French fishing vessel steams toward stranded California teen in southern Indian Ocean

By Thomas Watkins, AP
Saturday, June 12, 2010

French fishing vessel steams toward stranded teen

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A French fishing vessel was steaming across the southern Indian Ocean on Saturday to reach a stranded California teenager awaiting rescue after the mast on her boat broke, ending her around-the-world sailing effort.

Abby Sunderland has been stranded in heavy seas since Thursday, when she set off a distress signal after the mast collapsed, knocking out her satellite communications.

The rescue was planned to take place Saturday afternoon at Sunderland’s location (early Saturday morning PDT), allowing for plenty of daylight, family spokesman Jeff Casher said.

In the first report from the rescue site Saturday, an Australian search and rescue spotter plane overflew Sunderland’s boat and she fired off a flare to confirm her position, her brother Zac told reporters at the family home in Thousand Oaks.

Crews on the plane have been in contact with the rescue boat to try to determine how best to get Sunderland from one boat to the other.

The French fishing boat is considerably larger than Sunderland’s and in the rough seas without special equipment, transfer could be difficult. One option being considered is for Sunderland to climb into her life raft then get hoisted into the French boat. It is likely she would scupper her boat as she left it, probably by flooding it, because the cost of towing it back to the U.S. would be too high, Casher said.

Another option would be for Sunderland to don her drysuit then get hoisted from the frigid waters.

“I think that’s a bad idea,” Casher said. “You don’t put a body in the water except as a last resort.”

Sunderland set out from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey on Jan. 23, trying to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo.

Zac Sunderland held the record for a little more than a month last year until Briton Mike Perham completed his own journey. The record changed hands again last month, when 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson completed her own around-the-world voyage.

Outside the family home early Saturday, news crews gathered to await word on the rescue. The family said it has been receiving updates by telephone from Australian rescue officials. Eight pink balloons were tethered to the white picket fence in front of the single-story house and beneath them was placed a large, hand-painted sign that read: “Thank God Abby’s alive.”

Soon after starting her trip, Sunderland ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued, hoping to complete the journey.

She had been keeping in contact with her parents through satellite communications and had made several broken calls to her family in Thousand Oaks, reporting her yacht was being tossed by 30-foot (9-meter) waves — as tall as a 3-story building. An hour after her last call ended Thursday, her emergency beacons began signaling.

Rescuers in a chartered jet flew from Perth on Australia’s west coast and spotted Sunderland’s boat, Wild Eyes, on Thursday. She was able to radio to the plane to say she was in good health and had plenty of food supplies.

Australia’s military has two maritime patrol aircraft ready to help if needed, saying the planes could fly from Mauritius to support the rescue ships and drop emergency supplies to Sunderland.

Her parents have come under criticism from some observers for allowing the high-risk adventure.

Veteran sailors questioned the wisdom of sending a teenager off alone in a small boat, knowing it would be tossed about for 30 or more hours at a time by the giant waves that rake the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans this time of year.

Her father, Laurence, defended the voyage.

“I never questioned my decision in letting her go,” he told reporters Friday. “In this day and age we get overprotective with our children. If you want to look at statistics, look at how many teenagers die in cars every year. Should we let teenagers drive cars? I think it’d be silly if we didn’t.”

She was contacted by rescuers in a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that made a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland’s boat, which is near the limit of its range.

They spotted Sunderland on the back deck of her boat. Its sail was dragging in the water but Sunderland appeared to be in good shape.

She told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks’ worth of food.

Casher said her vessel so badly damaged, her attempt to circle the globe was over.

“This is the end of the dream. There’s no boat to sail,” he said.

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.

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