SYDNEY — An American teenage girl was found safe with her damaged yacht on Friday after going missing in stormy Indian Ocean seas during a controversial attempt to sail solo round the world.
An Australian search plane spotted Abby Sunderland, 16, after 0600 GMT on Friday, after she lost the mast on her vessel “Wild Eyes” thousands of miles (kilometres) from help and triggered emergency beacons.
“She’s fine, the boat’s afloat and she’s on it,” her father Laurence Sunderland told Australia’s public broadcaster ABC. “It’s huge, fantastic, exciting news.”
Australia scrambled a chartered passenger jet from Perth early on Friday to scour seas some 3,700 kilometres (2,300 miles) away, roughly halfway to mainland Africa.
Authorities in Reunion Island, near Mauritius, off eastern Africa, said a patrol craft and a trade ship had also been diverted to Sunderland’s location, as well as a fishing boat which is expected to reach her within 24 hours.
Her family has not been able to speak with the girl but said that rescue coordinators in Australia indicated that the pilot who spotted her reported that the boat was upright but that the rigging may have been damaged by waves.
“The severe weather conditions she was experiencing the day before this all happened have abated and we’re confident that when the fishing vessel arrives… it will be a successful rescue,” Laurence Sunderland told CNN.
“We are absolutely over the moon. We are very, very happy and excited that the Australian search and rescue jumped on this right away and got a plane after her.”
Her parents described on her blog (http://soloround.blogspot.com) how the young yachtswoman was earlier “knocked down several times” as she battled winds of up to 60 knots and sea swells reaching 20-25 feet (6.0-7.5 metres).
Laurence Sunderland said his daughter would not be resuming her round-the-world attempt, saying the fishing vessel that is steaming towards her would take her to an undetermined location.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) chief Mick Kinley said Sunderland was “way down in the southern ocean” far from merchant shipping routes, and was lucky the French ship now en route to her happened to be in the area.
“She’s in the boat, the boat’s seaworthy, it’s not taking on water,” Kinley told reporters, adding that the teen seemed to be safe and unharmed but rescuers had their “fingers crossed still”.
Australia would send further aircraft to monitor the situation on Saturday with a rescue not possible until the afternoon, he said, adding that AMSA would not seek to recoup the costs of the rescue.
“We would expect people to rescue any Australian yachtsman,” said Kinley.
“It’s our obligation to do this and we’ll fulfil those obligations.”
She was likely to return to Reunion, Kinley said.
The dramatic survival story comes just a month after Australia’s Jessica Watson became the youngest person to sail round the world non-stop, solo and unassisted, aged 16, among a rash of similar trips by teenaged adventurers.
Sunderland’s brother Zac completed his own round-the-world solo sail last year aged 17, as did Briton’s Mike Perham — who is now dating Watson.
Last year, Dutch authorities vetoed a 14-year-old girl’s attempt to sail alone round the world and placed her in care.
Sunderland set sail from California in January amid criticism that her itinerary was too risky because it would place her in the Indian Ocean during the turbulent Southern Hemisphere winter.
Fears mounted after the youngster lost satellite phone contact with her family in California early Thursday before manually activating two emergency beacons shortly afterwards.
Her compact 40-foot yacht was equipped with a small bunk bed, a water-maker and a store of freeze-dried food.
Ian Kiernan, an Australian environmentalist and avid yachtsman who has sailed solo round the world, described Sunderland’s attempt as “foolhardy”.
“I don’t know what she’s doing in the… ocean as a 16-year-old in the middle of winter,” he said.
Sunderland’s journey had been criticised by some as too dangerous before she set sail this year, with Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers accusing her parents of “child abuse” for letting their daughter go.
But in a recent interview with America’s ABC, the Sunderlands defended their encouragement of their children’s sailing exploits.
“Could there be a tragedy?” her mother Marianne said. “Yeah, there could be. But there could be a tragedy on the way home tonight, you know, or driving with her friends in a car at 16.”