Abby Sunderland sets course on a record

“We’ll go to Starbucks when you get back!” a friend yelled from a yacht full of well-wishers, as it pulled away from Abby Sunderland’s sailboat and began the short trip back to port.

That might have been the last statement issued to the 16-year-old Thousand Oaks mariner, who, at about noon on a sun-drenched Saturday atop a rolling sea, waved goodbye to family and friends for a final time and began to pursue the horizon by herself.

The words seemed to float across the water like a stark reminder of what an otherwise jubilant Marina del Rey send-off was really about.

Sunderland, who cannot legally drive a car but aspires to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone, is not coming home for at least five months, and there’s no guarantee she’ll make it safely home.

There will be no going for coffee, no home-cooked meals, no socializing or playing with siblings, and no warm bed; just a 40-foot sailboat with a small bunk, a water-maker and a store of freeze-dried food and, on the not-too-distant horizon: the savagely cold and treacherous Southern Ocean.

“Every little kid wants to be a doctor or a princess or a firefighter,” Sunderland said during a pre-launch news conference, while trying to explain the motivation behind her controversial excursion. “But watching my own brother go out and actually do it; it really made me realize that you can do things like this.”

Sunderland’s older brother Zac made history in July when he returned, at 17, from a 13-month solo-circumnavigation aboard a 36-foot sailboat. He briefly held the distinction of being the youngest person and still is the youngest American to have sailed around the world.

But whereas Zac made many stops and utilized a more temperate westerly route, Abby will try to sail nonstop on a journey that involves traveling down the Pacific and around Cape Horn at South America’s tip, then easterly across the Southern Ocean -- above Antarctica -- and ultimately back up and across the Pacific.

It’s a far more dangerous route as far as weather is concerned, but it’s a swift route largely free of vessel traffic and, perhaps worse, pirates. “And personally, pirates terrify me, so while I’m going to freeze, it’s a good trade-off,” Sunderland said, trying to deflect criticism.

There has been ample criticism, and a few glaring questions lingered as Sunderland’s orange-and-yellow racing yacht, named Wild Eyes, gained the horizon and became smaller and lonelier:

Is the girl strong enough for such a grueling trek? Should she be allowed to try such a difficult feat? How could her parents let their daughter venture to a climate so harsh even the father describes it as “an ugly, horrible cold that just eats right through you”?

Sunderland said you’d have to be a sailor to understand the romantic pull of the ocean, and that this has been her dream -- and something she has been preparing for -- since she was 13.

Laurence Sunderland told reporters that during the last three years he has tried to dissuade his daughter by taking her sailing in nasty weather, but she only became more determined.

The father said of his children: “As they grow into young adults and they have different talents and different passions, it’s great to be able to encourage them in something that’s noble and of good character, and help them with those ambitions as opposed to throwing water on the flames of excitement in life.”

Zac encountered suspected pirates in the Indian Ocean, spent sleepless nights in gales and was beaten ashore by a hurricane. But he became a hero and inspiration to schoolchildren and fans, and wouldn’t trade his experience for anything.

He was the youngest person to sail alone around the world until England’s Mike Perham, a slightly younger 17, completed his journey five weeks later.

Now Perham’s record is being jeopardized by Abby and Jessica Watson, her slightly older Australian counterpart, who is halfway through her Southern Ocean excursion, and Friday night endured 70-knot winds and multiple knockdowns, meaning her 34-foot pink sailboat was literally knocked sideways and the mast touched water.

That Watson survived the eight-hour ordeal is testament to her ability, but it also underscores the danger associated with sailing in extreme latitudes.

In light of this, Laurence and Marianne, who have seven home-schooled children with another child on the way, remain optimistic their oldest daughter will handle whatever Mother Nature delivers.

“At first I wasn’t as supportive as I was with Zac -- with him I never had a doubt,” Marianne said. “But with Abby I’ve seen over the last months this incredibly tough and determined young woman in the place of the sweet girl she had always been. So, honestly and truly, I am really excited for her because this has been something she’s been talking about for years.”

Some in the sailing community, however, have expressed mixed feelings.

Seattle’s Karen Thorndike, who in 1998 became the first American woman to sail around the world alone via the Southern Ocean, has some concerns about Sunderland’s age.

“I could not have done it at 16,” Thorndike said. “I would not have wanted to face that at 16, voluntarily.”

Thorndike was 63 when she embarked on what she hoped would be a nonstop sail, but boat and weather issues forced delays and her trip lasted three years. She cited fatigue and sleep deprivation as major obstacles for Sunderland.

Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., said he’s concerned about timing. Sunderland’s departure, because of various issues, occurred much later than planned, so when she reaches the southern Indian Ocean the Southern Hemisphere, summer will have given way to fall. As she approaches New Zealand, icebergs might pose navigation hazards.

“Ideally, she should have left a month ago,” Nobles said. “Obviously, we want to see her make the trip and have the greatest success, but there are some serious challenges with her voyage.”

Laurence Sunderland said his weather team will route his daughter in the safest possible manner and expressed full confidence she’ll succeed despite the late start.

Toby, her 12-year-old brother, was not as convincing. “She’s a girl ,” he said with a playful laugh. “My brother’s my brother and he’s this huge strong guy and my sister, I don’t know . . . she’s a GIRL . But I know that she can do it.”