LOS ANGELES — A 16-year-old California girl who was feared lost at sea while sailing solo around the world has been found alive and well, adrift in the southern Indian Ocean with rescue boats headed toward her, officials said.
Searchers aboard a Qantas Airbus A330 spotted Abby Sunderland’s boat in an upright position and made contact with her via radio late Thursday, family spokesman William Bennett said.
Qantas Airline spokesman Tom Woodward said the teenager was spotted half way between Australia and Africa and the plane crew spoke with her by radio.
“Abby’s in an okay condition; the yacht’s damaged but its seaworthy,” Woodward told The Associated Press. “She’s aware that there are other boats on the way to her location.”
Bennett said Sunderland told searchers she was inside the boat and doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks worth of food.
Support team member Jeff Casher said the boat had gotten knocked on its side several times and the mast had broken.
The French regional administration on the island of Reunion also confirmed contact, which occurred Friday in that region of the Indian Ocean, and said it had sent three boats in her direction, the first is expected to reach her on Saturday.
The communication with Sunderland was the first since satellite phone communications were lost and her emergency beacons began signalling Thursday.
She had made several broken calls to her family and reported her yacht was being tossed by nine-meter waves.
The 11 trained observers aboard the plane, which left the western Australian city of Perth early Friday, spoke with Abby by close-range VHF marine radio, officials said.
Western Australia state police spokesman Senior Sgt. Graham Clifford said the crew couldn’t drop her anything.
The jet faced a 7,600-kilometre round trip from Perth to Sunderland’s boat, which is near the limit of its range, Clifford said.
Abby’s family and support team had expressed confidence that she was alive because the beacons were deliberately turned on rather than set off automatically.
“She’s got all the skills she needs to take care of what she has to take care of, she has all the equipment as well,” said brother Zac, himself a veteran of a solo sail around the world at age 17.
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.
Her brother said Abby was prepared and mentally tough. “I really wish I could see her and hope she gets through this one,” he told reporters outside the family home.
Abby last communicated with her family at 4 a.m. local time (7 a.m. EDT) Thursday and reported nine-meter swells but was not in distress, Pinkston said.
Casher said Abby had to make repeated calls with her satellite phone because of sketchy connections. He said she had been in rough weather and had a problem with her engine, which she eventually managed to start. The team then asked her to check other things on the boat.
“She hung up to go check some things and she never did call back,” he said.
An hour later the family was notified that her emergency beacons had been activated, and there was no further communication.
A lifelong sailor whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company, Abby set sail from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey in her 12-meter 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.
Abby 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. On May 15, Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson claimed the record after completing a 37,000-kilometre circumnavigation in 210 days. Jessica and her family sent a private message of hope to Abby’s family, spokesman Andrew Fraser said.
Abby 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 3,400-kilometre 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 3,400 kilometres of ocean on a 10- to 16-day leg to a point south of Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Australia.