Teenage solo sailor rescued from ordeal in 30-foot waves

Yacht girl Abby Sunderland, 16, saved by French fishing boat 2,000 miles off the coast of Australia
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The Independent US

A French fishing boat rescued teenage sailor Abby Sunderland from her crippled boat in the southern Indian Ocean. She was 2,000 nautical miles from the Australian coast, aged just 16, and had been attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

Initial reports three days ago had indicated she might have perished in these turbulent waters after her boat was disabled by 30ft waves which broke the mast and knocked out satellite communications. But contact was re-established, a rescue mission launched, and she is now on board a French vessel, Ile de la Réunion, steaming to Reunion Island, apparently unharmed apart from a few bruises.

"She had been knocked about a bit but I don't think there was anything serious," said her mother, Marianne, from the family's home in California. "She sounded tired, a little bit small in her voice, but she was able to make jokes and she was looking forward to getting some sleep."

Abby, updating her blog from the French vessel – "a great big fishing boat heading I am not exactly sure where" – wrote: "The long and the short of it is, well, one long wave, and one short mast." She added that the world's media had been "eager to pounce on my story now that something bad has happened", and answered those who have criticised her parents for allowing someone so young out alone on the ocean by saying: "As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?"

Her father, Laurence, refused to elaborate on the incident that had led to his daughter's rescue. Her boat, Wild Eyes, is still adrift, but will not be towed back to shore.

Abby had set sail from Los Angeles County's Marina del Rey on 23 January, trying to become the youngest person to sail round the world single-handed. Her brother, Zac, held the record for a little more than a month last year until Briton Mike Perham completed his own journey, aged 17 years and 164 days. The record changed hands again last month, when Australian Jessica Watson, 16, completed her round-the-world sail. Abby, whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht-management firm, 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.

In the Indian Ocean, Abby had made several broken calls to her family, reporting that her yacht was being tossed by 30ft waves. An hour after her last call on Thursday, her emergency beacons began signalling. She was contacted by rescuers in a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that made a 4,700-mile round trip from Perth to Abby's boat. They spotted her on the stern deck of her vessel, its sail dragging in the water, but the girl appeared to be in good shape. She told searchers she was fine, and had a space heater and at least two weeks' worth of food.

A fishing boat and an Australian naval craft sailed at full speed to her estimated position, and, yesterday morning, with the French vessel an hour away, an Australian search and rescue spotter plane flew over Abby's boat. She fired a flare to confirm her position. The Ile de la Réunion used one of its boats to bring Abby on board.

One critic is Derrick Fries, a world sailing champion and author of the standard instruction manual Learn to Sail. He said that while he did not doubt Abby's abilities as a sailor, she could not possibly have gained enough experience to prepare for every possible emergency. "Never would I allow my 16-year-old son to even attempt it," he said. "It's almost a death sentence."

Abby's family defends her trek, saying that as a lifelong sailor she was as well prepared for the journey as anyone could be. "Sailing, and life in general, is dangerous," said her father, Laurence. "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."

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. It was not immediately clear if the French vessel would seek compensation.