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Marine Resource 2016

What Happened to Zac?

by Nancy Knudsen on 7 Oct 2008
Zac in Darwin - photo by Amanda Berkahn .. .
Zac Sunderland is the brave 16 year old Californian who is currently on a solo world circumnavigation, with the aim of becoming the youngest circumnavigator. Last week he left Darwin, and all was well as he made his slow way across the Indian Ocean - until 'something' happened.

The wind stayed steady all through the night and I was making good progress. The swell picked up to about 8 feet and I was back to the climbing up and surfing down motion. Around 11:30am I was sitting in the cockpit when I saw a boat about 4 miles away.

I took a look at my radar screen and didn't see anything. I took another look at the boat. We were heading parallel to each other and would pass well clear of each other. I went down below and switched on the VHF radio and tried to hail them on Channel 16 with no luck.

I went below and got my camera and got some footage of them but it was still hard to make out who or what they were because they were still about 3 miles off. I was sitting in the cockpit watching them and suddenly they changed course. At this new angle we would hit.

I moved the autopilot over a few degrees to get out of their path. As I did they changed course dead for me again. So I'm thinking, 'I've got a ship that doesn't show up on radar with no flags and no radio response, deliberately heading straight for me 150 miles off the coast of Indonesia, a place notorious for piracy.'

I went down below and called them on the radio again and again, finally hailing them using the words 'Securite' which is the word used to alert another boat that there is possible danger. Maritime law says boats are required to respond to this call. Still no answer.

I went up to the cockpit and saw the boat was closing in fast. I turned on the engine and slammed it into gear and altered course again so as to avoid a collision and get on a faster tack. I watched the boat which I could now see was a 60-70' long wooden fishing boat that looked about ready to break up it was so old. They altered course straight for me.

I jumped down into the cabin and switched on the SSB High frequency radio which has a distress button on it that will transmit my position on all emergency channels if I push it.

Then I grabbed my 357 and jammed some bullets into it. I grabbed my Iridium phone and turned it on. It flashed 'low battery'. I switched on the inverter and plugged it in to the charger and called home. I told them what was going on and gave them position as fast as I could. I hung up the phone and watched the boat get closer through the bullet-proof windows of my boat.

A half a mile and closing, I grabbed the VHF and tried to hail them again with no luck. I put out a call on the VHF saying 'Pan Pan' and that I was being approached by an unidentified and unnamed vessel. I gave my position and asked for help. I got no response. By now they were way too close and looked like we would just pass clear of each other.

I move the autopilot over more and moved the engine up a few RPMs. I got my gun and waited. We passed a couple of hundred yards apart and they stopped dead in my wake. I was moving along just under 8 knots and getting the hell out of there as fast as I could.

The fishing boat stayed stopped in my wake for about 10 minutes and then shot off in the other direction. I called home and let them know what was up and they told me that they were in contact with the branch of Search & Rescue that dealt with piracy and that I would be getting a call from them soon.

I got off the phone and sat in the cockpit wondering what it was all about and whether they would come back in the night. Since I couldn't see them on any radar I would have to wake up every 25 minutes to check the horizon. I talked with the pirate control person from Australia and they sent up a plane to check in with me a couple of hours later.

I called up my friend Will who had heard about it from my sister's text message. I guess the 'Zac is getting attacked by pirates.' message traveled fast. Will's dad was on the phone with a California senator to see if he could help in anyway.

But in the end all that happened was that I got really tired from getting up all through the night and I'll probably never know what the fishing boat was doing. Now I'm going to go hit the bunk and catch up on some sleep. Oh yeah, thanks for praying!

Yes, Zac, your concern is entirely understandable, and that's what Terror and Piracy have done to us. They were probably, Zac, coming over to look at the strange little white boat with sails. It's their ocean, and there aren't many yachts out there. But how could you have known? We are so hammered on a daily basis with stories of piracy that innocent curiosity can so easily be mistaken for malintent.

Travelling where you are is fisher territory for thousands of small Indonesian fishing vessels. You are probably just too far off shore to see them, but at the 700 mile mark from Darwin depending on your latitude, you will probably see more in the days to come.

Good sailing, Zac, Sail-World will follow your progress with great interest.

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