THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - A French fishing vessel rescued a California teenager Saturday from her crippled sailboat in the turbulent southern Indian Ocean, bringing relief to her family but ending her around-the-world sailing effort.
Laurence Sunderland, the father of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, told reporters outside his home that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had contacted him to confirm the rescue more than 2,000 miles from the western Australia coast. Her boat abandoned, she’ll spend at least a week on a series of boats headed for Reunion Island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
“She got out of her vessel with the clothes on her back, and we are just really excited and ecstatic that Abigail is in safe hands,” he said. “She was in good spirits ... She talked to her mother.”
“It was incredible to hear her and to hear she was still in good spirits,” Mary Anne Sunderland said later on NBC’s “Today” show.
Sunderland has been stranded in heavy seas since Thursday, when she set off a distress signal after the mast collapsed, knocking out her satellite communications. The elder Sunderland said the family was not going to elaborate on the problems that led to the emergency.
The Australian group said the French ship Ile De La Reunion brought Sunderland on board from her stricken craft Saturday afternoon at the site (about 2:45 a.m. PDT).
French authorities called it a “delicate operation” and at one point the fishing boat’s captain fell into the ocean. “He was fished out in difficult conditions” and is in good health, said a statement from the French territory of Reunion Island. Laurence Sunderland said the crew used its dinghy in the transfer.
He said her boat will now likely be sunk because of the difficulty towing it a great distance.
Sunderland will leave the French fishing boat in about two days to board a maritime patrol boat that will take her to Reunion Island, according to a statement from the office of the French Indian Ocean island’s top official. The transfer will take place off the Kerguelen Islands, with the exact timing depending on weather and ocean conditions.
The island’s Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue said Sunderland likely would not arrive for at least a week.
Despite a lag in getting to see her, Laurence Sunderland said the family is “just ecstatic that she is alive and well and survived the ordeal.”
Sunderland set out from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey on Jan. 23, trying to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo and nonstop.
Soon after starting her trip, Sunderland ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued, hoping to complete the journey.
Zac Sunderland, her brother, held the record for a little more than a month last year until Briton Mike Perham completed his own journey. The record changed hands again last month, when 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson completed her own around-the-world voyage.
Outside the family home early Saturday, news crews gathered to hear word of the rescue from the family, which had been receiving updates by telephone from Australian rescue officials. Eight pink balloons were tethered to the white picket fence in front of the single-story house and beneath them was placed a large, hand-painted sign that read: “Thank God Abby’s alive.”
Rescuers in a chartered jet flew from Perth on Australia’s west coast and spotted Sunderland’s boat, Wild Eyes, on Thursday. She was able to radio to the plane to say she was in good health and had plenty of food supplies.
Her parents have come under criticism from some observers for allowing the high-risk adventure.
Veteran sailors questioned the wisdom of sending a teenager off alone in a small boat, knowing it would be tossed about for 30 or more hours at a time by the giant waves that rake the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans this time of year.
Her father defended the voyage.
“I never questioned my decision in letting her go,” he told reporters Friday. “In this day and age we get overprotective with our children. If you want to look at statistics, look at how many teenagers die in cars every year. Should we let teenagers drive cars? I think it’d be silly if we didn’t.”
She was contacted by rescuers in a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that made a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland’s boat, which is near the limit of its range.
They spotted Sunderland on the back deck of her boat. Its sail was dragging in the water but Sunderland appeared to be in good shape.
She told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks’ worth of food.
Family spokesman Jeff Casher said her vessel so badly damaged, her attempt to circle the globe was over.
“This is the end of the dream. There’s no boat to sail,” he 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. It was not immediately clear if the French vessel would seek compensation.
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