The Race to be The Youngest Circumnavigator

While the Volvo Ocean Race has been dominating sailing headlines this year, there’s an unofficial circumnavigation “race” taking place: The contest to become the youngest person to circle the globe. At only 17 and 16 years old respectively, Zac Sunderland (USA) and Mike Perham (UK) are vying for a place in the pantheon of sailing world-record holders David Dicks, Jesse Martin, and Robin Lee Graham. Currently, Australian David Dicks holds the record for the youngest solo non-stop circumnavigation, having successfully completed his voyage in 1996 at the age of 18.

Sunderland, the first to embark, sailed westward into the Pacific Ocean June 14th, 2008 from California aboard his Islander 36, Intrepid, which he purchased himself. He cast off when he was only 16 (he celebrated his 17th birthday at sea), but he already had over 15,000 miles under his boots, albeit accompanied by other sailors.

Although Sunderland aims to break Dick’s age record, his trip is in a similar vein as Graham’s, who took a full five years to complete his journey aboard his iconic Dove. “As a kid, we read a lot of books on adventures, so I kind of got an idea that there was this great adventure out there,” Sunderland told SAIL via email while crossing the Gulf of Mexico. “I have learned how far I can push myself and it is way beyond what I would have thought,” Sunderland wrote. “In the middle of the ocean, there just is no turning back.” Sunderland has made frequent stops but is still the favorite to become the youngest solo circumnavigator, at least for a while.

Perham’s journey is a different undertaking on a different kind of boat. While Sunderland is sailing a sturdy, reliable horse, Perham’s is a leased Open 50 racer; a lot of fragile boat for a lone youngster. With 14,000 nautical miles behind him at the time of the interview, Perham had already suffered a few setbacks.

“I originally wanted to go non-stop around the world,” says Perham, who has settled on circumnavigating solo. A steering problem forced him to port not long after embarking. But Perham, an experienced sailor, took it in stride. In 2007, at age 14, he became the youngest singlehander to cross the Atlantic. His father shadowed him on a separate boat while Mike skippered a Tide 28 trailer-sailer, Cheeky Monkey. “I knew this would be harder,” Perham says of his circumnavigation.

Perham says he doesn’t view this voyage as a race but admits there’s an edge. Sunderland is a good deal closer to completing his circumnavigation mileage wise, but Perham isn’t concerned. “I can go a lot faster,” Perham said. “When Zac does get back, I’ve got a three-and-a-half month age gap.” This equals leverage for Perham, but, given his exotic choice of boat, finishing is still an uncertainty. Still, Perham’s faster boat and age could mean that even if Sunderland successfully finishes, he might only be the temporary record holder. However, both sailors could meet a juggernaut.

At just 15 years old, Australian Jessica Watson is poised to begin her own global odyssey: youngest solo, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation. Scheduled to start in November, if she succeeds, she could shave a year off of either Sunderland or Perham’s record, and obliterate the records set by Dicks and Martin.

Watson will be sailing an S&S 34, the same design used by both Dicks and Martin. But Watson hasn’t logged anywhere near as many miles as Sunderland, nor does she have the solo sailing experience of Perham. However, she has done several “mock-solo passages”, and continues to diligently prepare. Even so, Perham was impressed when he caught up with Watson in her hometown.

“She’s really positive [and] a lot more mature than most 15-year-olds,” said Perham. And, “she’s got a much simpler boat.”

When the young travelers are finally back ashore, a normal teenage life awaits them. But after a challenge like this, acne, prom, and college admissions should be a breeze.

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