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Teen picked up by French fishing boat after storm interrupts her circumnavigation

Plucked from a disabled sailboat in the Indian Ocean, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland is now steaming away from her epic goal of circling the globe, but drawing slowly closer to a family eager to embrace her.

On Saturday, the Thousand Oaks solo sailor climbed aboard the French fishing vessel Ile de la Reunion — much to the relief of her parents, who had backed her expedition every step of the way. In 2009, Abby’s older brother Zac briefly became the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator until he was unseated by another 17-year-old who was several months younger.

“We had a great answer to our prayers today,” Laurence Sunderland told reporters outside the family’s Thousand Oaks home Saturday. “We are obviously relieved.”

After drifting for two days in her stricken 40-foot yacht Wild Eyes, Abby hopped aboard an inflatable boat for the transfer to the Ile de la Reunion about 3 a.m. PDT. As the fishing boat bobbed in seas some 2,000 nautical miles west of Australia, Sunderland spoke with her family for about 20 minutes.

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“She was tired and her voice was a bit smaller,” said her mother, Marianne Sunderland. Still, the girl who saw her dream of a solo, round-the-world trip thwarted by wild seas mustered enough humor to make a few jokes. Her parents are expecting a baby boy — the eighth Sunderland child — in about two weeks, and Abby lightheartedly said she was “sorry for stressing out Charlie,” as her brother-to-be has been informally known.

On a blog post written from the French fishing boat, Abby told her followers: “The long and short of it is, well, one long wave and one short mast (short meaning two-inch stub)… Crazy is the word that really describes everything that has happened best.”

Waves at least 25 feet tall snapped the boat’s carbon-fiber mast Thursday. Abby triggered a couple of emergency beacons and was spotted 20 hours later by observers sent out on a Qantas Airways jet.

Her father said that beyond a few bruises, she appeared to be uninjured. In about two days, she’ll reach the Kerguelen Islands, a desolate archipelago populated mostly by scientific researchers. A larger vessel will take her to the French island of Reunion, off the eastern coast of Madagascar, in eight to 10 days.

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The Sunderlands were uncertain when Abby would be back in Thousand Oaks — and even less certain whether Laurence, a career shipwright, would be able to meet her in Reunion. If his wife is in labor at the time, he’ll stay home and others on Abby’s support team will fly abroad to meet her and accompany her home.

He said Australian authorities, who coordinated the rescue, have indicated that they do not demand payment for such efforts.

Outside the Sunderlands’ home on a quiet suburban street, seven pink balloons were tied to a white picket fence, along with a heart-festooned sign: “Thank God Abby’s Alive!” Once again, the Sunderlands were asked about accusations of negligence in allowing their daughter to risk her life.

“It wasn’t a flippant decision,” said Laurence Sunderland, adding that Abby had “spent half her life on the water” and was delivering yachts solo at age 13. He said he made a few efforts to dissuade her from a trip around the world, including showing her the fierce seas around Point Conception. And he kept her from pursuing the voyage until she was 16 — a few years after she had become taken with the idea of a global journey.

Sunderland said his daughter’s age had no bearing on her accident. She was skilled enough, he said, to sail thousands of miles alone, negotiating the famously treacherous seas around Cape Horn and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Seasoned, adult solo sailors, like France’s celebrated Isabelle Autissier, have been undone by ferocious winds and towering waves similar to those that beat down Abby’s boat, he said.

Abby also weighed in on her parents’ critics, asking in her blog: “Since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?”

“The truth is, I was in a storm and you don’t sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm,” she wrote. “Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world.”

In a brief post-rescue interview with Australia’s ABC Radio, Abby said 60-knot winds had knocked her over four times before leveling off a bit Thursday. That’s when her mast snapped at the base, remaining tenuously attached. She said she didn’t try to cut it off because, dragging in the water, it acted as a sea anchor and helped to keep Wild Eyes from capsizing.

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She said she was too busy keeping the boat afloat to feel frightened.

“Getting all worried and scared doesn’t help anyway,” she said.

Abby cast off from Marina del Rey on Jan. 23 — about six months after Zac returned there to a hero’s welcome. The two plied different routes and, although Zac’s was generally more temperate, he endured gales, a hurricane and a run-in with suspected pirates.

When Abby finally returns, her parents said, their home-schooled daughter might have to work her way out of an emotional trough. Leaving Wild Eyes in the middle of a far-off ocean was a bittersweet experience, her mother said.

“You’re so closely united to that boat for your everyday existence,” she said. “You become very close to it.”

Asked what lessons Abby will have learned from her adventure, her parents offered these views:

“I think maybe she’d rather have been 1 degree north, where the winds are lighter,” her father said.

Her mother was more philosophical. “You make plans and then life happens,” she said. “It’s part of the adventure.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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