Abby Sunderland was below deck repairing the waterlogged engine of her ocean racer Wild Eyes when a monster wave rose up out of the gathering darkness on the Indian Ocean, flipped her vessel, sent her tumbling and dashed her dreams of sailing around the world alone.
The rogue wave snapped off the ship’s mast, destroyed her telephone line and left her adrift at sea, banged up and bruised in the boat’s watertight hold 2,000 miles from land.
“Things went black for a second,” Sunderland said Tuesday, about 12 hours after she returned home, as she recounted in detail for the first time the terrifying moments when she lost touch with civilization and realized her quest was dead.
“There were times I was scared, definitely,” she said. “But you get scared and then you have to get over it because being scared, it doesn’t do anything good. It just makes you hesitate and makes more problems start coming.”
Sunderland returned Tuesday to the port where she set sail Jan. 23. She arrived by car not to a victory parade, but to a news conference to detail what went wrong, thank her rescuers and — once again — defend her family for letting her chase her dream.
The appearance was something of an anticlimax for the young sailor, who has been interviewed several times since her rescue on June 12.
But in recounting how her endeavor to be the youngest sailor to lap the globe turned to a mere solo circumvention attempt and then left her at the mercy of the turbulent open seas, Sunderland was like the calm after the storm, looking straight at reporters and providing the most detail to date of her ordeal.
Sunderland had just spoken to her family by satellite phone on June 10, when the massive wave broadsided Wild Eyes, knocking the 40-foot boat over and sending her tumbling in its hold.
When she regained consciousness and rushed to the boat’s deck, she found a one-inch fiberglass stump where her mast once stood.
Back in the boat’s hold, she tested the engine she had just repaired. It would not start.
She reached for the satellite phone she had used to call her family a short while ago with the good news that her engine was running again. It too had been ruined by the water that flooded her boat.
Sunderland had a backup phone stowed in a separate compartment of the boat, but was anxious to seal herself in for the night against the churning ocean.
She had left just one means of communication: the so-called EPIRB distress beacons that she was only to use as a last resort.
She activated the beacons, letting her family and support team know she was in trouble — and that her journey was over.
“I worked to try and find some way that I could get myself and the boat to land without having to set off my EPIRBS,” she said. “Once I realized that wasn’t going to be happening, I set them off.”
The next morning, Sunderland felt a mix of excitement and disbelief when she spotted the rescue plane that tracked her beacons.
She told searchers aboard the Airbus A330 that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks worth of food when they made contact with her via radio.
It would be three days before the French fishing vessel sent to pluck her from the sea arrived at her boat.
While she waited, she tidied up Wild Eyes. She knew she’d be leaving it behind soon, but needed something to distract her from her fears and the worry she knew she was causing her family.
But when the fishing ship, called Ile de la Reunion, arrived, her rescue was tinged with regret as she parted with Wild Eyes, which a spokesman valued at $120,000 with the equipment on board.
After her months on Wild Eyes — depending on it for her survival and working to keep it seaworthy after passing through rough seas — it pained her to leave it behind.
“I wasn’t quite ready to leave,” she said. “To just step off of it and know that I’m never going to see that boat again, it was really hard.”
Thus began her 16-day voyage to Reunion Island, where she was met by her 18-year-old brother Zac, who successfully completed a round-the-world voyage last year, briefly becoming the youngest person to do so. His record has since been broken.
Her first meal on the fishing ship was better than the freeze-dried rations that sustained her on Wild Eyes — though she never found out what it was, since nobody on the almost-exclusively French-speaking crew could tell her.
She spent her days staring out windows and flipping through French magazines, she said, reflecting on her journey, while her French hosts did their best to make her feel welcome.
Indeed, Sunderland family spokesman Lyall Mercer said Abby’s soon-to-be-born sibling — her seventh — would be named Paul in honor of the Ile de la Reunion’s captain, Paul Louis Le Moigne.
Sunderland said she was grateful that little news reached her on the ship, so she didn’t have to hear the criticism heaped on her parents over their decision to let her set sail alone despite her youth.
“It’s extremely hurtful. It’s sad to see some of it,” she said.
Her family issued a separate statement Tuesday saying they had been subjected to intense personal criticism they felt crossed the line of decency.
Many people criticized Sunderland’s parents for allowing the high-risk adventure, calling it all but irresponsible to send a teenager off alone in a small boat, knowing it will be tossed by the giant waves that rake the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans this time of year.
The Sunderlands have maintained they did nothing wrong and that criticism of her should have ended months ago when she safely sailed around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.
Abby Sunderland said in her remarks Tuesday that she was as prepared as anyone possibly could be for the journey, but that sailors of any age or experience are vulnerable to unexpected, rapidly forming waves like the one that slammed into her boat.
“My trip didn’t end because of something I did wrong,” she said.
The family said in their statement said the family was willing to forgive critics who don’t know them or understand Abby’s experience and ambition.
Sunderland dismissed reports that she was cooperating with reality show and documentary film crews on productions about her journey and her family’s seafaring life, but said she may write a book based on the notes she’s written herself to help remember her experience.
“I loved pretty much every second of my trip and I really don’t ever want to forget all the great memories of that,” she said.
A lifelong sailor, Sunderland had begun her journey trying to be the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop around the world. She continued her trip after mechanical failures dashed that dream.
She said that she has no immediate plans to try the journey again, planning instead to focus on more commonplace teenage pursuits.
“I’m just going to be focusing on school, a driver’s license, all that, getting back to a normal life,” she said.