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Zac Sunderland: The Teenage Magellan



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Zac Sunderland is the oldest of seven homeschooled children, some of whom grew up on their parents’ 51-foot sailboat. Inspired to sail around the world by Robin Lee Graham’s 1974 book, Dove, about his (non-solo) 5-year circum-navigational experience that began when he was 15, Zac wanted to accomplish something greater. So, he worked day and night to purchase a 37-year-old Islander sailboat for $6,000 with his personal savings. Then, Zac trained intensely for more than three months making sure he was equipped and prepared to sail.  Zac was 16 years old when he began his journey on June 14, 2008, when he shoved off, due West for Hawaii with his Bible and his homeschooling books.

After 397 days at sea, this 17-year-old set two records on July 16, 2009. He became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe by himself by sailboat. He was the first person to ever set this record under the age of 18 as certified and verified by the American Sailing Association (ASA).

“It’s hard to comprehend everything I’ve had the privilege of experiencing,” he said. “I’m struck by how much people my age can actually achieve if only they have the passion and ability to think beyond what society tells them is possible.”

Zac completed almost 28,000 nautical miles, and his journey was far from easy. Zac faced many life-threatening crises, including unrelenting storms, 30-foot waves, 30-knot winds for 24 hours straight in the Atlantic, equipment failures, and a near-run in with suspected pirates off the coast of Australia. He evaded non-yielding freighters and went for four days straight without sleep in the Indian Ocean and 34 days without seeing anyone. He celebrated his 17th birthday off the Cape of Good Hope (Africa). He even saw a tiny island off of Africa, where archeologists had just discovered a mass grave whose contents included men and women bound for slavery.

What most amazed Zac on his travels was the generosity of people, even the poorest. He also marveled at the world’s natural beauty, especially the stars at night. “How can anyone doubt God’s existence when they see that?” he said.

Zac said his faith grew enormously while on the high seas. “You tend to pray more when things are falling apart,” he said. For example, when the forestay (the line that secures the mast to the bow), broke, he worried that the steel mast might come crashing down.

“It was amazing to see what God would do after my Mom sent out prayers on the prayer chain.” It also helped that Zac’s father could fly to where Zac berthed and perform salvage repairs.

Zac’s trip cost over $140,000 and was largely sponsored by his dad’s boat company, a sum that Zac hopes to pay back by endorsements and proceeds from a documentary being made about his voyage. Zack also has a book in the works, which will be published next year.

Few people are in position to appreciate or comprehend first-hand what Zac experienced and the conditions he encountered in the past year. The executive director of the ASA said this about Zac’s voyage: “Imagine starting this trip at age 16 and doing this alone. Consider the patience this voyage entails – people don’t realize that much of the time you are traveling at a speed under three miles per hour. At times, the wind literally stops. It can be hours or days until the wind returns and the boat can get moving again. The patience, knowledge and fortitude required for such a journey is immeasurable. It’s beyond unusual to find those qualities in someone Zac’s age.”

The ASA marked Zac’s achievement with a special award, and estimates that fewer than 250 people in history have circumnavigated the globe via sailboat, solo. “I have been thinking a lot about the trip and the places I have been in the past year,” said Zac. “It will be strange to not have an ocean to cross when I get back, but this journey is just the first of many more adventures to come.”

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