2011-06-09 / Community

Abby’s next big adventure

Friday is the one-year anniversary of her dramatic ocean rescue
By Kyle Jorrey


QUICK CHECK—Thousand Oaks resident Abby Sunderland, 17, left, learns from flight instructor Mark King how to use an instrument to measure the amount of fuel in a Cessna 150 before her flight lesson at the Santa Paula airport on June 4. In 2010, Sunderland attempted to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Once she becomes more experienced as an aviator, Sunderland hopes to fly solo around the world. 
IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers QUICK CHECK—Thousand Oaks resident Abby Sunderland, 17, left, learns from flight instructor Mark King how to use an instrument to measure the amount of fuel in a Cessna 150 before her flight lesson at the Santa Paula airport on June 4. In 2010, Sunderland attempted to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Once she becomes more experienced as an aviator, Sunderland hopes to fly solo around the world. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers Among the Conejo Valley students who will be receiving their high school diplomas this month is one Abigail Jillian Sunderland.

The world knows her by another name: Abby.

Some 2011 grads can boast of incredible scholastic or athletic achievements; others were standouts in music, drama or art.

Abby, a once-shy homeschooled student who became an overnight celebrity last year, can lay claim to an attempt to circumnavigate the globe solo on a sailboat.

Though her effort to become the youngest person to complete the feat came up short, her summer 2010 endeavor still gained her a loyal following. It also made her parents lightning rods for criticism from the media and members of the public who thought that at 16 Abby was too young to attempt such a dangerous undertaking.


TAKING THE CONTROLS—Abby Sunderland performs a pre-flight check on a Cessna 172 before taking to the skies for a flying lesson on June 4. Abby will receive her high school diploma next week. 
IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers TAKING THE CONTROLS—Abby Sunderland performs a pre-flight check on a Cessna 172 before taking to the skies for a flying lesson on June 4. Abby will receive her high school diploma next week. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers The experience has forced Abby, now 17, to grow up quickly, but it’s also given her a larger platform to share her message: Any dream worth having is worth going for—no matter what doubters might say.

In recent weeks she’s been traveling to schools in California and across the country to share her story and promote the book she co-wrote with author Lynn Vincent, who also co-authored Sarah Palin’s memoir. In May, Abby spoke at Thousand Oaks High School, in front of many of the people she’s known growing up.

“My favorite part of everything I’ve done is being able to speak at schools and seeing the kids’ reaction afterwards,” said Abby during a recent interview with the Acorn at the Thousand Oaks home she shares with her parents, Laurence and Marianne, and seven siblings ranging in age from 11 months to 19 years. “It was the best thing ever to see these kids inspired and excited. It was great to see what I’ve been able to do to all these people. . . . Kids still love an adventure.”

On June 14, about a year after her 40-foot racing sailboat Wild Eyes was struck by a rogue wave and capsized in the middle of the Indian Ocean 12,000 miles and four months into her journey, Abby will receive her high school diploma with 25 other students in a small ceremony at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village.

Like her peers, Abby is at a crossroads.

“It’s a tough time. There are a lot of big decisions to make,” she said. “At this point, whatever decision you make, it directs the rest of your life.”

Not surprisingly, she’s already eyeing her next big adventure.

“I’m going to fly around the world solo,” Abby said matter of factly.

She’s not kidding.

For the past three months, Abby has been taking flight lessons in a Cessna 150 at the Santa Paula Airport with instructor Mark King.

She’s on her way to earning her pilot’s license, having already logged about 15 hours of flight time; a minimum of 40 is required to be licensed.

“Right now I don’t have a boat and I don’t have a sponsor to sail around the world. I do have a good flight instructor and flight lessons and people who are going to help pull off a flight around the world, so I think I’m going to stick with that for now.”

Though an around-the-world flight is still months, if not years, in the making, people who know Abby best—like her father—say it’s not a good idea to doubt her.

“She’s an adventurer, but, unfortunately, if that’s what she wants to do, I can’t help her there,” said Sunderland, a skilled yachtsman who passed his love for the high seas on to Abby and her older brother Zac, who was the first Sunderland to make national headlines when he successfully sailed around the world in 2009.

“I told her, if it’s the Lord’s will, then go for it.

“Whatever her conviction or endeavor is, provided it’s a noble cause, I will support her 100 percent,” he said.

Abby got the idea to take up flying from Bill Bennett, an accomplished cinematographer and amateur pilot who met the Sunderlands during Abby’s circumnavigation attempt.

Like others, Bennett learned about Abby’s adventure while watching television. Inspired by what he saw, he began to follow the blog she wrote aboard Wild Eyes. When Abby was forced to dock in Cabo San Lucas early in her trip because of a failure with her boat’s auto-pilot, Bennett seized the opportunity to help the young girl.

“She’d announced on her blog that she had to divert into Cabo San Lucas because some things had gone wrong, so, out of the blue, I sent her a message through her website offering to fly the part down there that she needed,” Bennett said. “Two hours later her father called me . . . and the next day I took off.”

Soon after his arrival in Mexico, Bennett met Abby for the first time. What he saw convinced him he’d made the right decision.

“If Abby wasn’t the person she is . . . I would have said my goodbyes and been on my way. As it turned out, she’s a remarkable person, her parents are remarkable, so I decided to stay on and be part of her support team on the trip,” Bennett said.

In addition to lending his film talent to “Wild Eyes: The Abby Sunderland Story,” a documentary about Abby’s adventure produced and directed by Laurence Sunderland, Bennett has become a mentor to Abby. He’s made her a part of his film crew as a second camera assistant, giving her the opportunity to work alongside such Hollywood notables as Morgan Freeman and Steven Spielberg.

“She learns thing so fast, it’s really amazing. She’s integrated into my crew incredibly well,” said Bennett. “Anything Abby does, she very, very much works hard at it and takes it very seriously.”

While Abby has been enjoying the opportunity to learn the film business, she’s not yet sure if she wants to make a career of it. In addition to her newfound passion for public speaking, she’s also considering going to school to become a psychologist.

“There’s definitely a little bit of pressure (to find my next adventure). I’m like, I’ve got to find something new to do, I’ve got to keep going, find something exciting,” she said. “At the same time if I do become a psychologist, as long as I’ve taken that to the highest level I can take it to, as long as I can really pour myself into it and become the best, then I’ll be happy with that.”

And she hasn’t given up hope that one day she will successfully sail around the world.

“There’s part of me that’s like, ‘I have to sail around the world.’ Not only do I need to do it for me, but the rest of the world expects it too.”

To learn more about Abby or to purchase her book or documentary, visit http://abbysunderland.com.

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