CANBERRA (Reuters) - A 16-year-old California girl trying to sail solo around the world is safe and well after a massive search and rescue was launched in the Indian Ocean when she triggered distress signals, her parents and Australian authorities said Friday.
Her parents had lost contact with teenage adventurer Abby Sunderland Thursday as her yacht Wild Eyes was pounded by huge waves in the remote southern Indian Ocean, but an Australian plane flew over her Friday and made contact with the girl, Australian authorities said.
A French fishing vessel was on the way to rescue the young American, who began her trip in January, her parents said.
“The aircraft spoke to her, they told her that help was on the way, and she sounds like she is in good health,” said Mick Kinley of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in Canberra.
“She is going to hang in there until the vessel can get to her in about 24 hours,” Kinley told a news conference.
The search for Sunderland involved Australia, U.S. and French rescue authorities sending ships and a commercial airliner to an area about 2,000 miles southeast of Madagascar and 2,000 miles southwest of Australia.
“The boat is upright but the rigging is all down, which means she was probably rolled by a rogue wave. But she reported that she was fine. She seems to be in good spirits, but that is all we really know for sure,” Marianne Sunderland, the girl’s mother, told U.S. cable television network CNN.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said conditions in the area were poor, with 56 mph winds and an 18 foot (six meter) swell.
“It’s a huge relief, obviously. There is a great deal of jubilation and elation that Abigail is safe,” Laurence Sunderland, her father, told CNN.
“The severe weather conditions that she was experiencing the day before this all happened have abated. We’re confident that when the fishing vessel arrives alongside that she’ll have about 10 to 15 knots of wind and there will be a successful rescue,” Laurence Sunderland added.
Sunderland had hoped to become the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone nonstop but had to give up her chance at that record when she was forced to pull into a port at Cape Town, South Africa, for repairs to her boat.
"Wild Eyes is upright but her rigging is down. The weather conditions are abating. Radio communication was made and Abby reports that she is fine!" her parents posted on her blog (soloround.blogspot.com/).
The Australian aircraft flew over Sunderland Friday, reporting the yacht had been dismast and the keel apparently had been detached. Laurence Sunderland said his daughter had all of the safety equipment she needed, including a cold water survival suit, life raft and bag with emergency supplies.
Her parents have been criticized by some in the media for allowing her to undertake the solo voyage at age 16. Sailing experts have said that she was ill-advised to leave California in January because she risked arriving in the Indian Ocean at the start of the winter season.
The area is one of toughest parts of the world to launch rescue operations. British solo sailor Tony Bullimore had to be rescued by an Australian navy frigate in 1996 after his yacht capsized during a race in which another competitor died.
Veteran Australian sailor Ian Kiernan, who held the Australian record for solo circumnavigation of the world, said Sunderland’s trip was badly planned, given the mountainous seas and huge wind strengths of winter in the area. “I don’t know what she’s doing in the Southern Ocean as a 16-year-old in the middle of winter. It’s foolhardy,” Kiernan said.
Marianne Sunderland told CNN her daughter loves sailing, but added, “I don’t think she’ll attempt something of this magnitude again.”
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham