Southern California teenager Zac Sunderland pointed his 36-foot sailboat toward home on Tuesday, needing a few more weeks and some 3,000 miles to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone.
The 17-year-old left Panama City aboard his boat, Intrepid, hoping to beat the Pacific hurricane season as he works past Central America and navigates the tricky winds and currents off Mexico. He expects to arrive in Marina Del Rey, in the Los Angeles area, in mid-to-late June.
Sunderland is eager to get home, yet sounds as if he wouldn't mind a little more time on the high seas.
"I'd do it again anytime, but it's going to be good to get back," he said by phone from Panama last week while preparing for the final leg of what so far has been an excellent adventure, save for storm damage and an encounter with pirates.
"It's going to be weird leaving this lifestyle behind, you know, this adventurous kind of seeing new things, meeting new people. I've made hundreds and hundreds of friends around the world. I've been doing this for a year now so it'll be good to see all the old friends again. I can't wait."
Sunderland, who grew up on and around boats, was 16 when he left Marina Del Rey last June 14.
"I just wanted to sail, in all honesty," said Sunderland, whose father, Laurence, is a shipwright and runs a yacht management company. "But my goal when I left California, I said I'd be back when I was still 17. For the first time a minor will have sailed around the world (alone). It'll be good."
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Sunderland turns 18 on Nov. 29. The record for the youngest solo circumnavigation is held by an Australian who was 18 years, 41 days when he completed his voyage in 1996.
Also trying for the record is 17-year-old British sailor Mike Perham, who is a few months younger than Sunderland and sailing a bigger, faster boat. But he's had breakdowns and was forced to stop in New Zealand for repairs.
Sunderland's mother, Marianne, said her husband was always fixing up boats and using them for family cruises before selling them. A three-year family cruise was a formative experience during Zac's preteen years.
"Sometimes I think about when we were sailing as a family and I was so afraid to cross the Pacific Ocean," she said Tuesday by phone from Thousand Oaks, northwest of L.A. "He just takes it all in stride. He sails through the night and sleeps soundly. He knows every creak in the boat. I know what he's doing is hard for adults, with a crew on the boat. So it's pretty amazing."
Sunderland estimates the entire trip will cost $150,000. He used his own money to buy the boat, which was customized to make it easier to sail solo, and has signed some sponsors. He's borrowing the rest from his parents.
"I just love sailing and I was given the opportunity to do this," he said. "I gave my parents the idea and they said, 'Make it happen.' "
Sunderland has mostly been homeschooled, although he did attend high school for a few years and played football. He said he's ahead of schedule.
"I'm meeting with his counselor next week," his mother said. "I have to figure out what he has left. It's not a full load."
A few projects will keep him busy when he returns. Sunderland has eight video cameras aboard his boat and plans to put together a documentary.
"I've got a lot of crazy, crazy footage," said Sunderland, who probably will also write a book.
Included in the footage, he said, is a boat full of pirates circling his sailboat while he was between Indonesia and Australia. He said he had friends notify Australian authorities, who sent a plane that scared off the pirates.
Not long afterward, he stopped in the Cocos and Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, hooked up with a friend and surfed while his storm-battered boat was repaired.
"It's going to be hard to lead a normal life after this," Sunderland said. "I don't really know what a normal life is. I can't go get a 9-to-5 job. That's probably boring. There will probably be some other adventure to do with sailing."
While other teens busy themselves sending text messages, Sunderland easily trumps them with his satellite phone, provided by one of his sponsors.
"I can just talk to anyone anywhere in the world and all the time is free," he said. "I've been really lucky as far as that goes. I can talk to all my friends and my family."
There are things Sunderland won't miss, including the standard seafarer's grub. "The moon food," he said, referring to freeze-dried food, "the cans. It's not great."
Overall, it's been worth it.
"There's been some crazy, crazy times out there. My dad says cruising is 80 percent hassle and 20 percent fun, but somehow that 20 percent outweighs the 80 percent. When you're in port and it's like a beautiful day and you've worked so hard to get somewhere, it makes it all worthwhile. It's been an amazing 11 months."