Boats head to teen sailor drifting in Indian Ocean

June 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The worried family of a missing 16-year-old California sailor now knows she's alive after a search plane made contact with Abby Sunderland in the Indian Ocean. Rescue crews are on the way, after she said her boat was badly damaged by huge waves.

Abby was trying to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world without stopping. The device that is saving her life is an emergency beacon that is being monitored by the Coast Guard station in Alameda. Abby has a space heater and a two-weeks supply of food.

"Abby Sunderland and Wild Eyes are definitely not out of danger -- remember she's 2,000 miles offshore," said U.S. Coast Guard Sr. Chief Douglas Samp.

Samp has been tracking the stranded Southern California teen sailor's position in the Southern Hemisphere since first spotting her boat's emergency beacon go off at 5:30 Thursday morning. The Alameda base is responsible for monitoring such signals in the larger Pacific region. Crews say having this device is proving to be a life-saver.

"Without it, if she lost her communications, then really there would have been a slim chance of being able to locate her without this," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Metcalf.

When the 16-year-old sailor ran into trouble during her solo voyage around the world, she manually set off two Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacons, or EPIRBs, one on her boat and one on her person. That's how search pilots located her 2,000 miles offshore in the southern Indian Ocean between Africa and Australia

"The beauty of this case is she had EPIRB, and the Australian, the Quantas airline that they chartered flew directly to her position and established communications," said Samp.

"She is not a newbie; she knows what she is doing. She knows that she is still out there and she has been super cautious the whole time. So I'm sure she is still being super cautious," said Abby's mother Marianne Sunderland.

The Coast Guard says she's drifted 32 miles eastward since detecting the first distress signal. Although her 40 foot yacht is still seaworthy, it has a broken mast, battered by huge waves. The rescue is expected to be difficult.

"It is still 30 to 40 knot winds and 15 to 20 foot seas. We have a 150-foot French fishing vessel coming along a 40-foot boat with a mast in the water -- it's going to be tricky," said Samp.

Three rescue boats coming from the French island of Reunion expect to reach Abby Saturday.

She originally set sail from Los Angeles County's Marina del Rey in January, attempting to set a record as the youngest to sail alone around the world without stopping. Last month a 16-year-old Australian girl claimed the record accomplishment as well. Her 17-year-old brother briefly held the record last year. While Abby's voyage is over, she'll have quite an experience to share.