French boat rescues Sunderland, 16

Updated: June 12, 2010, 12:35 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- A French fishing vessel rescued a California teenager Saturday from her crippled sailboat in the turbulent southern Indian Ocean, bringing relief to her family but ending her around-the-world sailing effort.

Abby Sunderland, 16, was quickly back to blogging about her experience after she was picked up more than 2,000 miles from the western Australia coast.

"The long and the short of it is, well, one long wave, and one short mast [short meaning 2 inch stub,]" Sunderland wrote on soloround.blogspot.com. "I'll write a more detailed blog later, just wanted to let every one know I am safe and sound on a great big fishing boat headed I am not exactly sure where."

Sunderland's father, Laurence Sunderland, told reporters outside his home that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had contacted him to confirm his daughter's rescue.

Abby Sunderland
AP Photo/Richard HartogAbby Sunderland of California had been stranded in heavy seas since Thursday, when she set off a distress signal after her mast collapsed.

"She got out of her vessel with the clothes on her back, and we are just really excited and ecstatic that Abigail is in safe hands," he said. "She was in good spirits ... She talked to her mother."

"It was incredible to hear her and to hear she was still in good spirits," Mary Anne Sunderland said later on NBC's "Today" show.

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.

"There are plenty of things people can think of to blame for my situation; my age, the time of year and many more," Sunderland wrote in her blog. "The truth is, I was in a storm and you don't sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. It wasn't the time of year it was just a Southern Ocean storm. Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world.

"As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?"

The elder Sunderland said the family was not going to elaborate on the problems that led to the emergency.

The Australian group said the French ship Ile De La Reunion brought Sunderland on board from her stricken craft Saturday afternoon at the site (about 5:45 a.m. ET).

French authorities called it a "delicate operation" and at one point the fishing boat's captain fell into the ocean. "He was fished out in difficult conditions" and is in good health, said a statement from the French territory of Reunion Island. Laurence Sunderland said the crew used its dinghy in the transfer.

He said her boat will now likely be sunk because of the difficulty towing it a great distance.

Sunderland's destination wasn't immediately clear. Her father estimated it would be 10 days before she reaches Reunion or Perth, Australia. French rescue officials said the boat carrying the teenager is headed initially toward the Kerguelen Islands but her final destination will be determined later.

Despite a lag in getting to see her, Laurence Sunderland said the family is "just ecstatic that she is alive and well and survived the ordeal."

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, her brother, 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 hear word of the rescue from the family, which had 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 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.

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 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 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.

Family spokesman Jeff 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.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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