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American Teenage Solo Sailor Lost At Sea

Abby Sunderland, a California teen seeking to sail around the world alone, activated an emergency beacon overnight Thursday, setting off an international search-and-rescue mission for her in the Indian Ocean. She has not been heard from since.

Early Thursday, Sunderland, 16, of Thousand Oaks, California, told her mother Marianne by satellite phone that she had been knocked down several times as her 40-foot boat Bright Eyes was belted by 60-knot winds and 25-foot seas near Reunion Island, a French territory east of Madagascar. Sunderland’s mother and father, Laurence, had helped her troubleshoot the boat’s engines so she could recharge her electrical systems early Thursday, but they soon lost contact. An hour later, American search-and-rescue authorities phoned the Sunderlands at home to say they had received signals from two of Abby’s emergency locator beacons.

A third, water-activated EPIRB did not send a signal, suggesting her boat remained upright. But reached by phone Thursday evening, Marianne told Outside she did not know if Abby was in her boat, a life raft, or the water. The area of the ocean she’s in is 12 hours ahead of PST, and remained dark.

“She definitely knows what to do,” Marianne said. “She has all the equipment to get through this. She has to hang on and stay warm. Hopefully she’s not injured. We just won’t know until tomorrow.”

American authorities will coordinate a search and rescue with their counterparts from Australia and France. An Australian plane will fly over her presumed location--based on the beacon signals--at first light Friday in hopes of establishing visual or radio contact. Several ships in the area were directed to render aid, but would not arrive for nearly two days.

Sunderland was one of several girls seeking to become the youngest to navigate nonstop around the world, part of a trend toward teenage solo sailing that was the subject of an Outside story in October, 2009.

Last year, Abby’s older brother Zac completed a trip around the world alone. At 17, he was the youngest to do so at the time. In the meantime, Jessica Watson, a 16-year-old from Australia, completed her round-the-world trip without stopping last month to set a new record.

Abby Sunderland departed Marina del Rey, California, January 23. She was forced to stop for repairs in South Africa in May. Still, she hoped to become the youngest to complete the voyage.

--Matt Higgins

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