Youngest Person to Sail Around the World Alone Battles Storms, Pirates

A 17-year old is on the verge of completing 24,568-mile voyage around the world.

July 01, 2009, 11:46 AM

July 1, 2009— -- Sailing the globe alone is one of the world's great tests of endurance -- a trip so difficult it's been called a voyage for madmen.

But Zac Sunderland is no madman. While he looks like a typical Southern California teenager, the 17-year old is on the verge of completing a 24,568-mile voyage around the world, which would make him the youngest person ever to complete a solo sail around the world.

"Don't know if I'm going to live to see this thing through, but hopefully, everything will go well," he said to a video camera he uses to record his personal diary during the journey.

Part of the sailing community since childhood, Sunderland followed the far-fetched dream to sail around the world for years. He bought a 36-foot long sailboat, which he named the Intrepid, and set sail from Marina del Rey, Calif., in June 2008.

"I thought I was gone out there at least three times I think. But I'm sailing around the world. ... it's not as easy, it's not like riding a bike," he said.

Sailing the world is an exclusive club. Sunderland said that less than a handful of people under the age of 20 have done it, and he would be the first person under 18 to do so.

On the high seas, his journey along the way has been documented with a video camera. His first stop was Hawaii, where Sunderland had time to surf during his stay at port.

Surviving on freeze-dried food, Sunderland said he has lost 25 pounds over the past year.

"It's been a nightmare out there. Got about 25-30 knots, and a big sail that can't be controlled. It's pretty crazy. I'm pretty tired too," he said.

Heavy seas have drenched and shorted out just about every piece of equipment on board more than once, leading to what Sunderland said is the most painful and challenging part of the trip -- sleep deprivation.

Sunderland was forced to wake up every 20 minutes or so to keep watch for other ships, which robbed him of sleep -- sometimes for days at a time.

"Didn't sleep last night or night before that," he recorded himself saying on the boat. "Don't know how long that is because I'm so tired I can't think very well."

Close Calls at Sea: Mother Nature's Fierce Squalls

After the Intrepid suffered near catastrophic damage while being slammed by high seas along the edges of a hurricane, it docked in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, last week for two days.

His father, Lawrence Sunderland flew in from California for repairs, helping to fix a cracked bulkhead that had the potential to separate the boat's entire deck from the hull.

"I didn't have any gray hair on my head when he left, so I've gone gray overnight," his father said. "It's been a good year. It's a mixed bag. There have been four times when we thought Zac was in serious danger during the year. That definitely gave us cause for concern."

Close calls at sea come with fierce blows from Mother Nature in the form of enormous squalls. One storm snapped the "boom," a critical part of the boat that holds the main sail. Sunderland recorded his reaction with his camera.

"The whole boat just got soaked in five seconds," he said. "I was hand steering with all the strength to keep the boat running downwind. ... I'm going to go do a damage check."

One night, a huge container ship the size of a building nearly steamed right over Sunderland.

"A 100-ton piece of medal that's just ramming through the ocean that's going 20-knots can cut my boat in half and not even know it," he said.

He's said he was even chased for a time by pirates off the coast of Indonesia and thought he'd be killed.

Sunderland keeps in touch with his parents for moral support and gets weather updates over a satellite phone to help him avoid catastrophe.

One unexpected surprise for the Sunderland family: the financial burden of the trip. So far, the trip has cost $150,000, which Sunderland hopes to recoup with a book and possibly his own documentary.

A lonesome life at sea is something most teenagers would avoid. Sunderland said he has filled his free hours when he's not navigating the ship by listening to one CD on repeat, learning to play the didgeridoo and reading.

What will he do after he gets home? His biggest worry is how to adjust to life in the normal world.

"It's just going to be kind of weird when I get back -- not having another horizon, another sea to cross," he said.

Sunderland doesn't plan to sit still for long. He dreams of conquering Mt. Everest, though he may have to finish high school first.

For more information on Zac Sunderland and his voyage, visit his website.

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