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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2010

French fishing boat rescues stranded Calif. teen

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A French fishing vessel rescued a California teenager Saturday from her crippled sailboat in the turbulent southern Indian Ocean, bringing relief to her family but ending her around-the-world sailing effort.

Laurence Sunderland, the father of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, told reporters outside his home that maritime authorities had contacted him to confirm the rescue.

“She got out of her vessel with the clothes on her back, and we are just really excited and ecstatic that Abigail is in safe hands,” he said. “She was in good spirits ... She talked to her mother.”

Sunderland has been stranded in heavy seas since Thursday, when she set off a distress signal after the mast collapsed, knocking out her satellite communications.

The elder Sunderland said the family was not going to elaborate on the problems that led to the emergency.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the French ship Ile De La Reunion brought Sunderland on board from her stricken craft Saturday afternoon (about 2:45 PDT).

An hour before the rescue, an Australian search and rescue spotter plane overflew Sunderland's boat and she fired off a flare to confirm her position, her brother Zac told reporters.

The crew on the plane had been in contact with the rescue boat to try to determine how best to get Sunderland from one boat to the other amid concerns over the rough seas and the differing size of the two vessels.

Laurence Sunderland said the crew used its dinghy to retrieve his daughter. “We are just ecstatic that she is alive and well and survived the ordeal.”

He said her boat will likely be sunk because it's not feasible to tow it a great distance.

The elder Sunderland said it could be more than a week before he sees his daughter. He said the French vessel was heading to an island where she will board another ship and then on to Reunion.

Sunderland set out from Los Angeles County's Marina del Rey on Jan. 23, trying to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo.

Zac Sunderland held the record for a little more than a month last year until Briton Mike Perham completed his own journey. The record changed hands again last month, when 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson completed her own around-the-world voyage.

Outside the family home early Saturday, news crews gathered to await word on the rescue. The family said it has been receiving updates by telephone from Australian rescue officials. Eight pink balloons were tethered to the white picket fence in front of the single-story house and beneath them was placed a large, hand-painted sign that read: “Thank God Abby's alive.”

Soon after starting her trip, Sunderland ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued, hoping to complete the journey.

She had been keeping in contact with her parents through satellite communications and had made several broken calls to her family in Thousand Oaks, reporting her yacht was being tossed by 30-foot (9-meter) waves — as tall as a 3-story building. An hour after her last call ended Thursday, her emergency beacons began signaling.

Rescuers in a chartered jet flew from Perth on Australia's west coast and spotted Sunderland's boat, Wild Eyes, on Thursday. She was able to radio to the plane to say she was in good health and had plenty of food supplies.

Australia's military has two maritime patrol aircraft ready to help if needed, saying the planes could fly from Mauritius to support the rescue ships and drop emergency supplies to Sunderland.

Her parents have come under criticism from some observers for allowing the high-risk adventure.

Veteran sailors questioned the wisdom of sending a teenager off alone in a small boat, knowing it would be tossed about for 30 or more hours at a time by the giant waves that rake the Southern Hemisphere's oceans this time of year.

Her father, Laurence, defended the voyage.

“I never questioned my decision in letting her go,” he told reporters Friday. “In this day and age we get overprotective with our children. If you want to look at statistics, look at how many teenagers die in cars every year. Should we let teenagers drive cars? I think it'd be silly if we didn't.”

She was contacted by rescuers in a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that made a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland's boat, which is near the limit of its range.

They spotted Sunderland on the back deck of her boat. Its sail was dragging in the water but Sunderland appeared to be in good shape.

She told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks' worth of food.

Family spokesman Jeff Casher said her vessel so badly damaged, her attempt to circle the globe was over.

“This is the end of the dream. There's no boat to sail,” he said.

The Australian maritime authority did not say how much the rescue mission would cost but said it would not be seeking compensation for the search, which initially fell just outside of Australia's search and rescue region. It was not immediately clear if the French vessel would seek compensation.



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