Worst Case Studies

Caught in an avalanche. Mastless in the Indian Ocean. Come back alive from your worst nightmare.

Oct 25, 2010
Outside Magazine
Abby Sunderland

   Photo: Lisa Gizara

Halfway Round
Teenager Abby Sunderland was on track to become the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the globe. the ocean had other plans.

I WAS 16 AND ALONE in the southern In­dian Ocean, exactly halfway into my attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. My brother Zac had set the record the previous year, when he was 17. And if he could do it, I definitely could, too.

When you're that far south, you expect bad weather. But my 40-foot racing yacht, Wild Eyes, was holding up against the swells, and I would stay below, tied into bed, reading books, listening to music. One of the best parts of the day was checking my e-mail.

About three weeks out of Cape Town, the storm hit. There were mountains of water all day. The boat was knocked down four times, but, with its heavy ballast, it always righted itself. Night falls really early down south. At 4 P.M. it was already dark, but by 5:30 the storm had died down, so I called home. I'd had some trouble with my engine, and my dad helped me get it running again. Then the call dropped. I set my sat phone down on the chart desk. While I was replacing the engine cover, a rogue wave struck.

I flew across the cabin and hit my head. Everything faded out for a second. When I came to, I was sitting on the ceiling in a foot and a half of water. Things were falling everywhere. It was pitch black. After 20 seconds, the boat slowly rolled back over.

The mast was gone. I could feel it missing as the boat righted. When you lose your mast, you immediately think, OK, I'm going to jury-rig that. I sliced through some lines that were blocking the door and went out to see if the hull was damaged. The carbon-fiber mast was dangling in the water; the boom, also carbon fiber, was snapped in half. There was nothing left for me to jury-rig. I sat outside on deck in my jeans and T-shirt for a few minutes thinking there was nothing else I could do. Waves were dumping over the boat. I was shaking from fear and cold.

Back inside, both of my Iridium phones were soaked and shorted out. I knew that activating my emergency beacon was going to trigger an all-out rescue effort back home. I was sitting there soaking, still kind of dizzy and nauseated from my fall, thinking about what would happen if I pushed that button. Finally, I did. It was like admitting defeat. Then I set off my little handheld EPIRB as well, so they'd know it wasn't an accident.

My most immediate concern was the dangling mast, which could have punched a hole in the side of the boat. But I knew that if I tried to cut it loose while dizzy, I'd end up in the water. I left it for the night.

I couldn't sleep. I was having nightmares. By morning the boom had started to wear a hole in the ballast tank. I found my saw and crawled out on deck. There wasn't a lot to hold on to, and the boat was rolling gunwale to gunwale. I tied myself to a broken stantion and started sawing. Every time I spied a big swell coming, I untied myself and got inside.

I sawed, and I prayed. Ten seconds after I started praying, a huge plane flew overhead. I ran down below and turned on the radio. The voice was really broken up. They were calling, "Wild Eyes ... Wild Eyes." I said, "This is Wild Eyes." They told me a rescue ship was 24 hours away.

I finished cutting the mast loose. When the boom slid into the water, it smacked the VHF antenna. Twenty-four hours later, I turned the radio on, waiting for the ship to call. Three hours later: nothing. I was starting to worry, when another plane flew over. I could hear them calling, but they couldn't hear me. I started shooting off flares.

The rescue ship appeared out of nowhere. I had been outside maybe a minute before. I thought, Oh, my gosh, where did that come from? It was a 150-foot French fishing ship. They came alongside and lowered a dinghy to the water. I hopped into it and they brought me over. There was this long ladder I was supposed to climb, but just as I was about to step onto it, a big swell lifted the dinghy up to the rail of the boat, and the guys pulled me aboard.

One day I will sail around the world, solo, nonstop and unassisted. I don't need to do it straightaway. For now, I'll do high school and get a driver's license—all that normal stuff. I have to work hard to keep myself busy. I'm daydreaming when I'm supposed to be writing papers for school. I get bored, and my mind wanders off to the boat.

This article has been changed since publication. Originally it said that the mast and boom in Abby's boat were wooden. They were in fact both made of carbon fiber.

More Adventure