CANBERRA, Australia - A 16-year-old sailor on a round-the-world journey was adrift in the frigid southern Indian Ocean on Friday as rescue boats headed toward her yacht, damaged by 30-foot waves that knocked out her communications and prompted her to set off a distress signal.
After a tense 20 hours of silence, a search plane launched from Australia’s west coast made radio contact with Abby Sunderland on Friday.
Her boat’s mast was broken — ruining satellite phone reception — and was dragging with the sail in the ocean, said search coordinator Mick Kinley, acting chief of the Australia Maritime Safety Authority that chartered a commercial jet for the search.
But the keel was intact, the yacht was not taking on water and Sunderland 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.
“She’s going to hang in there until a vessel can get to her,” probably on Saturday, he said.
A lifelong sailor, Sunderland had begun her journey trying to be the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop around the world and continued her trip after mechanical failures dashed that dream.
She 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. Support team member Jeff Casher said the boat had gotten knocked on its side several times.
Abby’s father, Laurence Sunderland, thanked the Australian rescuers’ quick response in sending out a search plane.
He told The Associated Press by telephone Friday that a fishing boat en route to his daughter’s coordinates should arrive Saturday local time. The seas in the area are still choppy, but calmer than before. “It’s all looking very promising,” he said.
Her father rejected criticism that it was far too dangerous to allow a 16-year-old to sail around the world by herself.
“Sailing and life in general is dangerous. Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn’t drive a car?” Laurence Sunderland told the AP. “I think people who hold that opinion have lost their zeal for life. They’re living in a cotton-wool tunnel to make everything safe.”
Abby’s brother, Zac, himself a veteran of a solo sail around the world at age 17, said he told his sister to be prepared for storms and other problems. But he said it’s in her nature to handle those calmly.
But renowned Australian round-the-world sailor Ian Kiernan said Abby should not have been in the southern Indian Ocean during the current southern hemisphere winter.
“Abby would be going through a very difficult time with mountainous seas and essentially hurricane-force winds,” Kiernan told Sky News television.
Conditions can quickly become perilous for any sailor exposed to the elements in that part of the world.
Sunderland — whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company — set sail from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey in her boat, Wild Eyes, on Jan. 23 in an attempt to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone without stopping. Her brother briefly held the record in 2009.
Sunderland soon ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued.
On May 15, Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson claimed the record after completing a 23,000-mile (37,000-kilometer) circumnavigation in 210 days. Watson and her family sent a private message of hope to Sunderland’s family, spokesman Andrew Fraser said.
Friday’s communication with Abby was the first since satellite phone communications were lost early Thursday.
She had made several broken calls to her family in Thousand Oaks, California, reporting her yacht was being tossed by 30-foot (9-meter) waves — as tall as a 3-story building. An hour after her last call ended, her emergency beacons began signaling.
The search plane — a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that left Perth early Friday — jet faced a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland’s boat, which is near the limit of its range.
Qantas spokesman Tom Woodward said the airliner flew five hours out to sea to reach the area where the beacons were transmitting, then maneuvered for another hour before spotting the 40-foot (13-meter) yacht. In all, it hovered over the site for two hours, Qantas said.
The Australian maritime authority did not say how much the rescue mission would cost but said it would not be seeking compensation for the search, which initially fell just outside of Australia’s search and rescue region.
“That’s the way the system runs,” search coordinator Kinley said. “It’s our obligation to do this and we’ll fulfill those obligations as Australia does.”
The CROSS maritime rescue center on the island of Reunion, off Madagascar, said it had sent three boats in her direction and they were expected to reach her Saturday.
Philippe Museux, CROSS director, told French RFO television station in Reunion that it had asked a fishing boat to head to the zone.
Sunderland left Cape Town, South Africa, on May 21 and on Monday reached the halfway point of her voyage.
On Wednesday, she wrote in her log that it had been a rough few days with huge seas that had her boat “rolling around like crazy.”
Information on her website said that as of June 8, she had completed a 2,100-mile (3,400-kilometer) 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 (3,400 kilometers) of ocean on a 10- to 16-day leg to a point south of Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Australia.