Sailing News

Abby and her winter rescue - why?
How and why Abby Sunderland ended up in the South Indian Ocean in winter, when the passing systems combine with warm tropical air moving south to make monster storms, is now being asked by experienced sailors round the world. However, especially after Jessica Watson's successful conclusion, skeptics who voiced their concerns up until now were few and far between, and slammed as pessimists.

Abby Sunderland - all the courage in the world, but too late in the season Sailing around the most southerly tip of Tasmania in mid winter is not something that most hardy sailors would voluntarily take on, but that was what she was planning to do.

Sailing, even in more innocent voyages, is all about timing, and the contrast between Jessica Watson's voyage, which was years in the planning, and Abby's couldn't be greater. So why was Abby end up in that wrong place at the wrong time? The answers are all in Sail-World Cruising's archives.

Abby always claimed that she had wanted to sail solo round the world since she was thirteen, 'but nobody was doing it then' she said back in August last year, when she first announced her voyage in Sail-World.

At the time world-wide hype about teenage sailors was high and growing. Her brother Zac had finished his 11 month trip (a 'warm weather route, and with stops') to make him the youngest sailor ever to circumnavigate. Mike Perham was just about to arrive back in Britain to eclipse Zac's performance, but Jesse Martin still held the record (ratified by the WSSRC, which Perham's and Sunderland were not) as the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the world non-stop and unassisted.

Inspired by both her brother and maybe the other teenage sailors, Abby decided to have a go. But it was August 2009, and she wanted to begin her journey in November, and that's where the timing problem started.

abby-sunderland-boat There were two critical time factors. The first was that Jessica Watson, five months older, was already just about to depart. To achieve her 'youngest' dream, she had to complete her journey less than five months after Jessica.

The second factor was the southern hemisphere summer. Both Jessica and Abby were wanting to use the warmest summer months to round the three big southerly capes in the world, the southerly tips of South America, Africa and Tasmania. This means that, ideally, they would venture a little early around the first, at mid summer at the second, and a little late around the third.

For Abby, that meant a November start, and gave her just three months to get ready.

As all cruising sailors will verify, getting a boat ready for a long voyage is a time consuming thing, and she had to find sponsors to pay for a suitable yacht, locate and purchase it, and ready it for the most testing voyage you could ask from any sailing boat.

On September 22, still two months away from her planned start, we published a story headlined 'Abby Sunderland: An Imperiled Dream'. She still didn't have a sponsor, and she hadn't found a suitable boat. Abby's parents had suffered much criticism for allowing the older Zac to go off sailing on his own, and the critics had all been proved wrong. This didn't stop new criticism for their encouragement of Abby, which was now labelled sexist. The planning went on.

Abby Sunderland arriving in Cabo At the time in Sail-World we wrote: 'Abby's window of opportunity is small, as she must depart by November if she is to have a chance at a safe voyage. If she were to wait until the next safe window (the spring), she would be out of contention to break the record. Adding to the pressure is the fact that 16 year old Jessica Watson of Australia has taken aim at Perham's record and has been outfitted with a yacht by Australian sponsors.'

By November, I wrote: 'The search has been long and the window of time to round Cape Horn this summer is closing, but sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland has finally found her boat and is now looking for more sponsors to help her repair it.'

They were trying for the earliest possible departure, but the yacht had to be trucked from Fort Lauderdale to Ensenada in Baja California. From Ensenada they sailed the boat north up the coast of California, and didn't even arrive until the end of November. They still had mid-December in mind for a departure, but it wasn't to be. I wrote: 'Abby wants to be gone by the middle of December to catch the best weather.'

Time was fast running out for Team Abby as they prepared the boat for a Southern Ocean six month passage. but how could they stop? By this stage, Abby was itching to go, the sponsors were expectant, the world had been informed, the money had been spent. It must have seemed like there was no way back.

It was not until January 23 that Abby finally departed, with a rapidly prepared yacht and a critical two months late. But worse was to follow. The yacht's charging system did not have the capacity to produce the power necessary for such a long sail, and just one week after commencing her journey she had to call into Cabo San Lucas in Mexico for necessary augmentation to her power generating ability, and here she lost another week. But she restarted her voyage with high optimism. Rounding the Horn was completed in March, ideal weather for the Horn.

Then she lost yet another week - or more if you count the detour - by stopping in Cape Town for repairs to her autopilots. With a much faster boat than Jessica's, had she departed on time in November, which had proved impossible, she would have been able to transit the Southern Indian Ocean and the southern tip of Tasmania in much better weather.

As one of thousands of sailors watching her progress, I was dreading her attempt to dive deep into the Southern Ocean to round Tasmania's South East Cape. Personally, I am glad, for her safety, that she won't have to.