Sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland set out to sail around the world in 2010. However, while a successful voyage would have made her the youngest person ever to achieve this feat, Mother Nature had other plans. After the teenage sailor’s yacht was irreparably damaged during a storm, she found herself adrift in the ocean. And although the authorities located Sunderland relatively quickly, it would take eight years for them to recover her abandoned boat.
Sunderland had plenty of inspiration for her proposed trip to circumnavigate the world in her yacht. The then-teenager’s older brother, Zac, was the first person under 18 ever to have made the journey – a feat that he completed on July 16, 2009. And the Sunderland family – helmed by parents Marianne and Laurence – spent lots of time sailing together too.
In fact, Abby’s father gave her some tough lessons to prepare her for her own around-the-world journey – a plan that she had come up with when she was just 13. He described one of their training days to ABC News. “It was a particularly rough day,” Laurence recalled. “Her boat was rocking from gunnel to gunnel.”
“I knew she was freezing cold, tired and hungry,” Laurence went on. “And we’d been at it for, you know, 20 hours at that stage. I said, ‘So, Abby, are you ready to sail around the world now?’” But his teenaged daughter wasn’t deterred by their rough day on the water. Instead, she answered simply, “Where is my boat?”
In teaching tough lessons like that one, Laurence said that he hadn’t wanted to change his daughter’s mind. “When any of my kids come to me with an ambition, I don’t laugh at it. I like to listen to my kids,” he said. Laurence knew that it would be easy to say “no” to Abby, but he also knew she was a talented sailor.
Abby’s mom, Marianne, agreed, adding that the family had weighed the pros and cons of Abby’s intended journey. “Could there be a tragedy? Yeah, there could be,” she said. “But there could be a tragedy on the way home tonight, you know, or driving with her friends in a car at 16. You minimize the risks.”
Of course, there was plenty of backlash once word of the 16-year-old’s plan got out. T.J. Simers, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Child abuse. Child endangerment. I just don’t understand the idea of risking life. This kid’s going to be out there all by herself.”
“Death is a possibility. Bad weather. Are you kidding me? Who’s responsible for this? She’s a kid,” Simers wrote. Abby admitted to ABC News that she was “definitely nervous” about her intended voyage. But she also countered concerns by saying, “I understand [the] ocean, and I understand how dangerous what I’m doing is.”
“I understand how careful I need to be out there,” Abby concluded. And her parents felt that she was ready too; Laurence reiterated that they trusted Abby’s sailing prowess. So, she set sail aboard her boat named Wild Eyes on January 23, 2010, from Marina del Rey, California.
Yet while the route that Abby followed would keep her away from pirates, it couldn’t protect her from every one of the ocean’s dangers. For instance, she spoke to 20/20 after 101 days on the water and said that her craft had been hit by “a rogue wave,” as she put it. “I did get knocked down,” she said. “I’d be happy if that didn’t happen again.”
But other than that – and a pit stop in South Africa to fix her vessel, ending the possibility that her voyage would be non-stop – Abby’s trip was going well. “I think it actually might be more fun if there was somebody else on board,” she said. “But I’m happy to do it alone, too.”
On Monday, June 7, Abby sailed past the halfway mark of her journey. But just two days later, the presumable jubilation of that moment dissolved into “a rough few days,” as Abby described it on her blog. “I’ve been in some rough weather for a while, with winds steady at 40 to 45 knots, with higher gusts,” she wrote.
The windy weather had done a number on Abby’s boat, damaging the sail and forcing her to do repair work before conditions worsened. “I managed to take [the sail] down, take care of the tear and get it back up in a couple of hours,” she wrote. “It wasn’t the most fun job I have done out here.”
“With the seas still huge, Wild Eyes was rolling around like crazy,” Abby added. Things would continue to worsen the next day. In fact, she contacted her parents to tell them that the winds were whipping at almost 70 miles per hour. Fifty-foot waves had launched into Abby’s yacht and knocked her over multiple times.
Laurence and Marianne then logged onto her blog to give followers an update. Abby had managed to get the water out of Wild Eyes’ engine and started it, but this was the last update that they received directly from their daughter. So, as the parents awaited another phone call from her, they instead heard from American search and rescue authorities.
“[The authorities] called to report having received a signal from her emergency beacon (EPIRB). We initially thought that the signal was sent automatically from her water-activated EPIRB and that it had been activated during one of her knockdowns,” Abby’s parents wrote. But the alert had actually been signaled from a manually activated EPIRB, meaning that their daughter had pressed it herself.
So American, French and Australian authorities embarked on a search and rescue mission, sending nearby ships toward Abby’s signaled location. The latter group had also arranged for an airplane to fly over and search the area by the time it was bright outside. In the meantime, Laurence and Marianne said that Abby had the equipment to survive the wait.
“[Abby] has a dry suit, survival suit, life raft and ditch bag with emergency supplies. If she can keep warm and hang on, help will be there as soon as possible,” Laurence and Marianne wrote. Plus, they added, Wild Eyes was “equipped with five airtight bulkheads to keep her buoyant in the event of major hull damage,” and it was also “designed to self-right in the event of a capsize.”
Thirteen hours later, the Sunderlands posted another update on their daughter’s blog. “The plane arrived on the scene moments ago,” Laurence and Marianne wrote. “Wild Eyes is upright, but her rigging is down. The weather conditions are abating. Radio communication was made, and Abby reports that she is fine.”
“We’ve got our Abigail back. Probably the best news we at home base could have wished for. We are ecstatic,” Laurence told the ABC network. At that time, he also confirmed that Abby would end her quest to sail around the world solo and head home instead.
“She’ll be back. I don’t know how she’ll be routed back to us here or where we’ll go to meet her, but knowing that she’s alive and well means far more to me than any sailing record,” Laurence concluded. By June 12 Abby was on board a French commercial fishing boat that would take her to the Kerguelen Islands.
From there, a French patrol vessel took Abby to Reunion Island. This was a particularly aptly named destination, too, given that it is where she was reunited with her brother Zac. According to her blog, Zac brought Abby fresh clothes and a hairbrush – items that would hold her over until she returned home to California.
Yet although she was relieved to be rescued, Abby had had time to reflect on all that had happened during her circumnavigation attempt. She later described her favorite moments on her blog. “All those amazing days racing along surfing down giant swells, making record speeds. Sitting on deck… watching the sun set, icy wind hitting you in the face,” she wrote. “An amazing sight that I got to see almost every night.”
Even with those moments a part of her story forever, Abby still mourned the end of her trip around the world. “The worst thing to think about was all those great times; they were all gone now, and my trip was over,” she wrote. “No more sunsets on Wild Eyes, no more surfing, no more world adventures. It was hard.”
When she returned home, Abby spoke to reporters and reiterated that she felt mixed emotions. “I’m really happy to be home, very sad things didn’t work out,” she said, according to CBS News. “I have sailed 12,000 miles, and I am proud of my achievement. The more I sail, the more I like sailing.”
Abby added that she was happy to have motivated others to pursue their own goals, even if hers hadn’t quite panned out. “It’s really great to think that I may have inspired so many people to go for their dreams. I’m living proof that people don’t always go as far in achieving their dreams,” she said.
As for Abby’s future, she said she still wanted to complete her sail around the world. However, she decided to put it on pause for “a few years” in favor of returning to her teenage routine. “For now I’m just going to be focusing on school and [a] driver’s license and getting back to normal life,” she said.
But although Abby’s good spirits had remained intact after her ordeal, Wild Eyes hadn’t been so lucky. Following the damage to the boat – and the subsequent rescue mission – the then-16-year-old had had no other option than to abandon her boat. And so the vessel was left behind in the middle of the ocean.
Eight years later, though, Wild Eyes made its return. On December 31, 2018, a tuna-spotting aircraft was traveling through the air above Australia’s Kangaroo Island. And then, suddenly, someone on board noticed an upside-down yacht floating in the water.
So, two fishing boats and a police helicopter headed to the scene to check out the yacht that was drifting southwest of Adelaide. The yellow vessel was now covered in barnacles, but the arthropods clinging to the boat’s exterior weren’t enough to hide its identity. It was Wild Eyes.
Of course, word of Wild Eyes’ discovery got back to the Sunderlands, and the family were surprised to hear that the boat had reappeared. Abby’s father, Laurence, told MSN, “I was just gobsmacked… just incredibly amazing.” And the vessel’s condition only further validated that sentiment.
“I thought I might see it in matchstick pieces on a beach after being beaten by the Southern Ocean on some shore,” Laurence said. The boat’s builder, John Sayer, on the other hand, said that he constructed Wild Eyes so that it would never sink. “I’m surprised [that] it took so long to actually appear again,” he declared.
In fact, Wild Eyes is likely to have traveled quite far in the eight years it spent adrift. Oceanographer David Griffin has theorized that the vessel may even have circumnavigated the globe – just as Abby had initially envisioned. “There is every chance it has done a lap of the world already and is on its second time around,” he told The Advertiser.
The Australian Department of Transport decided to leave Wild Eyes to continue its journey – for now. The boat seemingly posed zero threat to other vessels, you see, so the authorities had no reason to salvage it. They could do so if the craft came ashore, but until then it would be left alone.
Abby’s father at first felt inclined to travel to Australia and collect Wild Eyes himself. “There’s a part of me that initially is like, ‘Let’s just jump on a plane and go get the boat and tie it up somewhere.’ I’d like to see it back in the port where it left from all those years ago,” Laurence imagined.
Abby weighed in on the discovery of her former craft, too, and she agreed with her father that bringing it home would be “great.” In a statement, the 25-year-old mentioned that she would be especially curious to know “what’s inside and if any of the video equipment is still there.” However, “given the costs I don’t think that would happen.”
To that end, Abby agreed with her yacht’s builder. She wasn’t particularly shocked to see that Wild Eyes had survived nearly a decade without much damage. “I always knew the boat was high quality and very safe, so it doesn’t really surprise me that it’s still floating,” she went on.
Still, seeing Wild Eyes eight years after her harrowing journey had struck an emotional chord in Abby. “My heart skipped a beat,” she stated. “It brought back many memories – good and not so good – but it was neat to see it after so long.”
According to Abby’s father – and as evidenced by her statement – the Sunderlands have “all moved on,” he told NPR. Abby, for one, has moved to Alabama, where she and her husband have welcomed three children. And as of early 2019 they have a fourth on the way.
And yet, with the discovery of Wild Eyes, Abby’s adventurous spirit may have been piqued once again. Laurence said that when they got word that the yacht had been located, he and his daughter started texting. “She wanted to know if it could be fixed up,” he said. “Just joking of course.”