16-Year-Old Girl Aims to Break Solo-Sailing Record

Lisa GizaraCourtesy Lisa Gizara
Abby Sunderland, 16, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., set sail Saturday in an attempt to be the youngest person to circumnaviage the globe by herself. Her older brother Zac held the record briefly when he was 18, but that record was taken by a British teenager just a few months later.

Most parents wouldn't let a teenage daughter stay out past midnight, much less sail around the world by herself. But that's just what 16-year-old Abby Sunderland did Saturday, when she embarked on a six-month solo journey aboard the open 40-foot racing yacht Wild Eyes.

Her plan is to sail from California, south around South America's Cape Horn, over to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and back to California, non-stop. The total distance of the trip is just over 24,000 miles.

VIDEO: 16-Year-Old Girl Starts Solo Sail Around GlobePlay
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If successful, she will make history as the youngest person -- male or female -- ever to make the trip unaccompanied.

"To me, it's one of the greatest challenges there is," Sunderland told ABC News. "Every time I go sailing there are new challenges, and it's amazing. I love doing it. Being alone just adds to the challenge for me. It puts me in a position where I'm the only one there to take care of things."

She won't be entirely without help, however. Back home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., her father, Laurence Sunderland, an accomplished sailor and shipwright, and her mother Marianne, who has raised seven children on boats, will be on the satellite phone with her daily.

"My initial concern for Abby is just how she will handle the fatigue and loneliness," Marianne Sunderland said.

Wild Eyes is designed for solo sailing and has already made one trip around the world. The yacht has a full complement of navigational instruments and two autopilots, in case one breaks. Sunderland has enough food for 180 days and water makers that extract salt from sea water on board.

A British meteorologist who has sailed the same route as Abby will be monitoring her progress by GPS and steering her around destructive storms.

"Weather is always a concern," Laurence Sunderland said. "It doesn't matter if you're going out in the perfect time of year."

And what about pirates? Laurence Sunderland said there's shouldn't be any.

"There simply aren't any pirates down in the southern ocean. They don't hang out in 40 degrees south or 50 degrees south, which are the latitudes at which Abby will be traversing. It's less likely, in fact, almost impossible, for her to encounter pirates."

Critics Accuse Teen Sailor's Parents of Child Abuse

As wild as this sounds to most landlubbers, the Sunderlands not only have experience launching their children into blue seas, but also are joining a small but growing group of families who are watching their children take on this challenge.

Just last summer, Abby's older brother Zac set the world record for being the first person under age 18 to circumnavigate the globe solo in a sailboat. His record was eclipsed a few months later by British teenager Mike Perham, who is a few months his junior.

And even as Abby prepared for her journey, Australian teen Jessica Watson was almost halfway through her sail around the world. But Abby is still the youngest of the bunch.

"I think that people our age should be allowed to do this if they are capable of it," she said.

Others disagree. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, T.J. Simers said he choked on his pancakes when he came across an article in the morning paper.

"Why am I reading about a 16-year old girl about to sail around the world by herself when I should be reading about her parents being hauled off to counseling or jail?" he said in a column.

And from the editorial page of the Los Angeles Daily News, a disgruntled grandmother wrote, "I think the Sunderland parents should be punished for child abuse ... and then should be surgically or otherwise sterilized so they cannot have anymore children."

Marianne Sunderland, now pregnant with her eighth child, is kind to her critics.

"It's not very often that a young person does something of this nature. I say to them, first of all, they don't know Abby. They don't know our family, but also, I've come to realize in life there are different kinds of people," she said. "There are adventurers and explorers like Columbus and Magellan. And then there's also people who are just moms who stay home, there are librarians, there are doctors. So I think perhaps not everybody understands that drive, that passion for adventure."

At a press conference at Saturday's launch, Sunderland's father explained he and his wife's reasoning for allowing their daughter to take the trip. "Every one of our kids is going to face a danger. Every kid will learn to drive. Did we stop them from driving because they may have an accident?" he asked. "We're trying to protect they young so much that we stifle their development, I really believe."

Abby Sunderland said she will silence her critics with a successful trip.

"It is a little understandable to see that a 16-year-old girl is about to sail around the world and get a little freaked out," she said. "But I understand the ocean, and I understand how dangerous what I'm doing actually is. I understand how careful I need to be out there, and it makes me nervous. But it's a good nervousness. It's a healthy respect for the ocean and for what I'm doing."

For more information about Abby Sunderland and to follow her journey, please visit her Web site: abbysunderland.com.