Abby Sunderland discusses ordeal at sea and return to civilization

It was a rogue wave, not the prolonged effects of a storm that ended Abby Sunderland‘s controversial attempt to sail around the world by herself.

Sunderland spoke to the L.A.-area media Tuesday for teh first time since her 40-foot sailboat capsized and lost its mast in the Indian Ocean nearly three weeks ago. The rescued mariner clarified that the fierce storm she had endured had moved on or was abating and that she had been below working on her engine when the super-sized wave struck her vessel broadside and flipped it over.

Darkness had just fallen and the motion was swift but violent, causing Sunderland to strike her head against an object and blackout momentarily. The vessel, however, seemed to right itself as swiftly as it was capsized.

When the 16-year-old assessed her situation, seeing there was no mast, no rigging, no satellite communications, a swamped engine and a broken boom, she activated two of three emergency beacons to signal an international rescue effort.

“I’m happy to be home but very sad that things didn’t work out,” she said. “But I’m proud of my achievement, and what happened is definitely not going to stop me from sailing–not for a minute.”

Sunderland, who was attempting to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone, arrived at her home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., late Monday night. Speaking Tuesday morning at a Marina del Rey hotel, and sitting alongside her older brother Zac, she was poised and articulate.

The high-school junior spoke of the daunting prospects of continuing her education and trying to get a driver’s license so she can risk her life on busy freeways she maintains are far more dangerous than the open ocean.

But mostly she discussed an ordeal that led to her being picked up, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, by the crew of the French fishing boat, Ile De La Reunion.

(Marianne Sunderland is due any day to give birth to her eighth child and he will be named Paul after the fishing boat’s captain.)

The Sunderland parents, who were harshly criticized in the days during and after the rescue effort, did not attend the press conference. They issued a statement that began with the passage:

“We have watched our daughter achieve something great. While she didn’t quite complete what she set out to do, she traveled over 12,000 nautical miles solo and became the youngest person to sail solo around Cape Horn.

“Abby followed her dream and followed in the footsteps of so many other great Americans who loved life and adventure.”

The statement also dismissed critics of the voyage as coming from people “who don’t know Abby and the years she has spent on sailing boats.”

It continued: “To hear the intensity of the personal hatred spewed by some in the media and on blogs was shocking to us. It crossed the line of human dignity.”

Abby was instructed not to answer to rehashed criticism but said it was “hurtful and sad to see some of what people were saying.”

Of her failed odyssey she said, “I’m living proof that things don’t always work out the way you planned, but you can only plan so far in an adventure. You can reduce risk but you can never completely eliminate it.”

She added that she still hoped that what she attempted would inspire other teenage girls to follow their dreams and ambitions.

“I think teenagers will rise to do what’s expected of them,” she said. “And if more is expected of them, I think they’ll be able to do a lot more.”

Some of the critics might not have known nor cared that Abby and Zac Sunderland were raised aboard and around boats by their shipwright father; that as home-schooled kids they once spent more than two years sailing with their parents off the Pacific coast.

Zac last July completed a solo-circumnavigation of the planet that lasted 13 months. He also left when he was 16 and returned to a hero’s welcome.

However, while there’s no tangible evidence to suggest that age had a bearing on Abby’s vessel being rolled, the timing of her journey and the boat she used to attempt a late-season crossing of the Southern Ocean have fallen under criticism by yachting experts.

Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., has repeatedly questioned the Jan. 23 start of a voyage sure to place Abby in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean, trying to pass beneath Australia, during the onset of a winter in a notoriously stormy region.

The plan had been for Abby to leave three months earlier, but multiple boat-related issues led to one frustrating delay after another.

Nobles also was critical of the Sunderlands’ choice of vessel: an open-class cruising yacht with a lighter keel designed for speed.

“The manufacturer or designer of her boat will say that it was designed to right itself with repeated knockdowns, and even if turned completely over,” Nobles said. “That may well be the case, but the standard rigging — what holds the mast in place — cannot continue to take knockdown after knockdown without failing at some point.

“A true cruising boat with a heavier keel would likely have suffered fewer knockdowns, and hence not had its standard rigging get torn apart.”

Don McIntyre, a legendary adventurer who earlier this month completed an arduous duplication of Capt. Bligh’s 3,700-mile “Mutiny on the Bounty” voyage, predicted in an interview three months ago that Sunderland would face her greatest challenge in the Indian Ocean.

McIntyre was a consultant for the expedition of fellow Australian Jessica Watson, who last month completed a solo-circumnavigation aboard a 34-foot pink sailboat, just days before her 17th birthday.

McIntyre added this week that Sunderland’s boat was speedy, which is good for outrunning storms, but not sturdy enough to handle the relentless pummeling Mother Nature is capable of delivering.

“In my opinion hers was not the best boat for that time line through the Southern Ocean,” McIntyre said. “Jessica’s boat was as vulnerable to capsize, if not more so than Abby’s, but it was much stronger and with a greater tolerance to stress and abuse.”

Abby told reporters that she relied on a team of expert weather routers who were confident she could get past Australia and up to the relative safety of the Pacific on a northeasterly journey toward Southern California.

Abby said what happened to her — she called it “the luck of the draw” — could have happened to any sailor, man or woman, at any time of the year.

Jeff Casher, a boat technician who was Abby’s sailing adviser, said the criticism regarding the boat was unfounded and that Wild Eyes was designed specifically for Southern Ocean travel, with a carbon-fiber mast and components built to withstand rough seas.

He added that the freak wave simply placed to much pressure on the mast, causing it “to snap like a twig.” He stressed that Abby was adequately prepared to survive such an incident. She had been tethered to the vessel and had made sure, during the storm, that all compartments were sealed shut and could not fill if the boat were to capsize.

As for the super-charged storm that slammed Wild Eyes in the days before it rolled, it has been given the name “Abby’s Storm” by a prominent surf-forecasting company and is partially responsible for the large swell that arrived off Southern California beaches over the weekend.

Sean Collins, founder of Surfline and a weather expert and lifelong sailor, has charted the storm since Abby’s plight began.

It was spawned in the South Atlantic, off South America, a week earlier, and it generated monstrous swells for some of the world’s premier big-wave riders off Brazil.

The swell also reached South Africa, Indonesia, west Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.

As Abby was making her way toward Reunion Island to the west, the storm churned toward the east and redeveloped in the South Pacific. It sent giant waves to Tahiti, Hawaii and last weekend to Southern California.

Collins on Monday night said via email: “If Abby wanted to, she could go catch a couple waves from the exact same storm that slammed her in the Indian Ocean.”

Abby apparently had other plans. She was scheduled to fly to New York with Zac for a taping of NBC’s “Today” show.

— Top photo of Zac and Abby Sunderland by Pete Thomas. Bottom photo of Abby walking with reporters courtesy of ©2010 Lisa Gizara / GizaraArts.Com.