Searchers hope to radio US teen sailor in distress midway between Australia and Africa

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Friday, June 11, 2010

Searchers hope to radio US teen sailor in distress

CANBERRA, Australia — Searchers aboard a jet flew Friday to the southern Indian Ocean hoping for radio contact with a 16-year-old California girl who sent distress signals from mountainous seas between Africa and Australia while sailing solo around the world.

The Qantas Airbus A330 chartered by Australian rescue authorities offered the first chance to communicate with Abby Sunderland since satellite phone communications were lost and her emergency beacons began signaling Thursday.

She had made several broken calls to her family and reported her yacht was being tossed by 30-foot (9-meter) waves.

The 11 trained observers aboard the plane, which left the western Australian city of Perth early Friday, hope to spot the yacht and talk to Abby by close-range VHF marine radio, Western Australia state police spokesman Senior Sgt. Graham Clifford said.

“They can’t do anything more than observe; they can’t drop anything to help her,” Clifford told The Associated Press.

The jet faced a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to the search area, which is near the limit of its range, Clifford said.

He could not say how long it could spend over the search area, but police expected the yacht would be found quickly if the two beacons remain active.

Water police chief Senior Sgt. Greg Trew said the fact that a third emergency beacon aboard the yacht had not been activated suggested the yacht remained afloat. That beacon automatically activates when submerged in water, he said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said three vessels had been sent from the French territory of Reunion Island off Madagascar. A French fishing boat should reach the area Saturday afternoon, a French fisheries patrol boat could be there by Sunday morning and a third boat could arrive by Sunday evening, it said in a statement.

Abby’s family and support team have expressed confidence that she is alive because the beacons were deliberately turned on rather than set off automatically.

“She’s got all the skills she needs to take care of what she has to take care of, she has all the equipment as well,” said brother Zac, himself a veteran of a solo sail around the world at age 17.

But renowned Australian round-the-world sailor Ian Kiernan said Abby should not have been in the southern Indian Ocean during the current southern hemisphere winter.

“Abby would be going through a very difficult time with mountainous seas and essentially hurricane-force winds,” Kiernan told Sky News television.

“I would question her preparation to allow her to be in the southern ocean in June when we’ve got these huge storm fronts coming through and these intensely deep low pressure cells,” he added.

Support team member Jeff Casher said the two emergency beacons were continuing to broadcast and GPS location data showed they were together and drifting at 1 mph (1.6 kph). He believed the beacons were on Abby’s boat but said they could be with her on a raft.

Casher offered several scenarios: The boat may have flipped over and Abby could still be inside; the boat’s mast may have been damaged; or she was injured and could not pilot the boat. He said that if the boat flipped, the hull would prevent her from calling from her satellite phone.

Conditions can quickly become perilous for any sailor exposed to the elements in that part of the world.

“We’ve got to get a plane out there quick,” said family spokesman Christian Pinkston, adding that the teen’s family in California was asking for prayers for her safety.

Her brother said Abby was prepared and mentally tough. “I really wish I could see her and hope she gets through this one,” he told reporters outside the family home.

Abby last communicated with her family at 4 a.m. local time (7 a.m. EDT, 1100 GMT) Thursday and reported 30-foot (9-meter) swells but was not in distress, Pinkston said.

Casher said Abby had to make repeated calls with her satellite phone because of sketchy connections. He said she had been in rough weather and had a problem with her engine, which she eventually managed to start. The team then asked her to check other things on the boat.

“She hung up to go check some things and she never did call back,” he said.

An hour later the family was notified that her emergency beacons had been activated, and there was no further communication.

A lifelong sailor whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company, Abby set sail from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey in her 40-foot (12-meter) boat, Wild Eyes, on Jan. 23 in an attempt to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone without stopping. Her brother briefly held the record in 2009.

Abby soon ran into equipment problems and had to stop for repairs. She gave up the goal of setting the record in April, but continued on.

On May 15, Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson claimed the record after completing a 23,000-mile (37,000-kilometer) circumnavigation in 210 days. Jessica and her family sent a private message of hope to Abby’s family, spokesman Andrew Fraser said.

Abby left Cape Town, South Africa, on May 21 and on Monday reached the halfway point of her voyage.

On Wednesday, she wrote in her log that it had been a rough few days with huge seas that had her boat “rolling around like crazy.”

Information on her website said that as of June 8 she had completed a 2,100-mile (3,400-kilometer) leg from South Africa to north of the Kerguelen Islands, taking a route to avoid an ice hazard area. Ahead of her lay more than 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) of ocean on a 10- to 16-day leg to a point south of Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Australia.

Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman and Nardine Saad in Thousand Oaks, California, and John Antczak, Alicia Chang, Christina Hoag, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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