2009-01-15 / Community

T.O. teenager is sailing around the world

By Nancy Needham nancy@theacorn.com

As some parents ponder whether or not to let their son drive the family car a few blocks to the mall, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland gave their blessings to their 16-year-old son Zac to sail a boat around the world on his own.

Bad weather, pirates, equipment failure, rigging problems and hard work haven't prevented Zac from already making it halfway around.

He's now sailing out of the Indian Ocean just before cyclone season and heading below Africa toward the Atlantic Ocean.

"He's brave and courageous," his mother said.

His boat is equipped with a solar oven and other cooking equipment, but the boy—like many of his peers on land—eats mostly Top Ramen noodle soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beef jerky, fruit and canned tuna. When he did cook, he made himself some fried Spam with mayonnaise on toast.

Zac left Marina del Rey harbor on his 55-foot boat Intrepid last June and is expected to return from his aroundtheworld adventure in June, his mother said.

"It was his first solo sailing experience," she said.

But the Thousand Oaks family felt confident that Zac—the oldest of seven children ages 16, 15, 11,10, 5, 4 and 1—would do just fine. Born into a family of yachtsmen and shipwrights, Zac's first home was a 55-foot boat in Marina del Rey. His father is a boat builder and captain from England, and the family has sailed together to places such as Australia, New Zealand and Mexico.

"When he was growing up, we lived on boats my husband was repairing," Marianne Sunderland said.

The Sunderland children are home-schooled. Zac is taking a year off from official schooling, but his education continues, his mother said. He writes to his fans on www.zacsunderland.com.

"My favorite book was called 'The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone,'" Zac said. "It's the story of Robin Graham, who sailed a similar trip to mine a long time ago, starting in 1965.

"It made me want to go where he had gone. I was probably 7 or 8 when my mom read that to me," said Zac.

What was once a boy's dream is now a reality.

"He's over halfway and has been through quite a bit, a lot of ups and downs . . ." Marianne Sunderland said. Despite the element of danger, Zac has weathered it well, she said.

She recalled a treacherous part of the trip as he approached Australia with reefs and other complications. His satellite phone got wet and shorted out. The boy who called his parents twice a day was suddenly silent, and the Sunderlands didn't know where he was or what happened to him.

His mother feared the worst. She knew he was supposed to use his phone to talk to an experienced sailor to get through the reefs. They got his position through the phone satellite company even though it didn't transmit voice, and they learned his boat was way off course. But on his own, he made it.

"He didn't sleep for a day and a half," Marianne Sunderland said.

Then, when he left Australia, there was the pirate scare. A derelict boat with no flag or identification saw him, changed direction and headed right toward him. Those on board wouldn't respond to his radio contact. He changed course and so did they. He turned on his motor, used his sails and got away from them.

It could have just been a fishing boat with no radio and a superstitious crew trying to fling their evil spirits onto another boat, a practice in Indonesia, Zac's mother said.

But mostly, he's met friendly people and experienced many different cultures at his stops. He knew some Spanish before he left, but found it necessary to learn some French, too, she said.

The next part of Zac's trip will be crossing the Atlantic, which his mother said should be easier than what he's already been through. She's looking forward to having her son home.

Then she, like other mothers with teenage sons, can worry about his dating girls and driving a car.

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