I've interviewed the Thousand Oaks teenager several times, and before she set out to chase a dream and try to circle the planet on a 40-foot yacht, I sailed with her through the night aboard that yacht, Wild Eyes, which by now probably rests at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
Same goes for Abby's older brother, Zac. While working for the Los Angeles Times, I followed his 13-month around-the-world odyssey from the beginning, providing frequent blog posts and newspaper updates.
And yes, I've met the parents, and the brothers and sisters. I never became close to the family; my interactions were all during story assignments. But I gained some insight that other reporters and columnists do not have as they digest and regurgitate information regarding Abby's recent rescue, after Wild Eyes was slammed in heavy seas between Africa and Australia.
Thus, because Abby and her family have become such a curiosity and so glaring a target, here are a few observations, quotes and anecdotes that might provide a better understanding of Abby, 16, and the sailing Sunderlands:
-- This might not have been reported but a representative from child protective services interviewed Abby for nearly two hours at her home before her Jan. 23 departure from Marina del Rey. Marianne Sunderland, Abby's mom, told me about this a few weeks after Abby's departure. The interview was to make sure the high school junior was not being coerced into making this voyage.
-- People have argued that Abby was too young to have tried to sail around the world by herself, and some have suggested her parents are guilty of child endangerment. This was a family decision and sailing around the world was Abby's dream before it was Zac's. Abby and her parents believed she was capable and she did sail more than halfway around the world before Mother Nature intervened. Abby is not the first global sailor to have been stopped by foul weather, nor will she be the last.
As for child endangerment, the same charges could be leveled at any parent placing their child in a midget racing car or on a motocross track or a bucking bronco, encouraging careers along those lines. Those are high-risk sports guaranteed to produce serious injuries and occasional deaths.
-- Sid Wing, a close family friend and fellow sailor, offered this assessment of Abby and her parents: "First, one must consider the principle by how the Sunderland children are raised. Laurence and Marianne guide their children to be achievers, setting their goals and pursuing their dreams, and at the same time learning that to achieve one must pay a price. The Sunderland family provides a success-seeking environment. It is basic to their everyday family life.
"I personally applaud how they are preparing their children for success in this world of overabundant naysayers and failure-avoiders. They demonstrate that nothing is achieved without risk, and the greater the achievement there is, no doubt, the greatest risk. Did Abby and her parents know there was danger involved in her quest? Yes, but they were consistent with their principles. She and the boat were definitely properly prepared. The Sunderlands did not carelessly endanger their daughter as many suggest."
-- People have argued that Abby was sailing too late in the season, increasing her chances of encountering strong Southern Ocean storms. I agree. She was supposed to start last November, but because of numerous delays caused by boat issues she didn't start till Jan. 23. An unplanned stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and another in Cape Town, South Africa, delayed her trip further. It might have been a blessing that Wild Eyes was rolled and lost its mast, because the storms Abby was sure to encounter as she sailed closer to Australia could have been deadly.
-- Comments beneath website stories are mixed but there seems to be more criticism than support. Here's my favorite from Brendan Candella, at the end of a story I had on the Yahoo home page Tuesday: "I wonder why the world is in the condition it is in. We sit in our homes and worry about other people trying to do extraordinary things, even though they may be dangerous or a little crazy. Well it's the crazy ones that will be remembered and be the ones to do great things that will have a great impact upon this world and human race.
"We condemn those who wish to risk everything to enjoy their lives no matter what there age or intention. You know why? It is because we are unhappy with our lives, because we do not have the courage or the guts to do extraordinary things. Everyone who makes a case against this girl wishes to prevent disaster, but the one thing they do is to assure mediocrity. Abby don't give up ever, keep fighting until you cannot fight anymore to fulfill your dreams. Good luck with your adventures."
-- I have no doubt that Abby will eventually sail around the world or take part in some great sailing adventure. Mother Nature knocked her down and out -- literally and figuratively -- but this will inspire a fiercely determined mariner to try again at some point in her life. However, she'll have to raise the money herself as her middle-class parents have five other kids and a sixth on the way, and the Adventures of Zac and Abby have been costly.
-- I interviewed Abby a week after she left Cape Town. Here's what she said: "I know that bad weather is something I will run into during this leg, but that's to be expected during any circumnavigation. I am not daunted by it; I know what my boat can handle and I know what I can handle. I'm going to be as careful as possible but there's no point in getting scared because it's not going to do anything to help if I run into bad weather."
-- There is no reality series or documentary forthcoming regarding Abby's saga. Her parents and the people involved in both projects had a falling out and are now feuding. There was supposed to have been a documentary about Zac's journey, too, but there was a falling out there as well, and Zac's footage is being held by a company in Baja California. Either the Sunderlands are difficult to work with or they align themselves with the wrong kind of people, who expect too large a share of any proceeds. I have not figured this one out.
-- Marianne Sunderland is due to give birth to a son any day. He has been given the nickname Charlie so maybe that will stick. There's no truth to the rumor that Charlie will attempt to become the first infant to sail around the world alone.
-- Speaking of sailing infants, Dutch sailor Laura Dekker, 14, will learn later today whether she'll be able to attempt to sail around the world by herself in a quest to become the youngest person to have accomplished the feat. Dekker, with support from her dad, tried to leave last September but a child protection service intervened and a court told her to stay home and go to school.
-- Dekker responded by running away to the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Martin. To be sure, dreams are hard to suppress. A dutch court today will decide whether the girl is finally ready to tackle the high seas on her own, aboard a sailboat appropriately named Guppy. One can't help but wonder whether the court will be influenced by what happened to Abby. Dekker's lawyer says the girl is now trained in first-aid and recently sailed from The Netherlands to England as a training exercise.
-- Perhaps lost in the hype surrounding Abby's ordeal is the fact that Australia's Jessica Watson recently completed a successful solo-circumnavigation of the planet in a 34-foot pink sailboat. Watson also got slammed by strong winds and giant waves but she made it back to Sydney just days before turning 17. She is the youngest person to have sailed around the world, although purists have said she didn't log enough nautical miles or sail far enough north of the equator during her Southern Ocean crossing for a proper circumnavigation.
-- Was Wild Eyes ill-prepared or just plain jinxed? It seemed everything that could go wrong did go wrong from the time the Sunderlands bought the speedy cruising sled on the East Coast. I joined Abby and Laurence for the delivery of Wild Eyes from Ensenada, Mexico, to San Diego. The trip began in late afternoon and lasted through the night because there was either no wind or a strong headwind -- and because a massive clump of kelp had wrapped around Wild Eyes' keel. All of this turned a 12-hour sail into a 17-hour sail that required, at the very end, a tow by Vessel Assist.
Abby showed me a lot that night, though. She did not utter a single complaint and she did not sleep; and when Wild Eyes docked at the Customs office in San Diego she had to fend off accusations from Zac, who was aboard a companion vessel, that she must have at least dozed off. Zac then donned a mask, grabbed a large knife, dove in and cut the kelp from the keel.
-- Abby and Zac are close but they're also competitive. Zac might have a solo-circumnavigation under his belt, but he took a higher, warmer route and passed through the Panama Canal. Abby chose a colder, more extreme Southern Ocean route and she might be the youngest sailor to have successfully rounded treacherous Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
Which of the two has a better story?
-- Pete Thomas
Photos of Wild Eyes and Abby Sunderland by Pete Thomas