Safe at home nearly three weeks after her boat was disabled in the Indian Ocean during an attempt to sail solo around the world, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland expressed no anger Wednesday at those who have harshly criticized her and her family for undertaking such a dangerous adventure.
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During an interview in New York with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira, Abby and her father, Laurence Sunderland, said the criticism was coming from people who don’t know Abby’s skill and dedication, or the amount of preparation and care that went into her attempt to circumnavigate the globe in her sailboat, Wild Eyes.
“I think it’s mainly because people don’t understand. Not a lot of people sail, especially not my age, and I think it’s mainly they can’t understand why I’d do it. And they don’t fully understand what I did out there and why I did it,” Abby said a day after her California homecoming.
Alone in the ocean
The precocious sailor admitted to being scared when a 30-foot rogue wave flipped her boat upside down after a day of ferocious storms that knocked her boat down on its side four times.
“I was right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I wasn’t sure when anybody would come, or if they would come. I tried to keep myself from thinking about that too much, but in the back of my mind, I knew there was a possibility that nobody would come,” Abby said.
But then her experience and training kicked in, and she did what she needed to do to survive. With her satellite phone out, she deployed a rescue beacon that led to her rescue almost three days later, on June 13, by a French fishing vessel.
As for her father, he also had to fight off his worst fears when the satellite phone connection with his daughter went dead and the emergency beacon went off.
Vieira asked Sunderland if he ever thought that perhaps he made the wrong decision when he allowed his teenage daughter to set out on her dangerous journey.
“There’s a lot of thoughts that go through your head at that time. Would that have been one of them? Maybe. I don’t know,” he replied. “When you get to those situations, that fear and those emotions don’t serve you well. You need to react in a positive way.”
Cost of rescue
Sunderland said he notified the United States’ search-and-rescue center to start the search for Abby and her boat. An Australian search plane located her the next day, and the sailing vessel picked her up two days later. After two weeks on two French boats, she was reunited with her 17-year-old brother, Zac, on Reunion Island, from where they both flew home.
The media have speculated on the cost of the rescue, with estimates running up to $1 million, and have criticized the Sunderlands for not offering to pay. But that’s because the media are not familiar with the vagaries of rescues at sea, the father said.
“There’s an international understanding,” he said. “If an Australian was in trouble in American waters, the American Coast Guard would absorb the costs, and vice versa.” Sunderland cited other recent ocean rescue efforts that received little or no media attention as examples of that understanding. “The media always jump on that every time. The reality is that the rescue centers worldwide will absorb the costs.”
The latest criticism came in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by merchant marine captain Sean Dolan that greeted Abby on her return. “In spite of the Sunderlands’ statements regarding their desire to encourage their children to be independent, fearless adventurers, it is obvious the Sunderlands’ primary plan to deal with an emergency was to immediately call for help from the world’s search and rescue services,” Dolan wrote. “So much for teaching your children independence and self-reliance.”
“The criticism comes from people that don’t know the preparation of the boat, that don’t know the team involved,” Sunderland rejoined, noting that Abby’s boat was specially built and rigged for the most extreme conditions a sailor would encounter. “It was designed for the southern ocean. It was as well-prepared as the best-prepared boat out there,” he said.
‘Everything was falling down’
Abby repeated her account of how her boat was disabled. She had been enduring 60-knot winds and heavy seas and dealing with engine failure, which she fixed with the help of her father, a shipwright, who spoke with her via satellite phone. She said winds had dropped to about 30 knots when the rogue wave struck.
“Things were calming down. It was really unexpected. I thought it was just going to be a knockdown, but it kept on rolling; it went all the way around,” she said. “I had just finished some work on the engine. I was actually about to go outside. Luckily, I wasn’t quite out there yet.”
Inside the cabin was chaos.
“I just got thrown across the cabin,” Abby continued. “I didn’t hear it coming, because the wind was howling pretty loudly. A few seconds later, I was on the roof and everything was falling down and water pouring in everywhere.”
Abby’s boat was fitted with several TV cameras. Laurence Sunderland confirmed that he had discussed a reality show when she began the journey, but he said there was no interest and he dropped the idea.
Sunderland’s eldest child, Zac, 17, last year became the youngest person to sail solo around the world, a record that has since been broken. On Tuesday, Laurence Sunderland’s wife gave birth to their eighth child, Paul, named after the captain of the fishing boat that rescued Abby.
Laurence stoutly defended his daughter and her sailing abilities. “Abigail’s journey was a passion of hers from the age of 13. From that age, we just monitored Abigail and her boating career. As she became of age, she proved to us that she was capable of undertaking this journey, without a doubt,” he said.
“She’s the youngest person to round Cape Horn,” he added. “She endured many storms before this tragic incident with the rogue wave, and a rogue wave can hit any sailor.”
Vieira asked Abby if she would do it again.
“I definitely would,” she replied. “Not right now, but I’m going to keep sailing. I still love it.”
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