Why are some teenagers risking their lives to sail around the world?

The latest—and youngest—teenager to try to sail around the globe alone hit 30-foot waves. Why did she do it?

Richard Hartog/AP

One bright, sunny Saturday in January, Abby Sunderland steered her boat away from the dock at Marina del Rey, Calif., a light breeze barely rippling the water, as dozens of supporters whistled and cheered. Blond, soft-spoken, just 16 years old, Abby was intent on becoming the youngest person to sail around the world alone.

Last week, after encountering a massive storm in the Indian Ocean, her trip came to an involuntary end. Grainy images from an overhead plane show the boat, crippled without its mast, buffeted by waves on a dark grey sea. It would take rescuers three days to reach Sunderland, over 2,000 miles west of Australia. She was forced to abandon her 40-foot boat, Wild Eyes, but she was physically unharmed.

More people set out to climb Everest in a single year than have ever raced a sailboat around the world alone. Still, a growing number of teens are attempting it. Last month, 16-year-old Jessica Watson, an Australian, became the youngest to sail solo around the globe (part of Sunderland’s rush was a desire to beat Watson).

The title was previously held by British teen Mike Perham, who wrested it from Sunderland’s brother, Zac (at 17, he held the record for just one month, in 2009). Last year, a Dutch court blocked Laura Dekker, then 13, from setting sail. Ironically, the World Sailing Speed Record Council, which monitors round-the-world voyages, doesn’t recognize “youngest sailor” attempts, so there’s no official record to break (the American Sailing Association, the top U.S. sailing body, refused to sponsor Abby Sunderland’s trip). But to these teens, the experience of completing a circumnavigation—and the fame that comes with it—seems to outweigh the physical hardship, the loneliness and the risk.

Canadian Derek Hatfield, 57, knows these challenges first-hand: in 2003, he officially became the 126th person to race round the world solo. (By comparison, about 400 astronauts have been into space.) He’s now in Nova Scotia, training to sail the 60-foot Spirit of Canada in another single-handed race around the world. (The Velux 5 Oceans competition begins in October.) A typical day at sea includes everything from analyzing weather patterns to boat maintenance, Hatfield says, adding that food is mainly freeze-dried, and good sleep is scarce. What’s more, every circumnavigator will battle a handful of storms. “You’re burning up to 6,000 calories per day from tiredness, stress and cold,” but the biggest challenge, he says, is psychological.

Sunderland’s parents, born-again Christians who home-schooled their seven kids (an eighth is on the way), were criticized for letting their daughter attempt such a risky trip; one Los Angeles Times sports columnist accused them of child abuse. But Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, who live in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks, insisted she was ready, having been around boats all her life (Laurence is a boat builder and sailing instructor). And Zac had already done it. On his 13-month trip, he faced rogue waves, equipment breakdowns, and even a brush with suspected pirates off Indonesia. (Zac phoned his parents to say a boat was trailing him; Laurence told him to be sure his gun was loaded while Marianne alerted authorities. The boat later disappeared.) Still, her parents’ steadfast support for Abby’s voyage was sometimes unnerving. “Could there be a tragedy?” Marianne said on ABC. “Yeah, there could be. But there could be a tragedy on the way home tonight, or driving with her friends in a car at 16.”

On the blog where she documented her trip, Sunderland comes across as young and eager—but also fiercely determined. In the days after her departure, she admitted having trouble eating and sleeping, but seemed excited to be at sea. “I had a visitor yesterday afternoon,” she wrote on Jan. 27. “I walked into the cockpit and there was a squid looking up at me!” Another blog post addressed how Wild Eyes got its name: “When a great big wave breaks over the top of the boat and soaks you, what does your face look like?” On June 2, she described being awoken by a vicious storm, only to find a leak near the throttle. She shut off the hatches and repaired it. “After the initial horror of seeing water pouring into your boat, your mind just goes into survival mode. It’s so important to be focused on dealing with the problem at hand,” she wrote. “Fear makes you hesitant.”

In late April, Sunderland abandoned her record-breaking attempt after an equipment breakdown forced her into Cape Town, South Africa, for repairs. Her circumnavigation would no longer be non-stop and unassisted, but she decided to continue anyway. Some worried she’d be crossing the Indian Ocean during its notorious storm season. (Hatfield calls her route “very cavalier.”) On June 9, Sunderland wrote that she was coming into some bad weather. The next day, she reported 30-foot waves—the size of three-storey buildings. During a satellite phone call home, she dropped out of touch. One hour later, her emergency beacons began signalling. A tense wait followed, until a chartered jet finally spotted her, reaching her by radio. She was at last picked up by a French fishing vessel.

Critics piled on to her parents, who were revealed to have had a reality show—dubbed Adventures in Sunderland—in the works. But plans to make money off Abby’s exploits should come as no surprise: Zac wrote a book about his trip, and Abby blogged about penning her own. Maclean’s contacted Jessica Watson for an interview, only to be told she was too busy writing a book to reply. To speak with Mike Perham, who’s published his memoirs, Maclean’s was asked to pay a fee, and declined. Writing about his own circumnavigation was “a no-brainer,” says Australian Jesse Martin, now 28, who set the record for youngest non-stop sail in 1999 and recorded it in Lionheart. “I owed mom the money because she mortgaged the house for the boat,” he tells Maclean’s.

For Hatfield, the ever-decreasing age of sailors attempting to circle the globe alone is a “terrible trend.” Losing a child at sea, he says, “would be a huge tragedy, and for what reason? They’re not doing a race, and there’s no record to be had.” Sunderland’s heading back to California, but she plans to try another circumnavigation in the future. As for the end of Wild Eyes, she flicked away any criticism that youth or inexperience played a role, writing: “Since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?”

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