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Young sailor recounts her adventures and defends her ability

Facing dozens of cameras, 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland thanked her rescuers on Tuesday, recounted how she got through her most terrifying moments at sea and spoke about how her family has gotten through sharp criticism of the voyage.

Responding to those who said she was too young to sail around the world by herself, Abby defended her abilities. On boats since she was a toddler, she has worked as a crew member on sailboats piloted by her father, a shipwright, and her older brother, Zac, who made his own circumnavigation last year at age 17, before departing on her trip in late January.

After she traveled 12,000 nautical miles, her voyage was stopped only because a rogue wave turned her boat upside down and snapped her 60-foot mast, she told reporters at a news conference in Marina del Rey.

“I’ve crossed two oceans and two capes,” she said. “The questions about my age should have been done months ago.... My trip didn’t end because of something I did wrong.”

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People who know Abby best say she’s always been a can-do girl. She raised her family’s 25-pound Thanksgiving turkey two years ago. At 13, she decided she wanted to sail around the world. While onboard her 40-foot-sloop, Wild Eyes, she said, she read “Do Hard Things” by Alex and Brett Harris, which rails against society’s low expectations of teenagers.

Last week, while some other teenage girls were camping outside a Los Angeles theater to catch of glimpse of the stars of the latest “Twilight” movie, Abby was on a French patrol boat making her way back to her Thousand Oaks home after her rescue at sea.

“Never much into vampires,” she responded to a question about whether she had seen any of the wildly popular movies based on the “Twilight” books.

On Tuesday, her stories were about weeks of adventure, moments of terror and of dreams dashed.

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She’d had good weather for much of her trip, she said, but ran into a squall with 60-knot winds as she traversed the southern Indian Ocean. On June 10, as night approached, she went below to get water out of her stalled engine.

She’d just got the motor started again when a giant wave caught her sails and turned the boat upside down. It immediately righted itself, but the force was so hard that Abby hit her head and temporarily blacked out, she told reporters.

When she stumbled up to the deck, she saw that she had lost her 60-foot mast.

“There was nothing there. It was a one-inch stub,” she said “There was nothing to jury-rig.”

She set off her emergency beacons and settled in for what she figured would be a long wait before she drifted to a nearby island or rescuers found her. When a low-flying Qantas jet passed by the next day, she was startled, Abby said.

“It was disbelief and excitement to know I was going to be rescued,” she said. When the Ile de Reunion reached her a couple of days later, Abby scrambled onto the fishing vessel in bare feet, taking nothing from the boat.

“Everything was soaked or buried, so I didn’t bring anything,” she explained.

As for her newfound fame, Abby said no reality TV show or documentary is going to be made. She is writing a book about her journey, she said.

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Criticism of her parents was “extremely hurtful,” she said. It came from people who don’t know her or her family, she said. Her experience on the high seas has only made her yearn for more.

“I’ve sailed 12,000 miles and I’m proud of my achievements,” she said. “The more I sail, the more I like sailing.”

Another circumnavigation is likely in her future, though she will put it off for a few years to concentrate on finishing high school and getting her driver’s license, Abby said. Another immediate concern is welcoming her newest sibling, a baby boy, to the family.

Her mother, Marianne Sunderland, was in labor as Abby and her brother Zac fielded questions without their parents present. The family is planning to name the child Paul after the captain of the Ile de la Reunion, her rescue ship, she said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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