16-year-old Zac Sunderland becomes the youngest person to sail solo around the world

The wind stayed steady all through the night. Zac Sunderland was making good progress in his attempt to sail around the world alone. But early that October morning he realized his yacht was being followed by a sailor’s worst nightmare, pirates.  

A 60- to 70-foot wooden fishing boat was heading parallel to his sailboat, Intrepid. Zac tried to call them on the radio, but they didn’t respond. Every time he moved the autopilot to get out of their path, they followed. Zac was 150 miles off the coast of Indonesia, a red zone for pirates.

At 16 years old, Zac had planned to set the world record for the youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone by yacht (previously held by Australian David Dicks, who completed the trip at the age of 18). “I’d always wanted to go cruising at some point in my life,” says Zac. He bought Intrepid that year with money he had saved.

He set sail on June 14, 2008, and returned after his 17th birthday.

After docking back in his home state, California, he had bragging rights to the world record (not that he would brag). “It was just a really amazing, accomplished feeling,” he says of his achievement.

Solo or single-handed sailing requires only one person, and single-handed does not always imply “non-stop.” Sailors can travel over short distances using smaller boats with little difficulty. Circling the globe is a much more demanding activity. It can be an ordeal of at least 21,000 miles and can take months to complete. Brian Todd, coach manager at the Canadian Yachting Association, says it’s “one of the toughest challenges out there.”

Zac Sunderland - Intrepid Sailing Solo

Solo sailing is a sport that has a fairly extensive list of dangers. There is always a possibility of falling overboard, and of sleep deprivation, injury and loneliness, as well as the occasional pirates to contend with. Extreme weather, such as storms and waves of 20 to 60 feet, has also been known to cause equipment failures. Not to mention that the boat often travels at a speed under three miles per hour. At times, the wind literally stops. It can be hours, days or weeks until the wind returns and the boat can get moving again.

The American Sailing Association estimates that the number of people who have sailed solo around the world is less than the number of those who have climbed Mt. Everest. “It takes a special breed of person to do something like this,” says Neil Gillespie, who owns Nautical Escape Sailing School and has sailed alone for a couple of hours over a short distance.

You could say Zac is a special breed. Born on November 29, 1991, he was basically raised on a boat; he grew up on and around the water. His first home was his parents’ 55-foot yacht. He went sailing for the first time at just six weeks old and had learned how to sail by the age of four.

Over the next years, Zac travelled all over the world, including a six-month- long trip to Mexico with his father, Laurence Sunderland.

It wasn’t long before the adventure-seeking teen decided to sail around the world by himself. At 16, he put a campaign together and started marketing it to all the big sailing companies. “I didn’t get all the sponsorships at first partly because of the recession and because no one had tried this record in about 20 or 30 years,” Zac recalls of the early stages of his journey. “But it made me want to get out there more and prove it was possible to sail around the world.”

Zac’s voyage could have ended off the coast of Indonesia, when he came across the suspected pirates. He says the area is like the “desert of sailing,” where between four and five boats disappear every year.

Luckily, Zac never had to answer to the AK-47s and rocket launchers the Australian coast watch eventually found aboard the pirates’ boat. The fishing boat stayed stopped in his path for about 10 minutes and finally sped off in the other direction.

Zac says he would definitely sail again. He hopes to travel through the Northwest Passage, above Canada and Alaska. For now, he is speaking to youth across North America, encouraging them to go after their dreams. “Just get out there and give it everything you’ve got … don’t hold back.”

Zac Sunderland - Intrepid Sailing Solo

Here’s an excerpt from our interview with the young modern explorer, Zac Sunderland

ME: Were your parents encouraging of you taking this trip?

Zac: Yeah, they were very encouraging, but at the same time they weren’t going to do it all for me. They were like, “If you really want to do this, go for it. We’ll support you all the way, but you’ve got to make it happen.”

ME: What was one of most exhilarating experiences of the trip?

Zac: One of the best feelings I had on the trip was my first cross: the Pacific Ocean, the first leg of the trip, from Marina del Rey [California] to Hawaii. It was 2100 miles… Pulling in there after 21 days at sea and seeing the big, green mountains of Kauai–the first island I passed–it was really kind of neat feeling to see these huge, green cliffs after seeing nothing but ocean for the better part of a month. Realizing that I had completed the first leg of the trip, it was just a really, really amazing, accomplished feeling.

ME: Would you do it again?

Zac: Definitely, yeah. I’m not sure if I would want to go solo again, if I had the choice… Hopefully next time I will be doing it via the Northwest passage, above Canada and Alaska.

Check out some video footage from Zac Sunderland’s epic journey

We met Zac while he was in town to appear at the Toronto International Boat Show, www.torontoboatshow.com.

Read about Jesse Martin, another solo sailor who ten years earlier, became himself the youngest to ever circumnavigate the globe and the only one to do it non-stop without any assistance.