Abby Sunderland made headlines when she attempted to sail around the world last year unassisted — at the age of 16. In her new memoir “Unsinkable: A Young Women’s Courageous Battle on the High Seas,” the fearless sailor recounts her amazing journey and tenacity. An excerpt:
The Indian Ocean
The storms were amazing — sometimes even fun. Wild Eyes was built for speed and I was flying down walls of water twenty and thirty feet high. As a sailor, you dream of seeing waves like that, rolling mountains of water that look like they’re covered in dark gray silk. During the day, vast dark clouds hung low over the water.
Sometimes the sun shined through in places. At night, the weather often cleared and I clipped myself in up on deck, racing along the swells under stars so big and bright they lit up the night like extra moons.
But in the second week of June, storms roared in one after another — bashing Wild Eyes, my open 40 boat, shredding her sails, knocking out my gear. There was very little time between blows to patch up the damage.
One day a screaming wind tore my genoa, the big sail on the front of the boat. What a pain! You have to thread the sail up the furler and it flogs all over the place while you’re doing it, gets jammed, then sticks like a zipper. When that happens, you have to run it back down the furler and start over. In twenty-knot winds, it took a whole day to run up a new genoa.
Another day the sail ties on my mainsail came loose and I had to climb all over the boom like a monkey trying to secure it again. The storm whipped the 120-pound Kevlar sail back and forth like it was as flimsy as a bed sheet. Repairing my sails was job number one. Without them, Wild Eyes was helpless. But fixing sails ate up the short lulls between storms, leaving the rest of the damage — and the work — to pile up. I was already running on secondary autopilot and it wasn’t working all that well. I had fixed a leak under the throttle, but the leak popped loose again, pouring seawater back into the compartment. The heater was broken, so I couldn’t get dry between blows, and I couldn’t shake off the numbing cold.
Meanwhile, as I tried to do repairs, the storms tossed me back and forth across the tiny cabin so much that
I began to feel like a giant pinball.
I tried to keep the mind-set: Don’t get overwhelmed. Do one thing at a time. That’s all you can do.
The open ocean often takes you past your physical limits and when it does, sailing becomes a mental game. When fear starts to flicker in your brain, you have to stop it quickly before it turns into something bad. As soon as you let your thoughts start racing down the road of what could happen, what might happen, fear can snatch you up and run away with you. Nothing good comes from that. Fear causes hesitation instead of decisive action. At sea, you have to think fast, be ready at any moment to make big decisions. You can’t waste time being scared. You can’t risk it.
But I would learn that some challenges are greater than others. And fear can tear its way into your heart no matter how tough you think you are.On June 10, the worst storm in the series swept across the middle of the Indian Ocean, and Wild Eyes was directly in its path. Four times during the day, massive waves and winds knocked my boat completely down, putting my mast in the water. I was below and if I wasn’t strapped in, the force lifted me from wherever I was in the cabin and threw me against the wall. And every time, the autopilot went into standby mode. Once Wild Eyes started to right herself, I had to race topside, jump in the cockpit, and grab the tiller to hand steer the boat back on course.Each time I opened the companionway door, Wild Eyes was heeled way over toward the heaving sea. Outside the wind was screaming. Waves sloshed across my head, smashing into my face, sucking my breath away. I had to clip my harness to a railing then rise up through the companionway. The boat’s deck had become a high wall on my right, forcing me to find footing along the skinny inside wall of the cockpit, which was now slightly submerged. I stepped out. The boat dipped wildly and saltwater whipped across my face, spraying the vertical deck as I picked my way along the cockpit wall. I tried not to think about the fact that my feet were wading on the edge of nowhere, that the nearest land was Kerguelen Island, a little rock seven hundred miles south.
But it was a hard fact that wouldn’t go away.
Fear pecked at me, and I tried to swat it away by moving, moving, moving.
Get to the cockpit.
Grab the tiller.
Steer the boat.
The fourth knockdown was the worst. Even before I opened the hatch, I knew my mast was well in the water — a potential disaster. Heart pounding, I listened as the howling wind banged the rigging against the mast, and waited. How far will it go? Will the weight of the mast, of the water in the tiny bit of staysail, keep pulling me over? Will I roll?
I felt Wild Eyes rally against the sea — again! — and begin to right herself.
Relief surged through me.
I love this boat!
But it wasn’t all good news. The Indian Ocean had ripped my radar right off the carbon-fiber mast and swallowed it whole. The radar had been secured to the mast with four huge steel bolts. The sea had pulled the gear off as easily as the pop-top on a tuna can, and it reminded me who was boss. Still, the mast was upright again and I had all my sails. Wild Eyes’ resilience inspired me. Okay, that was the worst of it, I thought. I’ll just hang on until things calm down.
And they did.
Early that evening, I stood on the deck in the stiff wind and looked out at the rolling sea. The gray daylight had melted away and it was full dark. The moon rose behind the clouds and found patches to shine through, like a flashlight from God. The waves were still huge, but they seemed less angry, the swells glinting silver in the moonlight.
Just before dark, I had pulled the staysail all the way out to take advantage of the easier winds. Now I stood still, hand on the rigging, and turned my face into the freezing salt spray. I was already exhausted from pulling all-nighters to patch up my boat. Physically, I was getting pretty worn down. Emotionally, too.
For now the worst was over, but Commanders’ Weather had forecast another big storm ahead.
I needed to start pulling Wild Eyes back together.
I went below to prioritize the workload.
From "Unsinkable: A Young Woman's Courageous Battle on the High Seas" by Abby Sunderland. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Nelson.