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Search Plane Locates U.S. Teen On Solo World Sail

Abby Sunderland, 16, leaves from Marina del Rey, Calif., on Jan. 23, on a world record attempt to become the youngest person to sail nonstop around the world. Richard Hartog/AP hide caption

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Richard Hartog/AP

Abby Sunderland, 16, leaves from Marina del Rey, Calif., on Jan. 23, on a world record attempt to become the youngest person to sail nonstop around the world.

Richard Hartog/AP

A French fishing vessel was on its way to rescue a 16-year-old girl who was found alive Friday after being feared lost at sea as she tried to sail solo around the world.

Abby Sunderland, who had hoped to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe, set out from California in January but ran into severe weather in the southern Indian Ocean that knocked out her communications system. Her emergency beacons were activated.

After some 20 hours of silence, a search plane from Australia was able to make radio contact, officials said.

The boat's mast and the attached satellite phone antenna were broken and her mainsail was dragging in the water, said search coordinator Mick Kinley, acting chief of the Australia Maritime Safety Authority, which chartered a commercial jet for the search.

But the keel was intact, the yacht was not taking on water and Abby was equipped for the conditions, he said.

"The aircraft [crew] spoke to her. They told her help was on the way, and she sounds like she's in good health,'' Kinley told reporters in Canberra, Australia. "She's going to hang in there until a vessel can get to her," probably on Saturday, he said.

Sunderland told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks' worth of food, said family spokesman William Bennett. Her family and support team said they had been confident she was alive because the boat's two distress beacons were turned on deliberately rather than set off automatically.

"She's stabilized the situation, and she has to sit tight and we will be there in about 20 hours," her brother told CNN. Zac Sunderland briefly held the record for youngest solo nonstop sailor after completing his own circumnavigation last year at 17.

But 16-year-old Australian sailor Jessica Watson claimed the record on May 15, after completing a 23,000-mile circumnavigation in 210 days.

In the day before Abby Sunderland lost contact, her boat was repeatedly knocked on its side in the frigid waters in what she described as 30-foot seas — as high as a three-story building — and hurricane-force winds.

On Wednesday, she had written in her blog that it had been a rough few days with huge seas that had her boat, Wild Eyes, "rolling around like crazy."

A lifelong sailor, Sunderland's departure was beset by delays that pushed her "weather window" for the Indian Ocean stretch of her voyage into the southern hemisphere winter, when the winds and seas are at their most extreme.

"You want to get down there in the Southern latitudes in December, January, February during the southern hemisphere summer, not in June," Gary Jobson, president of U.S. Sailing and a veteran offshore racer, told NPR.

By the time Sunderland reached South Africa, mechanical failures forced her to put in for repairs and dashed the nonstop part of the record attempt. She decided to continue anyway.

She left Cape Town on May 21 and reached the halfway point of her voyage Monday.

Sunderland's website said that as of June 8, she had completed a 2,100-mile leg from South Africa to north of the Kerguelen Islands, taking a route to avoid an ice hazard area. Ahead of her lay more than 2,100 miles of ocean on a 10- to 16-day leg to a point south of Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Australia.