Like a lot of 17-year-olds, Zac Sunderland can get a bit tongue-tied at times. Only for Sunderland, it's not on account of hormones or nerves.
"I've been out at sea for a long time," says Sunderland, who has nearly reached his goal of becoming the youngest sailor to single-handedly circumnavigate the earth in a sailboat. "You kinda forget how to talk. Sometimes I'll get into a port and it'll take a week before the words I'm wanting to say can come out of my mouth the right way. It's annoying."
Sunderland, who has yet to get his driver's license, has spent the past year braving treacherous seas, outrunning Indonesian pirates and being bloodied by hailstones during his 26,000-mile voyage. He is currently working his way northward to California, sailing up the coast of Mexico's Baja peninsula. "If I catch a good wind, I hope to be there by July 14," he says, speaking by satellite phone from the cabin of his 36-foot Intrepid.
Sunderland left on his voyage June 14, 2008, from Marina Del Rey, Calif., heading toward the Marshall Islands in Micronesia. Asked if he thinks his parents (who live in Thousand Oaks, Calif.) are nuts for letting him embark on such a high-risk adventure, he can be heard laughing over the static and crackle of his phone. "I've been sailing all my life," says Sunderland, who grew up on boats with his shipwright father, mother and six siblings. "This is a natural thing for me to be doing. I feel comfortable out at sea, but things can get crazy at times."
Sunderland met up with pirates last October off the coast of Indonesia, forcing him to lock himself behind the bulletproof glass of his cabin, while radioing for help. Not long after that, storms in the Indian Ocean wreaked havoc on his boat, snapping his boom and breaking his tiller. And one evening several months ago, he went swimming around his boat, only to discover — when he switched on a light beneath his hull, illuminating the water below — 10 massive sharks.
In other words, Sunderland is having the time of his life. And when he's not doing his schoolwork (which he emails to his mother back home), taking compass readings or studying nautical charts, he's even found time to catch some waves. "I brought my surfboard," he says. "The thing is, I haven't gotten to use it as much as I wanted to. But I did find some amazing breaks in Durban, South Africa."
Although he still has a few hundred miles left in the voyage, Sunderland is already eyeing his next adventure. "Lately, I've been thinking about dirt-biking across Africa on some trail no one has ever ridden," he says. "Or maybe hot-air ballooning over some mountain."
But first, he says, he's gonna pick up his driver's license.