Boats head to teen sailor drifting in Indian Ocean

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AP Photo/Richard Hartog

In this Saturday, Jan 23, 2010 picture, Abby Sunderland, 16, looks out from her sailboat, Wild Eyes, as she leaves for her world record attempting journey at the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, Calif.

A 16-year-old sailor on a round-the-world journey was adrift in the frigid southern Indian Ocean on Friday as rescue boats headed toward her yacht, damaged by 30-foot waves that knocked out her communications and prompted her to set off a distress signal.

After a tense 20 hours of silence, a search plane launched from Australia's west coast made radio contact with Abby Sunderland on Friday.

The boat's mast was broken - ruining satellite phone reception - and was dragging with the sail in the ocean, said search coordinator Mick Kinley, acting chief of the Australia Maritime Safety Authority that chartered a commercial jet for the search.

But the keel was intact, the yacht was not taking on water and Abby was equipped for the conditions, he said.

"The aircraft (crew) spoke to her. They told her help was on the way and she sounds like she's in good health," Kinley told reporters in Canberra.

"She's going to hang in there until a vessel can get to her," probably on Saturday, he said.

A lifelong sailor, Abby had begun her journey trying to be the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop around the world and continued her trip after mechanical failures dashed that dream.

Abby told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks' worth of food, said family spokesman William Bennett.

Support team member Jeff Casher said the boat had gotten knocked on its side several times.

The CROSS maritime rescue center on the island of Reunion, off Madagascar, said it had sent three boats in her direction and they were expected to reach her Saturday.

Philippe Museux, CROSS director, told French RFO television station in Reunion that it had asked a fishing boat to head to the zone.

"This zone is not frequented by ships very often. We asked a fishing boat from Reunion to reroute to that zone," he said, adding that a maritime affairs vessel, the Osiris, and the commercial ship Skandia Bergen were also rerouted.

Friday's communication with Abby was the first since satellite phone communications were lost early Thursday.

She had made several broken calls to her family in Thousand Oaks, California, and reported 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, her emergency beacons began signaling.

The observers aboard the search plane - a chartered Qantas Airbus A330 jet that left Perth early Friday - spoke with her by close-range VHF marine radio, western Australia state police spokesman Senior Sgt. Graham Clifford said.

He said the jet faced a 4,700-mile (7,600-kilometer) round trip from Perth to Sunderland's boat, which is near the limit of its range.

Qantas spokesman Tom Woodward said the airliner flew five hours out to sea to reach the area where the beacons were transmitting, then maneuvered for another hour before spotting the 40-foot (13-meter) yacht.

The maritime authority, which paid to charter the plane, said it would not be seeking compensation for the search, which initially fell just outside of Australia's search and rescue region.

"That's the way the system runs," search coordinator Kinley said. "We would expect people to rescue any Australian yachtsman (in these conditions). It's our obligation to do this and we'll fulfill those obligations as Australia does."

He did not say how much the rescue mission would cost.

Abby's family and support team had said they were confident she was 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. He said Abby was prepared and mentally tough.

Abby's father, Lawrence, told NBC's "Today" show Friday he was especially thankful for Australia's quick response in sending out a search plane and that his son's solo circumnavigation experience helped the family.

"We had experience with these tense moments," he said. "They are not enjoyable moments, of course, and your mind does play tricks on you. ... It's just a waiting game."

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.

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

Abby - whose father is a shipwright and has a yacht management company - set sail from Los Angeles County's Marina del Rey in her 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 and photographer Mark Terrill in Thousand Oaks, California; and John Antczak, Alicia Chang, Christina Hoag, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Denise Petski and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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