Sailing The World At 17: Rounding Africa Zac Sunderland turned 17 this weekend, six months into a voyage around the world. As he tries to become the youngest sailor to circle the globe solo, he has already dealt with rough seas, bad weather and a mysterious pursuer.

Sailing The World At 17: Rounding Africa

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, how a former investment banker traded the high life for a higher calling.

COHEN: First though, today, we offer a belated happy birthday to Zac Sunderland. Zac turned 17 on Saturday. He celebrated alone, and we mean really alone. Here is a familiar voice. It's NPR's Alex Chadwick, and as he reports, the southern California teen is trying to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo.

ALEX CHADWICK: I saw Zac six months ago on a dock in Los Angeles on his 36-foot sloop. He and the Intrepid are now a little more than halfway around the world, and it's been interesting getting there.

Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: The first thing I said to him is, have you loaded your gun? He said, yeah, my gun is loaded.

CHADWICK: Laurence Sunderland, Dad and role model. Zac called on a sat phone several weeks ago from the Indian Ocean. He was frightened. There was an ominous boat tracking him, drawing near, and this is what Laurence told his 16-year-old son.

Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: OK, Zac. Your gun is loaded. You are going to go out there and shoot. Don't shoot to wound these - you're going to shoot to kill because if they're armed, and they're pirates, they're going to kill you. They'll kill you, and they'll take your boat.

CHADWICK: The boat followed a while longer and then turned away, not the worse moment in this quest.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: This hopefully would be Zac right now on the telephone.


Mr. ZAC SUNDERLAND: Hi, Mom and Dad.

Ms. MARYANNE SUNDERLAND: Good. How are you?

CHADWICK: That's his mom, Maryanne.

Mr. ZAC SUNDERLAND: I'm falling asleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: More from Zac in a moment. Now, we're in the dining area of the family home outside L.A. It's comfortable and crowded. This is not a wealthy family, more sailors then yachters. Laurence manages big boats and sells them. There are six other kids, ages 15 to one and a half, all home schooled. There's a world map taped to one wall. Everyone is kind of studying marine geography.

Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: There's Mauritius right there.


Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: His next leg is to Dervin(ph) and off of Madagascar. There's a storm that lives there.

CHADWICK: Laurence, pointing to the Indian Ocean near Southern Africa where, as we speak, Zac is steering the Intrepid away from the continental shelf off Madagascar.

Mr. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: And if you're inside that continental shelf, that's where you get the 40, 50, and 60 foot waves.

CHADWICK: If you have children, you must be thinking what I am. OK for Zac. How do mom and dad get through this? But things that sound dangerous are less so if you know more about them, and Laurence and Maryanne are watching the weather charts and talking to Zac every day providing guidance.

Ms. SUNDERLAND: There's a storm that rolls through the southern ocean every three days. We'd heard that. But now that we have the forecasting software, you can actually see them. They're huge, spiraling masses. They're purple, which means heavy winds, you know, just rolling. Every three days, they come by.

CHADWICK: The worst, three weeks ago, Zac, still crossing the Indian Ocean, a big, big storm, night. The rigging starts to come apart. He goes on deck. The big waves rolling down. A wild sail torn and beating free. He pulls things back as best he can because he's alone, and that's what you have to do.

Ms. LAURENCE SUNDERLAND: He nearly got knocked off the boat several times. And although he had a harness on, when you're on the bow of a boat, if you're going to fall over, there's pretty much no chance of getting back on the boat.

Ms. SUNDERLAND: At one point, he said, I'm so exhausted. I can't do this anymore. I just, I have to sleep. I said, then you have to sleep. You have to take care of you. And he did. He went down below, he fell asleep, and he woke up. The seas had calmed down to maybe eight to 10 feet, and the sail has stopped flogging, so it was like this horrible situation just resolved. So, yeah, that was something.

CHADWICK: I did talk to Zac. The ocean he's heading into, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, you can hope for good, but expect storms.

Mr. ZAC SUNDERLAND: They're are really fast moving down here, and there's not much you can do. You have to be really, really careful. And this like may be a little bit late in the season now, so maybe a little more danger for me. From what I hear, no one really gets off unscathed.

CHADWICK: Explore the world, discover yourself. Zac is on schedule to become the youngest around the world sailor, though another youngest-around-the-world attempt began a couple of weeks ago. Even if Zac does make it, his record may not last. But he'll be back here, safe at harbor again, and with a small crowd waiting in welcome. We'll check back with him before then. Alex Chadwick, NPR News, Marina Del Rey, California.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.