abby who?

abby who?

Mark Michaelson breaks down the abby saga…

A scant 10 days ago few people outside of the sport of yachting had any clue who Abby Sunderland was.  The mild mannered 16 year old from Thousand Oaks, CA wasn’t in a place where anyone might take note. In fact, she was in what may be the most geographically isolated place on the planet, the Southern Indian Ocean.  I have been in the marine industry for almost 30 years and race sailboats and even I didn’t know where she was. That was until I received a call from a friend early on Thursday, June 10th asking me if I could have a look at her weather “Situation.” I provide weather routing for people looking to either race or cruise their boats across oceans and was routing a team from Bermuda to Newport, RI at the time so having a quick look was not a problem.

I asked for the latitude and longitude of her position and they were unsure, but asked me to look at the abbysunderland.com website as there was an update there. Then around 8AM PDT the news came across KNX1070 news radio that EPIRBS (emergency locator beacons) had been activated and she was reported to be approximately 455 miles NE of Kurguelen Island. I have followed and studied the races that go to the Southern Ocean for 20 years and knew right away that her situation could be critical. You see, the event managers for all of the World’s most challenging races designed for professional, well seasoned sailors only take them into the dangerous waters of the Southern Indian Ocean during the late Spring and Summer months which of course down under are November through early March. Even during the “relatively quiet” warm season the storms that plague this part of the world are legendary.  The seas are huge and the winds blow almost nonstop as they circle the globe unimpeded by Continental land masses. Video footage from this part of the world almost always uses the term “Extreme” somewhere in the title and it is well deserved.  

After finally getting a few more pieces of data regarding Abby’s location I plotted her to a position below 40 degrees South latitude.  My stomach instantly sank and got a very queasy feeling. The “F” word came out of my mouth and echoed through the phone to the caller. That sort of language is something I almost never use in any circumstance, but there was no other phrase that captured the absolute disgust I was feeling at the moment.  The next step was to pull up infrared satellite images to see what she might be facing.  This is not an area of the world where I do forecasting so finding the appropriate satellite images took some digging. At the same time I ran the grib files for that district through Predict Wind’s viewer, called Expedition, to create a better idea of what she had faced the previous 24 hours and what was coming her way next.

The Roaring 40s. They don’t call them the “Roaring 40’s” in sailing for nothing. The belt of wind on the globe between 40 and 49 degrees latitude find strong winds and some of the strongest winter storms on the planet. Everyone who has some sea time under their belt knows it is an area that should be avoided if possible unless you are trying to break speed records on a properly outfitted and properly crewed boat. Taking a lightweight high performance boat into this area of the world is asking for trouble. Doing it single handed compounds the likelihood of catastrophe and doing it at the tender age of 16 with little or no open ocean single handed experience is in my opinion nothing short of irresponsible.  To make matters worse, Abby had actually been trending north the past several days which means she was sailing even further south than 40 degrees and that places her in an area where snow fall isn’t an unusual event.

Major storms roll through the area where Abby was every three to four days in a normal year. If you have never had three or four story tall waves rolling under you with two to four foot breaking waves on top of the “rollers” then it is difficult to provide an adequate description of the situation.  But if the 30+ foot seas are not enough to scare you, imagine adding in rain or snow being blown by 60 knot winds. (try sticking your head out of a car window while going 60mph in a blizzard blindfolded on a bumpy road and it might come close).  It is not hard to understand what a terrifying place the Southern Indian Ocean can be in winter. At 60 knots the rain drops blow sideways, hit your skin, and feel like alcohol covered needles when the temperature gets as cold as it was the night Abby lost her rig.  She was likely chilled to the bone and the level of exhaustion after 24 hours of relentless pounding by the elements takes a major toll on even those who are well prepared for that kind of a beating. Your mind knows that your life is at risk and the level of consciousness is raised as the adrenalin rushes through your veins. This adds to the total exhaustion you feel when the weather event finally comes to an end. You can’t take a break though, you are single handing the boat.

 In Abby’s case she had been through a very difficult 24-36 hours prior to the boat losing its mast and satellite phone going dead.  Quotes in the media say that in her final minutes on the phone with her father, Laurence Sunderland, she thought the worst had passed. We still don’t know exactly what happened to Abby’s mast and to the boat that would cause the rig to come down, but many have theorized that a rogue wave left over from the storm the day before peaked and pitched right on top of her. After all, the 60 knots from the day before were diminished but only to around 30-35 knots, which is still very windy. Regardless of the exact circumstances, Abby was no doubt thrown about in the violent event that ripped her rig out of the boat.

Completely alone.  It is likely that Abby had not seen another vessel for a week or more and there really are no aircraft in the skies in that part of the world on a scheduled basis.  

So there she is. Cold and probably wet with no way to communicate to the rest of the world that she had lost her rig. The Satellite phones were all not functioning. Her mast was over the side of the boat yet still attached by the standing rigging that would normally hold it in its intended upright position. The mast was likely pounding the side of the boat threatening to punch holes in the hull with each passing wave.  The adventure she had dreamed about had now become a life-threatening nightmare and I am sure it was hard to envision it ending well.  Abby did not know when the next storm would come but she knew that she was not in a good place when it did. The thought of facing another “Bomb,” as they are known as in that part of the world, forced Abby’s decision to pull the plug and set off two of her EPIRBs.  EPIRB signals are now registered with the USCG so the folks at Search and Rescue (SAR) know exactly where the signal is coming from and what boat has set it off.  This signal alerted the US Coast Guard via Satellite that there was an emergency in the Southern Indian Ocean.  As I understand it, the USCG alerted the Sunderlands that they had received the EPIRB SOS notification and were communicating with the folks in Australia who could provide the closest support for this emergency.

The rescue. Australian authorities were able to communicate with a fishing vessel based out of La Reunion just east of Madagascar off the East African Coast. When authorities first communicated with the fishing boat it was located approximately 40 hours steaming time from Abby’s EPIRB position and the fishing vessel agreed to render aid.  But 40 hours is a lot of time to be waiting and wondering if Abby was indeed conscious and okay.

The Australian SAR authorities decided to take even more aggressive action to try and identify what the situation was to best prepare the fishing vessel for what they were going to face once they arrived on scene. A Qantas Airbus 330 was chartered by Australian SAR to do a visual observation. The flight was manned by a Qantas flight crew and Search and Rescue support staff from various harbor patrol and marine related agencies as spotters.  At around 11PM Pacific Daylight Time on Friday, June 11th approximately 29 hours after the first EPIRB signals were received, the Airbus crew reported that they had located the boat, that the rig was gone, but that Abby had survived. Abby was able to speak to the flight crew via a hand held VHF.  The news broke in the media almost immediately and it was indeed a huge relief to all of us who for the previous 30 hours had waited and hoped for the best.

The captain of the fishing vessel piloted his boat to Abby’s rescue and once on scene reportedly fell into the frigid waters while performing the rescue.  He placed his own life, the lives of his crew and the well being of the ship he captains at risk by having to perform this unusual rescue in the most isolated patch of water on earth. He and the crew are heroes. Once safely aboard, Abby was taken to Kurguelen Island where she stayed for a couple of days and added her name to the “Rescue Room” door where some of those lucky enough to have survived a battle with the Southern Indian Ocean have recovered from their experiences.  A few days ago, Abby boarded another ship en route to La Reunion Island off the coast of Africa where she will have to wait about a week to catch a flight home.

So now you know the story of where Abby Sunderland’s adventure came to an end but we haven’t given you a good look at the back-story and we have not yet discussed why Abby was even in this remote part of the Ocean at the worst time of year for weather. This is where things start to get interesting.

To be continued.