Teen in last stretch of solo sailing record

Fri May 22, 2009 3:51pm EDT
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By Sean Mattson

PANAMA CITY (Reuters Life!) - Circling pirates and the loss of a crucial mast cable hundreds of miles from port have not deterred U.S. teenager Zac Sunderland from his goal to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo.

But a careless ship near the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal almost wrecked the 17-year-old's bid.

Ignoring Sunderland's radio signals while motoring through a foggy night with its navigation lights off, the large ship was headed straight for the 36-foot (11-meter) sailboat. Sunderland spotted it just in time to steer clear.

"It was the closest call I've ever had," said Sunderland, who was just 16 when he left California on June 14 last year to try to sail 26,000 miles around the world alone.

"This guy just wasn't paying attention. Ships don't really care about small boats," he said, sheltered in a Panama City marina this week after crossing through the canal.

After living off cans of beans for days at a time and spending whole nights awake in storms, Sunderland heads home to California next week on the final leg of his trip, undaunted by the Pacific hurricane season or by his path through one of the hemisphere's notorious drug trafficking routes.

Sunderland, who has sailed since he was a child, expects to finish the journey in less than six weeks and before his 18th birthday in November, breaking the current age record for youngest solo trip around the globe by about half a year.

Australian David Dicks became the youngest person to sail solo around the world in 1996 and was 18 on his return.   Continued...