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Teen sails the world and sets course for home.

By Pete Thomas

PUERTO VALLARTA, MexicoAuZac Sunderland is wedged in his small bunk, reading, as his 36-foot sailboat ascends and careens down mountainous, shifting peaks. Just ahead on this late June morning is MexicoAAEs first seasonal tropical depression, whose winds have roiled the Pacific Ocean. To the south, churning up the coast, a larger storm [is] building into a hurricane. Sunderland, 17, is more than 100 miles offshore on the final leg of a 13-month, around-the-world odyssey. He holds course but is interrupted by a jarring thud and what sounds like a gunshot. His boat, Intrepid, has launched from a 10-foot wave and its port-side bulkhead has buckled on impact. The deck flexes and chain plates with lines supporting the mast have ripped loose. Wind hisses menacingly. He must change course and try to reach the nearest refuge, Puerto Vallarta. Sunderland has grown accustomed to adversity since he embarked from Los Angeles on June 14, 2008, on a mission to become the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone. He was 16 and didnAAEt even have a driverAAEs license. The idea had been in his mind since he read AoThe DoveAo as a child. The book chronicles a five-year circumnavigation by Robin Lee Graham, whose voyage ended in 1970, when he was 20. Sunderland, a shipwrightAAEs son and an experienced sailor, planned the journey himself. He would cross the Pacific and Indian oceans before rounding AfricaAAEs Cape of Good Hope, then cross the Atlantic, pass through the Panama Canal and sail north along the Central American and Mexican coasts before returning home. He would subsist on freeze-dried and canned food when fresh provisions ran out, and he would desalinate his drinking water with an on-board kit. What Sunderland, due to return to Los Angeles about July 14, could not foresee were the dangers and difficulties. Notable was the pirate scare. In October, he was 150 miles beyond Indonesia, on a course from Australia to the Cokos Keeling Islands, when he encountered a mysterious boat. The 60-foot wooden vessel did not appear on his radar screen. He tried to raise its crew on the radio. He changed direction; it changed direction. Winds were light and he could not escape, so he clutched his satellite phoneAuhis lifelineAuand dialed his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. A sister answered. Laurence Sunderland heard his sonAAEs panicked voice, grabbed the phone and rushed into his office. ZacAAEs heart raced as he digested the instructions: Load your pistol and flare gun, then issue a radio security alert with your position. Fire a warning shot if necessary, but at the first sign of aggression, shoot to kill because theyAAEll try to kill you. Laurence recalls: AoFor two hours weAAEre sitting here not knowing what the situation was or whether Zac could handle it.Ao The decrepit craft swept directly into IntrepidAAEs wake, its crew still hidden, as Sunderland placed his emergency call. Then it motored away. AoFor 30 minutes I was living on the edge out there, not knowing what to do,Ao he says. Yet this was not the most harrowing experience for a long-haired adventurer who rarely expresses emotion while recounting his adventure. AoThe whole trip was scary,Ao he says, almost dismissively, during an interview last week in Puerto Vallarta, where he had stopped for repairs. AoBroken forestay ... broken boom ... broken tiller ... the rogue wave off Grenada that broke over the back of the boat at 2 a.m. and took out all the electronics. ...Ao Laurence can vividly recall Aofour specific times that weAAEve been put to our knees in prayerAo. One involved his sonAAEs passage through the treacherous Torres Strait between AustraliaAAEs Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea in early September. The passage boasts a maze of reefs and requires constant vigilance to negotiate. But there was casual Zac, reeling in a fish, when the satellite phone slid into the cabin sink and delivered a false signal relaying his position as 100 miles off course, on a dry reef. Laurence and his wife, Marianne, tried frantically for 20 hours to reach their son and verify his position. They had begun to request a search-and-rescue mission from Australia when, about midnight in California, a message relayed via high-frequency radio appeared on their computer screen: AoHi mom, IAAEm OK.Ao Even more intense, for Zac, was an ordeal hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean in November. Windswept waters had reached 15 feet and gale-force gusts blasted Intrepid. The forestay rigging, which holds the forward sail and helps secure the mast, tore loose and the drum used to furl the sail banged errantly, smashing parts of the bow and threatening to bash a hole in the boat. Intrepid was at extreme risk. With the drum loose, Sunderland could only partially furl the forestayAAEs Genoa sail, which whipped violently in the wind, tearing at lines. He worked through two days and nights atop a slippery deck and secured the situation as best he could. Laurence had flown to Mauritius to greet his son with spare parts for Intrepid. When the boat hobbled into port, he recalls, AoIt looked like a dog that had been in a fight and had come up second best.Ao The fourth incident occurred before Sunderland crossed the Panama Canal into the Pacific in early May. Freighters were lining up for passage appointments, and Intrepid was a speck amid steel-hulled giants. One freighter ran without navigation lights, and the sailor could not determine which direction it was traveling. He spent all night trying to avoid colliding with or being swamped by the 300-foot vessel. At one point before dawn, the frustrated mariner shone his spotlight at the freighterAAEs deck and issued a prolonged, one-fingered salute. Then he threw up over the side. SunderlandAAEs journey has not been one long nightmare. There were exhilarating times at sea when he and Intrepid galloped swiftly like man and horse. He received a colorful native greeting at Majuro in the Marshall Islands, his second stop after Hawaii, and along the way he met fellow cruisers. He was welcomed with tremendous hospitality in almost every port, testament to the tight-knit nature of the global sailing community. But he also witnessed poverty and civil unrest. After Majuro, he sailed 2,380 miles to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. ItAAEs among the worldAAEs most dangerous cities. Sunderland describes the yacht club as an armed fortress for the wealthy few and shakes his head while recalling how he was escorted to the market by two guards wearing bulletproof vests and toting AK-47s. AoThere was a war going on and people were getting shot in the streets,Ao he says. AoBut they didnAAEt give me a bulletproof vest.Ao Zac enjoyed the Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, and he loved his three-week stay in Cape Town, South Africa. His AoZac PackAo fan base grew as he put miles beneath his keel, but the wisdom and judgment of his parents were debated on Internet comment boards. AoItAAEs not negligence,Ao says Marianne, a mother of seven, who points to her eldest sonAAEs sailing background and adventurous spirit. AoItAAEs just that weAAEre not accustomed to living inside the box. We pay our taxes and do things legally, but whatAAEs the harm in letting a kid pursue his dream?Ao Sunderland set sail after his sophomore year of high school, intent on breaking a record held by AustraliaAAEs David Dicks, who completed his circumnavigation when he was 18 years and 41 days old. Sunderland turned 17 on Nov. 29 in the Indian Ocean. He celebrated with a just-add-water microwaveable cake. It was a lonely experience, but he was becoming worldly beyond his years. However, a middle-class American teenager matures only so fast. During an extended stay for repairs on St. Helena, a flyspeck in the South Atlantic about midway between Africa and South America, he became cranky and complained on his Facebook page that he was Aostranded on a deserted islandAo. Irked by his attitude, his mother vented publicly on his blog: AoThere are times when he seems far older than his years and others that just make you scratch your head and wonder if this is the same kid who just sailed halfway around the world.Ao The adventure has taxed his parents. Laurence has tried to keep to a work schedule but routinely has flown to tend to ZacAAEs injured vessel. Marianne, with a house full of home-schooled children, has been working full-time on logistics. The trip has been partially funded by Clearpoint Weather, a provider of digital weather information for sailors and pilots; Bandacorp, which designed and maintains ZacAAEs Web site (zacsunderland.com); and Produce for Kids, a nonprofit that promotes healthy diets for children. Still, Laurence says the family has spent $150,000 and hopes to recoup some from the sale of a DVD that will feature footage from ZacAAEs journey. But neither parent expresses regret. On the contrary, Laurence says, AoThis has meant something far bigger than words can express. AoI donAAEt think Marianne or myself have realized until now how much of us has been out there with him. But itAAEll be a big day when he gets back and weAAEll be very proud, because Zac will have achieved something that very few people will ever be able to achieve, and it has changed him and itAAEll be with him the rest of his life.Ao LATWP News Servic

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Jul 13, 2009
Words:1597
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