Zac Sunderland, 18-year-old who sailed solo around the world, to encourage young Chicago adventurers

When Zac Sunderland was born, he came home from Santa Monica Hospital to a boat in Marina Del Rey, a seaside town outside Los Angeles. While other kids his age were learning to ride a bike or throw a baseball, he was at his dad’s side, learning how to sail. And in 2009, he became the youngest person to sail around the world solo – at the ripe age of 16.

Today, Sunderland is a shaggy-haired 18-year-old finishing up high school. He continues to sail – up next, he says, is a trip later this spring through the icy Northwest Passage – and travels around the country speaking about his experiences. This weekend, he comes to Chicago for the Strictly Sail expo at Navy Pier Thursday through Sunday.

We caught up with Sunderland as he packed his bags in sunny California (leave the beach shorts, pack the parka) and chatted about escaping Indonesian pirates, calling home, and Chicago’s “big silver bean.”

I understand you’ve been on the water pretty much your entire life.

I came right home from the hospital onto a boat and grew up on the ocean. I learned to sail when I was 4 and it was always just what I did. I was homeschooled most of my life, so it didn’t really occur to me that not all kids had the same kind of childhood I did. I went to a regular high school for a few years, played football, did the whole ‘normal kid’ thing, but after sophomore year, I decided it was really for me. I wanted an adventure and so I told my parents “I want to sail around the world.”

What was that conversation like?

I’m not sure they took me seriously the first time, but I kept saying it and saying it. They were really supportive, but they made sure this was my project and my hard work. They said if I really wanted to do it, to go and get the sponsorship and make it happen. So I bought a $6,500 boat, which was all the savings had at the time, and three months later, I was ready to go. I think they were nervous for me, but I was able to stay in touch and they knew this was important to me, so they were OK with it.

What was the craziest thing you saw out there on the water?

Well, I ran into some pirates off the coast of Indonesia, so that was pretty crazy. Watching that pirate boat circling was probably the longest hour of my life. And there were a lot of times I’d be sitting there watching lightning strike all around me and just hoping, hoping, hoping the boat doesn’t get hit, because then you lose all your electronics … I loved being on the water, though. I got to see so many places and met so many people, but I was still able to stay in touch with my parents. One of my sponsors was a company called Clearpoint Weather, which handled my satellite phone calls.

Circumnavigating the globe at 18…What’s next?

One thing I learned for sure out of this was that I want to be an adventurer for the rest of my life. I saw so much of the world, but I know there’s a lot more to see. So my next trip is going to be the Northwest Passage, up in the Arctic Ocean. It’s only passable for a month every year, so right now I’m in the process of gearing up for that. I’m selling my boat, since I’ll need a steel or aluminum boat to navigate through the ice up there.

What would you say to kids out there, not that much younger than you were when you set this goal for yourself, who have big dreams?

Sailing around the world was my dream, my mountain to climb, but everybody has one, and I’d just encourage them to go after it as hard as they can. When I was out there looking for sponsorships, a lot of people didn’t want to sponsor me because they thought I’d fail. There are always going to be people who don’t believe in you, but if you go out there and find the people that do believe in you and work hard for something, you can go far.

28,000 miles and counting. Sunderland will be in Chicago this weekend at the Strictly Sail expo, Thursday-Sunday at Navy Pier. Click here for more information and a schedule of Sunderland’s speaking times.

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