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UNSINKABLEA YOUNG WOMAN'S COURAGEOUS BATTLE ON THE HIGH SEAS
By Abby Sunderland Lynn Vincent
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Abigail Sunderland a/k/a Abby Sunderland
All right reserved.
Chapter OneISLA GUADALUPE
BAJA, CALIFORNIA, MEXICO 2001
"Look, Dad! A panga!" Abby called to Laurence as they made their approach to Isla Guadalupe off the western coast of Baja, California, the northernmost state in Mexico. The island was home to fewer than fifteen people, mostly abalone and lobster fishermen. It would be the Sunderlands' first port of call on what had long been a family dream: cruising the Mexican coast in their own boat.
Dusk was falling softly as Amazing Grace, the Sunderlands' Aleutian 51, slipped quietly past Isla Guadalupe's southern end into majestic Melpomene Cove. Laurence and Marianne, along with Zac, then 10; Abby, 8; Toby, 4; and Jessica, 3, gathered at the bow and peered up in awe. To port, orange-tinted cliffs towered seven hundred feet, sheltering the cove from the sea; to starboard, sheer rock faces soared skyward. Below, even in the gloaming light, Laurence could see fifty feet down through the green water straight to the ocean floor.
Now the panga Abby had spotted motored closer. It was the kind of long, narrow skiff that forms the backbone of the Mexican fishing industry, and Laurence could see a man standing astride the beam, waving both arms like a signalman.
"Hola, senor!" the man called. "Cerveza para langosta? Cerveza para langosta?"
Laurence flashed Marianne a puzzled look. Everybody from Southern California knows that cerveza means beer. But what in the world was langosta? As the panga drew near, the Sunderlands saw the answer: the man was a lobster fisherman and his day's catch was scuttling around in the bottom of his boat. Several dozen Pacific lobsters, rosy brown in color, crawled on top of one another like giant ants in a colony.
"Wow," Zac said. "Look at all those!" Abby, Jessica, and Toby peered down into the panga, fascinated.
"Ah, langosta!" Laurence said. "Lobster! Si, senor!" Mentally searching through his limited Spanish vocabulary, he came up with a number. "We'll take four ... cuarenta!"
The man's weathered brown face cracked into a wide grin. "Cuarenta! Muy bien!"
"No, espera! Espera!" Marianne called to the man, using the Spanish word for wait. Then to Laurence: "Um, I think cuarenta means forty."
"No, wait, wait!" Laurence cried to the fisherman, waving his arms. "Espera! Espera!"
But the fisherman had already begun pitching lobsters up onto Amazing Grace, where they scuttled across the deck like desperados in a prison break. The Sunderland kids broke into fits of giggles, bending over the new passengers to follow their progress and dancing back and forth to keep their toes out of claw reach.
Between the Sunderlands' broken Spanish and the fisherman's scant English, the Sunderlands wound up with a dozen fresh lobsters for the price of a twelve-pack of beer that someone had given them back on Catalina Island before they set sail.
Laurence gathered the lobsters in a bucket and assembled the kids in the cockpit where they watched wide-eyed as he expertly twisted off the crustaceans' heads and chucked them over the side. A pot of boiling water later, along with garlic butter for dipping, the Sunderlands enjoyed the first of three years of seaborne feasts.
In 2001, after three attempts, broken autopilots, and an IRS audit, the Sunderlands set sail on the cruise of a lifetime. Not a cruise where you book passage on a big liner, lounge in deck chairs, and gamble in the ship's casino, but cruising, where you sail your own boat from port to port and linger in the ones you like.
Laurence had just finished two seasons working as harbor patrolman in the Emerald Bay area of Santa Catalina Island. Harbor patrolmen are responsible for watching over the bay in which they are stationed. They take radio calls from boats coming into the bay and assign them moorings and also assist boats in trouble in their area.
Laurence brought to the job a lifetime of experience. Born in England in a town called New Milton, he had grown up in what he calls a "golden triangle" of sailing. New Milton is near the coastal town of Lymington, which is directly across the solent from the Isle of Wight, the original site of the America's Cup race. Directly east of Lymington is Portsmouth, the site of several major yacht races, such as the Fastnet and the Whitbread.
The son of a piano tuner who also ran a commercial fishing business, Laurence had his first boat before his first bicycle. It was a dinghy that he kept shipshape. From the age of about ten, Laurence and his friends would row the dinghy up the channels off the Lymington River near their home, beach it on the sedge banks, and hunt for seagull eggs. Then they'd build a fire and fry up the eggs for breakfast. While sailing with his father, Laurence developed a passion for the sea. At age sixteen, he finished secondary school—the American equivalent of high school—but decided against college. An outdoorsman all his life, he hated sitting in a classroom, so he decided to turn his passion into an occupation and began an apprenticeship as a boat builder. From master tradesmen, he learned every aspect of the field: sheet metal, fiberglassing, electronics, plumbing, welding, and both construction and finish carpentry.
By the time he was nineteen, though, a newly enacted luxury tax had begun to cripple the British boating industry. So, Laurence moved to Australia, where he worked in commercial carpentry and picked up a couple of boat-building gigs. He also became involved in music, with a band called Xyphoid, as manager, songwriter, and lead singer. The band enjoyed moderate success in Australia, so in 1990, they set out to conquer the music capitals of the world, including Los Angeles.
That's where Laurence encountered the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had just cut some recordings at an L.A. studio and come away with an awful headache. While in Australia, he had discovered that surfing was great medicine, so he drove over to Venice Beach. Just as he tossed his towel on the beach and parked his surfboard in the sand, Laurence saw a slim, fit young woman in her early twenties sitting near the water's edge. She seemed to be keeping an eye on four teenage boys who were wading in the whitewater.
Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, the woman had long, light brown hair with hints of strawberry. Instantly smitten, Laurence angled for an opening. "You look too young to have such old children," was what he finally came up with.
The woman smiled. "Oh, these aren't my kids. I'm working."
She introduced herself as Marianne. A recent graduate of Cal State Northridge, she had a degree in psychology. The kids were from a group home for teens from troubled families, Marianne explained. She was their counselor.
For her part, Marianne was charmed by the blond, blue-eyed surfer with the Aussie accent. They agreed to meet later for a date, but neither had a pen and paper to exchange contact information. Laurence was so determined to see Marianne again that he used his car key to carve her phone number right into the leather of one of his high-top tennis shoes.
While Xyphoid showed promise in Australia and Los Angeles, the band eventually folded. So Laurence returned to his trade, opening Sunderland Yacht Management in 1990. He married Marianne the following year.
Later, as their family grew, so did Laurence's dream of family cruising. In 1998, when the opportunity arose for Laurence to work as a harbor patrolman at Catalina Island, the Sunderlands felt it would be an ideal way to test both their boat and their family for life at sea.
At Emerald Bay they lived on a mooring with no dock or shore power, no grocery store, and no laundromat. The arrangement gave them the opportunity to test the Aleutian's ability to generate solar, wind, and diesel power—and test the Sunderlands' ability to conserve power. The family learned to provision—or buy supplies—for two and three weeks at a time. They made their own water with an onboard desalinator.
The kids loved Emerald Bay. Most days, Marianne would row to the island and take them to the beach. Sometimes Zac and Abby would swim to shore or row Zac's little sailing dinghy over on their own. All the kids learned to snorkel, fish, and kayak.
But since Laurence's harbor patrol duties lasted year-round, the children also had academic learning to do. A little more than twenty miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina's rich history gave Marianne material for interesting homeschool lessons. Originally, the island was home to a native tribe called the Pimu. Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was the first European to walk the island's shores in 1542. He christened it San Salvador. Another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, rediscovered the island in 1602 and named it Santa Catalina after the Catholic saint, Catherine.
The next three centuries drew a parade of colorful visitors—from Yankee smugglers to the Aleut tribe of what was then part of Russia but is now Alaska. Pirates also favored Santa Catalina because they could hide out in its secluded coves. Laurence Sunderland preferred to charm his kids with pirate stories, while Marianne created hands-on science lessons about the island's wildlife, like deer mice and island fox, and history lessons about the Aleutians, who had come to the island and hunted the otters to extinction.
Living on the boat during Laurence's harbormaster years was the family's preparation for a real family cruise that they hoped might end with them sailing into Laurence's home port of Lymington. Before undertaking a long voyage, it was important to the Sunderlands to make sure the family could live on the boat and be happy and functional. In Laurence's mind, there would be nothing worse than taking your wife and kids cruising if they were going to suffer the whole time or be unable to adjust to life at sea. He wanted the cruise to be something that was uplifting and exciting, something that would draw his family close together. Both Laurence and Marianne also wanted their kids to develop responsibility, to see other cultures, and to experience the world instead of watching it on TV.
The most important part of the equation was safety. Laurence made sure the kids understood being at sea was anything but a lark. The cruising life can be quite mundane for long periods of time, but when things go wrong, they can go wrong quickly.
"Out there, if you're forgetful or disobedient, you don't get a time-out," he explained without theatrics. "If you don't tie down your surfboard, you lose your surfboard. If you don't tie up your dinghy, you lose your dinghy. If you slip and fall and you're not tethered, and the boat is moving and no one sees you, you could fall overboard and be gone."
On October 21, after a last push to prepare their vessel, the fifty-one-foot Aleutian cutter-rigged sailboat Amazing Grace, the Sunderlands—Captain Laurence, First Mate Marianne, and Able Seamen Zac, Abby, Toby, and Jessie—set sail for Mexico.
Laurence and Marianne were both amazed at how their children handled the passages between ports. They entertained themselves by building forts, reading books, or pretending to be Indians, and never seemed bored. At only two and a half, Jessica was the most sure-footed, having learned to walk while living aboard a boat. (As a comical result, on land Jessica rarely walked in a straight line.) Zac and Abby were both cheerful, eager to help with sails and lines and galley chores. But poor Toby never quite got over his seasickness. The Sunderlands watched him closely, hoping that he would rebound after a day or two at sea like the other kids.
One key element of the cruising life was shared responsibilities. Grocery shopping, for example, was an errand that required all hands on deck. Marianne, Laurence, and the four kids would pile into the dinghy, everyone wearing a backpack. From anchorage in the bay of Tenacatita, for example, Laurence would motor the dinghy to shore and from there the family clambered out and walked to the bus stop where they caught a jalopy bus to town. From Tenacatita, the bus rumbled through the dusty village of La Manzanilla and on to Melaque, a center for local commerce. Las tiendas, the stores, were squat stucco buildings with the proprietors' names hand-painted on the chipped plaster walls. Inside, Marianne and the kids dug scoops into oak barrels filled with arroz, frijoles, and azúcar (rice, beans, and sugar) and filled plastic Hefty bags with staple supplies.
Marianne showed Abby and Zac how to select the best papayas and bananas, and all four kids loved the treat of raw sugar cane, which they could peel and chew until it produced a light sweetness.
Once, in Melaque, a four-year-old Mexican girl, keeping her mama company in one of the tiendas, introduced Abby to the fuzzy yellow chick she was playing with. Abby fell in love and spent that whole night making a list of possible names for the pet chicken she was suddenly bound and determined to get. (Back in America, a couple of years later, she did get one: a free-range chicken hand-raised by a neighbor who had taught the bird to sit next to humans and nibble grain out of their hands.)
After all the shopping, the last stop was the tortilleria, where a chattering klatch of short, round Mexican ladies patted cornmeal mash into flat discs and tossed them onto a griddle where they transformed into soft, warm, chewy delights. Marianne would buy a dozen tortillas for seven pesos, and she and the kids would eat them all on the bus ride back to the dinghy. It was the kind of little ritual that lifelong memories are made of.
While the family could buy enough staples to last awhile, fresh food ran out quickly. Luckily, from Tenacatita they could motor their dinghy up a saltwater stream under a canopy of mangroves to an enchanting bay called the Aquarium because of its abundance of bright tropical fish. There were no hotels or businesses to speak of there, only a couple of palapas sheltering tiny outdoor restaurants. Once a week, a man driving a produce truck would rumble in to supply the restaurants. The cruisers anchored at Tenacatita knew this and would motor through the mangroves to buy his goods.
For the Sunderlands, the dinghy ride was always long and a bit wild, as they buzzed slowly under low-hanging mangroves flitting with blue-footed boobies and tiny, bright finches. Every now and then, the kids would spot a crocodile dozing on a bank-side boulder. But the crocs seemed annoyed by the humans and, slipping into the water with a single powerful tail-stroke, were gone.
Emerging from the mangroves was like arriving in paradise. After beaching their dinghy at the end of the river, the Sunderlands hiked across a sandy dune that led to the main attraction: the Aquarium. A shimmering turquoise inlet, the Aquarium's crystal waters were as clear as glass. A ring of sugar-white sand surrounded the inlet, and palm trees encircled the sand.
When the produce man arrived in his rickety truck, Marianne and Laurence gave the children pesos and watched the kind old man patiently teach the kids Spanish words for things like cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. Then, in Spanish, he would tell them the price and they would pay.
"Gracias, señor!" they'd chirp.
The Sunderlands loved watching their kids live life. There was no TV and there were no video games. Instead there were crocodiles and magnificent birds and people from other cultures, like the fruit and vegetable man with his colorful money and exotic names for ordinary things.
And with few stores and luxuries, the Sunderland kids learned a lesson Laurence and Marianne wanted them to learn from the beginning: to appreciate simple pleasures and, when no pleasures were readily apparent, to make do. For example, while cruising there weren't any bakeries with twenty kinds of donuts to choose from on a Saturday morning. Instead, there were dough balls with nutmeg in them. Marianne taught Abby how to puff them in the galley kitchen in a little simmering oil, then dust them with cinnamon and sugar. Not fancy, but a warm, sweet treat to remember.
Excerpted from UNSINKABLE by Abby Sunderland Lynn Vincent Copyright © 2011 by Abigail Sunderland a/k/a Abby Sunderland. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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