Move Over, Magellan — Zac Sunderland Has a Story to Tell


Jul 17, 2009

Move Over, Magellan -- Zac Sunderland Has a Story to Tell When I was 17, I wasn’t thinking about sailing around the world alone. My goal was just to work up the courage to talk to a girl and get a date.

Zac Sunderland has one hell of a conversation starter. All it took was 397 days and 28,000 nautical miles for the Southern Californian to enter the record books as the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the globe.

Magellan would be proud.

Sunderland made the voyage in a 36-foot sailboat named Intrepid. Like horses, boats sometimes have ridiculous names — Irritable Bow Movement, Vitamin Sea, The Flying WASP — but in this case, the name could not have been more perfect.

The vessel is a symbol of fearlessness, fortitude and strength. Sunderland bought it for $6,000, and there’s a good chance he’ll recoup the cost. Would anyone be surprised if book agents were camping out in front of his parents’ Thousand Oaks home? Or if Hollywood studios had already made offers to buy the rights to his life story?

Celebrity is the part of the equation after doing something extraordinary these days. Anonymity is not.

When Sunderland left the Marina del Rey docks on June 14, 2008, he was a fresh-faced, 16-year-old dove. Thirteen months of adventure later, just call him Captain Quint. Avoiding pirates in the Indian Ocean, battling monster waves in the Atlantic and enduring a steady diet of canned food has a way of toughening a person’s constitution. Being isolated on the open seas under the sun, moon and stars, day after day after day, also allows plenty of free time to ponder the meaning of life.

“I think society puts young people in a box — people 15, 16, 17 — and does not expect them to do much but go to high school and play football and stuff like that," Sunderland told the Los Angeles Times. "This just shows they can do a lot more with some strong ambition and desire. My [advice] is to get out there and do your thing with all you got."

Not everyone believes Sunderland owns the title of youngest person to sail around the globe. The official recordkeepers – the World Speed Sailing Record Council (WSSRC) — still recognize Australian Jesse White as holding the mark (White was 18 when he circled the globe in 1999). According to the WSSRC, Sunderland did not follow its definition of an “Around the World” route.

Don’t expect him to lose any sleep over splitting hairs or semantics.

Records are made to be broken. Last November, British sailor Mike Perham, who’s younger than Sunderland, shipped off on an around-the-world quest in a 50-foot racing yacht. He’s getting closer to the finish line. Jessica Watson, a 15-year-old Aussie, is planning her own nonstop trip later this summer. And before long, someone younger than that will be spanning the globe in a boat.

A roller coaster at the amusement park just doesn’t cut in the thrill department for some kids anymore. That’s not a bad thing. We all could use a little bit more of getting back to nature and thinking outside the box – put down the BlackBerry, pick up a hiking map, reconnect with humanity.

Setting sail on a fantastic voyage isn’t about procuring money, fame, glory or a record (at least it shouldn’t be). It’s all about conquering fears, taking risks and learning by going beyond the bounds of what is considered normal, routine and safe.

The hardest part is readjusting to civilization.

Now Zac Sunderland has to figure out what to do for an encore. Build a rocket ship and fly to Mars? Scale Mount Everest on his hands? Find out if Shangri-La really exists? 

He’s already sailed around the world — and he’s not even old enough to vote. That experience won’t be easy to top, but Sunderland has a few years to come up with something.

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