Teen sailor found, but record dream over

For the family of teenage solo sailor Abby Sunderland it was the best news possible – she had been found alive and well after fears she had been lost in wild weather in the middle of the Indian Ocean.


But for 16-year-old Abby, who was attempting to better Australian Jessica Watson by becoming the youngest person to sail solo round the world, it was the end of that dream.

“It’s bittersweet. We’ve got our Abigail back, but the quest will be over,” Laurence Sunderland told ABC Radio from his home in California on Friday just moments after she was found.

“Knowing she’s alive and well means far more to me than any sailing record.”

Abby activated two emergency beacons late on Thursday night (AEST), barely minutes after telling her parents about fierce weather conditions off Australia’s west coast.

A chartered Qantas plane was sent from Perth early on Friday morning to search the area, about 3700km off the coast of Western Australia, and located her just after 4pm (AEST).

Mick Kinley, chief executive of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (ASMA), said searchers saw and made radio contact with Abby just after 4pm, Australian time.

“She sounds like she’s in good health, as far as we can tell, and she’s going to hang in there,” Mr Kinley told reporters in Canberra.

Her 12-metre yacht, Wild Eyes, was upright but had lost its mast due to rough weather conditions.

“She’s in the boat, the boat’s seaworthy, it’s not taking on water,” Mr Kinley said.

Perth police say Ms Sunderland was packing up her possessions and getting ready to abandon her yacht. She will be picked up late on Saturday afternoon by a fishing vessel which is on its way.

Family spokesman William Bennett, speaking outside the family’s home in Thousand Oaks, California, said Abby was inside the boat and doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks’ worth of food.

Mr Kinley did not say how much the search and rescue mission would cost but said there would be no attempt to recover the expense.

The French regional administration on the island of Reunion has sent three boats in her direction, with the first expected to reach her on Saturday.

Abby’s location was described as “way down in the southern ocean”, about 2000 nautical miles (3700km) southwest of Perth.

It was a long way from merchant shipping routes and it was lucky the French vessel was in the vicinity, Mr Kinley said.

Mr Kinley said Abby had dropped out of contact because her satellite communications were lost when she lost her mast. The rescue plane had to get quite close to her to establish radio contact.

A lifelong sailor whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company, Abby set sail from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey on January 23 in an attempt to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone without stopping. Her brother briefly held the record in 2009.

Abby soon ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued on.

On May 15, Australian Jessica Watson claimed the record just days before turning 17.

Her mother said Jessica and Abby had formed a friendship and the Watsons were all praying for Abby and her family.

“They’ve been communicating (Jessica and Abby) and we’ve been communicating with the family as well,” Ms Watson told the ABC.

She said the dangers of solo sailing had been brought home to Jessica now that she was back on land.

“She just knows exactly what’s going on,” she said of her daughter, who was imagining what conditions were like for Abby.