May 22, 2009 / 7:47 PM / 10 years ago

Teen in last stretch of solo sailing record

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.

Sailing westward in stretches as long as 34 days without making a port call, Sunderland’s route took him to Hawaii, north of Australia and around South Africa.

In the Indian Ocean, storms tore off his boat’s forestay, which helps keeps the mast upright. With huge waves crashing around, he stayed up for 72 hours to reach the nearest port.

When threatened by armed pirates in the Indian Ocean near an Australian protectorate, Sunderland use his satellite phone to call Australia’s coastal authorities, who flew over in a plane and scared them off.

Sunderland, who has yet to finish high school, said he passed the time working on a book about his voyage and blogging via satellite phone. He plans on finishing high school, his book and a documentary once back home — as well as starting to pay back $150,000 of financing from his father.

Zac’s father, Laurence, who is flying from country to country to track his son’s port stops, said there have been stomach-churning moments during storms and the pirate ordeal where they lost contact.

“I’m a bit nervous about this next leg,” he said in Panama City. “It’s like the last three miles of a marathon ... It’s going to test all of his sailing abilities to get him home.”

Editing by Catherine Bremer and Patricia Reaney

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