into my gun and just waited.”

The 6-foot, 165-pound teenager watched as the vessel, its crew hidden, swept to within 200 yards, into Intrepid’s wake. It remained several minutes before changing course and motoring off.

“I’m not sure how useful it would have been if it was a boat full of pirates,” Zac said, referring to a weapon he surrenders to authorities at every port. “But I didn’t get to find out, so it’s a good thing I guess.”



Troubles mount

The journey has exacted no small toll on his parents and siblings. Costs for the largely unsponsored project have been so overwhelming that the family has set up a donation link on the website.

Zac phones home twice a day, in mornings and evenings Southern California time, so calls at other times cause pangs of worry.

Zac’s parents, who remain fiercely supportive of his ambition, will not forget the day -- as their son was negotiating the hazardous Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea -- he dropped his satellite phone into water in the sink.

It sent an erroneous signal to the phone company, relayed to the parents, which placed Intrepid’s position atop a reef 120 miles off course.

They were moments from initiating a search-and-rescue mission when a message, delivered via high-frequency radio to their computer, said, “Hi mom. I’m OK.”

“He was oblivious to our concerns and just happened to send that message,” Laurence Sunderland said.


More recently, as Zac traveled from Darwin, Australia, toward the Cocos Keeling Islands, the Intrepid was tossed about so violently one night that its tiller arm broke.

He pieced it together with clamps but steering was difficult, even with autopilot, and when the boat jibed abruptly, the boom swung swiftly over the deck and snapped, leaving the Intrepid without a working mainsail.

It limped into Cocos Keeling, where Zac -- using his parents’ credit card -- sought a carpenter to make a new tiller and fashion a sleeve around the broken boom.

His troubles worsened eight days ago, as violent winds tore part of his front sail rigging loose. He worked through the night on deck in 12-foot seas, strapped into a harness, water cascading all around, trying to furl the sail and gather its rigging.

“I’ve been telling my friends to pray for him because the next four days could be a long four days,” Marianne Sunderland said Monday, in reference to her son’s push toward Mauritius.

“It’s hard because I know how tired he is. He’s not eating right. He can’t cook or even clean up when it’s rough.”


Persistent problems prompted a detour to a nearby island, further delaying his arrival at Mauritius, where his father, a shipwright, awaits with tools and a new boom.


Steady as he goes

Remarkably, when Zac was reached Tuesday evening -- Wednesday morning in the Indian Ocean -- he sounded as calm is if he were at home on the sofa.

He confessed to eating cold meals from a can, to not having energy to wash after so much work, and to missing his family, whom, with the exception of his father, he has not seen since July in Hawaii.

But he has visited so many amazing places, made so many unforgettable friends.

Sadly, he’ll spend Thanksgiving and his 17th birthday, Nov. 29, hurrying to Durban, trying to beat the storm season.

What he may not know is that he’ll take from Mauritius dozens of birthday presents and “a microwave cake complete with candles,” his mother said.

With luck, he’ll have some leisurely moments to savor them.