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Teen sailor, feared lost at sea, found alive; parents blasted by critics

Photo by Richard Hartog

Photo by Richard Hartog

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- What were her parents thinking? Many people were asking that question as a 16-year-old girl sat adrift and alone in the frigid southern Indian Ocean, her ship's mast dashed along with her around-the-world sailing effort.

Abby Sunderland's ship was rolling in 20- to 30-foot waves as she waited to be rescued by a boat that was expected to arrive early Saturday morning Pacific time.

She set off a distress signal Thursday after rough seas disabled her ship and her satellite phone reception. There were 20 hours of tense silence before a search plane launched from Australia's west coast made brief radio contact with Sunderland and found her alive and well Friday morning.

"The aircraft (crew) spoke to her. They told her help was on the way and she sounds like she's in good health," said Mick Kinley, acting chief of the Australia Maritime Safety Authority, which chartered a commercial jet for the search.

"She's going to hang in there until a vessel can get to her," Kinley told reporters in Canberra.

Many people criticized Sunderland's parents for allowing the high-risk adventure, one of several by young people looking to make the record books. Some veteran sailors said it's all but irresponsible to send a teenager off alone in a small boat, knowing it will be tossed about like a toy for 30 or more hours at a time by the giant waves that rake the Southern Hemisphere's oceans this time of year.

"In Abby's case she was lucky," said Derrick Fries, a world sailing champion and author of the standard instruction manual "Learn to Sail." "It's only a matter of time until we end up with a tragedy on our hands."

Sunderland's family defends her trek, saying that as a lifelong sailor she was as well prepared for the journey as anyone could be. Her brother successfully circled the globe last year when he was about the same age.

"Sailing and life in general is dangerous," her father, Laurence, told The Associated Press. "Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn't drive a car? I think people who hold that opinion have lost their zeal for life. They're living in a cotton-wool tunnel to make everything safe."

The driving analogy didn't impress many parents who lit up Internet message boards with criticism. One, Tammy Davis of Makanda, Ill., said in a subsequent interview there's no comparison between a car breaking down in a city and a person being trapped alone in the ocean.

"My 21-year-old son runs triathlons for the University of Illinois," Davis said. "Would I want him to run triathlons alone? No."

Abby Sunderland set sail from Los Angeles County's Marina del Rey in her boat, Wild Eyes, on Jan. 23, trying to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo. Her brother, Zac, held the record for a little more than a month last year until Briton Mike Perham completed his own journey. The record changed hands again last month, when 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson completed her own around-the-world sail.

Sunderland, whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company, ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs soon after beginning her journey. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued, hoping to complete the journey.

Laurence Sunderland said Friday that he "gave her the option" of bowing out at that point in her trek.

"I said, 'This isn't about media. It's about a passion and a love for the sport of sailing,"' he said. "Her words to me was, 'Dad, I know what I'm capable of. I know what this vessel is capable of and I'd like to continue."

In the Indian Ocean, Sunderland had made several broken calls to her family in Thousand Oaks, reporting her yacht was being tossed by 30-foot (9-meter) waves -- as tall as a 3-story building. An hour after her last call ended Thursday, her emergency beacons began signaling.

She was contacted by rescuers in a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that made a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland's boat, which is near the limit of its range.

They spotted Sunderland on the back deck of her boat. Its mast had been broken, knocking out satellite communications. Its sail was dragging in the water but Sunderland appeared to be in good shape. Kinley said the keel was intact, the yacht was not taking on water and Sunderland was equipped for the conditions.

She told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks' worth of food, family spokesman William Bennett said. Another family spokesman, Jeff Casher, said the boat had gotten knocked on its side several times.

The seas were rough late Friday, with 20- to 24-foot waves at Sunderland's last known location, according to Shaun Tanner, senior meteorologist at data provider Weather Underground.

The CROSS maritime rescue center on the island of Reunion, off Madagascar, said it had sent three boats in her direction. Center director Philippe Museux told French RFO television station in Reunion that it had asked a fishing boat to head to the zone.

Casher said the rescue would be Saturday afternoon at Sunderland's location, allowing for plenty of daylight. He said the weather appeared calmer, with some winds, but that with her vessel so badly damaged, her attempt to circle the globe was over.

"This is the end of the dream. There's no boat to sail," he said.

Fries said that although he doesn't doubt Sunderland's abilities as a sailor, he believes there's no way she could have gained enough experience in her 16 years to prepare for every possible emergency one faces on such a journey.

"Never would I allow my 16-year-old son to even attempt it," he said. "It's almost a death sentence."

Young people who have attempted such feats have received a mix of adulation and disapproval. A day before Sunderland's boat became disabled, 13-year-old Jordan Romero of Big Bear, Calif., received a hero's welcome at his school after becoming the youngest person to scale the world's highest peak, 29,035-foot Mount Everest.

Other young adventurers don't make it home. Seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff was attempting to become the youngest person to fly a plane across the United States in 1996 when, after a day of celebrated stops throughout the West, she crashed shortly after taking off from a Wyoming airport in a driving rainstorm. Jessica, her father and her flight instructor were killed. Within months Congress passed a law banning such child flights.

A Dutch teen, meanwhile, saw her record-attempting journey end before it began. After the 13-year-old girl announced last year that she was going to try to become the youngest person to sail around the world, authorities in the Netherlands went to court to stop her.

International sailing bodies, meanwhile, have refused to recognize around-the-world trips by youngsters in an effort to discourage them.

University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright attributes the rush to perform such feats of skill and endurance at least in part to parents pushing their kids to excel beyond all expectations.

"These kids are raised with the notion that every kid gets a trophy and every kid is more intelligent and better than all the others," said Albright, who is also a veteran sailor and former commodore of Southern California's South Bay Yacht Racing Club.

Even if Sunderland is physically capable of making the journey, Albright questions whether she or any 16-year-old really has the maturity to do so. She said studies show the human brain does not develop its full potential for reasoning until a person is in their 20s.

The Australian maritime authority did not say how much the rescue mission would cost but said it would not be seeking compensation for the search, which initially fell just outside of Australia's search and rescue region.

"That's the way the system runs," search coordinator Kinley said. "It's our obligation to do this."