The Teen Who Sailed the World Solo

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Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Zac Sunderland, 17, aboard his 36-foot sloop Intrepid at the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina Del Rey, Calif.

In the history of sailing, fewer people have circumnavigated the globe on solo voyages — less than 250 in all — than have attempted to summit Mt. Everest this year. On July 16, 397 days after starting his journey aboard the Intrepid, a 36-foot, $6,000 vessel he purchased with money saved from summer jobs, 17-year-old Zac Sunderland of Thousand Oaks, Calif., became the newest — and youngest — member of that exclusive fraternity. He spoke with TIME about staying awake for days at a time, sidestepping pirates in Indonesia and the many other challenges he surmounted during a voyage that spanned nearly 28,000 nautical miles.

Why did you decide to do this?
I've always sailed. Football season had come to an end, and I was looking for something else to do. I had just read Robin Lee Graham's Dove, which is about a 16-year-old guy who set out to sail around the world in 1965. It's an amazing adventure story, and that kind of gave me a desire to get out there and do it.

How difficult was it to convince your parents to let you do this?
They said, "If you want to do it, make it happen." After I bought Intrepid and started getting some sponsorships going, they saw I was serious. They've been really supportive.

How extensive was your sailing background?
I've been sailing my whole life and I'd lived on boats for eight years. So I did have quite a bit of experience. But I had never done very much solo stuff at all.

Did you have second thoughts before you set sail?
Not really. I just wanted to rush into it. It was really busy when we were getting the boat ready to go. We were working 16-hour days for four months. I finally got out there into the Pacific, and it was a pretty crazy feeling. I was alone for 23 days in the first passage to Hawaii.

Can you walk me through a typical day on the boat?
It changed day to day, depending on where I was in the ocean. If I was near the shore, I had to worry about fishing boats, local traffic and shifting winds. If I'm in the trade winds, it's pretty much like doing whatever it is you do at your house, because you set the sail and don't touch the line for three weeks at a time. The wind comes in the same direction for months. When you're doing that, you get your eight or 12 hours of sleep. Make food. I had a blog going on my website. I'd read up on the next port I was going to. Do some studying. Read a book.

You had far more stressful days, too — including, I believe, dodging pirates near Indonesia.
Yeah, definitely. The hour when I had the pirate vessel coming down on me was probably the longest of my life. Then in the Indian Ocean I had to stay up for three or four days, trying to keep the forestay up to keep the mast from falling backwards. I was being told by the best riggers in the business that I could quite possibly lose the mast, which probably would have meant a stop to the trip.

There were so many crazy times out there, but you know, there were so many good times, too. They say sailing is 80% hard times and 20% fun times. That 20% outweighed the 80%.

What were some of the best moments?
The Cocos Keeling islands, an Australian protectorate in the Indian Ocean, were a pretty amazing time. It was just the most beautiful place and pretty much uninhabited — there were 500 Muslims on one island and about 100 surfers on another.

During some of the tougher times, were the physical or mental challenges more difficult?
Sleep deprivation was probably the hardest constant thing. It was a pretty regular thing that I'd be up for 48 hours at a time.

What did you miss the most during these stretches?
I really missed my friends and family quite a bit on the first leg, over to Hawaii. That was pretty hard. After the trip wore on a bit, I got kind of used to being alone. I made tons of friends all over the world. It becomes easier to say goodbye and move on.

After a massive voyage like this, are you concerned that everyday life might feel kind of mundane?
I don't know. It's great to see my friends. At the same time, it's really weird not to have another goal that I'm really focused on. In port I had fun, but there was always that next ocean to cross.

You've set the bar for adventuring pretty high at a very young age. Have you given much thought to what comes next?
Not enough to say exactly what I'm going to do yet. I did look into Mt. Everest a little bit, and I'm looking into sailing down to the Arctic. I might see if I can get a TV series or something going on that. I hope to make a career out of adventuring. I love doing it, and if I can make it pay for itself, I'd be super happy.

What would you tell people who are inspired by your feat but fearful of going through with something similar?
It's about getting out there and doing it. Just try your hardest and push to make it happen. It's pretty amazing what you can do.