Notebook > Sports
Hans Gutknecht/Zuma Wire West Photos/Newscom

Man at sea

Sports | A homeschooler aims to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

From a satellite phone in Majuro, the capital and primary port city of the Central Pacific's Marshall Islands, the steady voice of 16-year-old Zac Sunderland crackles through the line. Two months into an epic journey around the globe, the understated sailor seems unmoved by the 4,200 nautical miles already covered in his quest to become the world's youngest solo circumnavigator. His words are calm, his emotions quiet, his thoughts directed forward to the 20,000 nautical miles yet to come.

"The squalls are pretty intense out here," he says, as though describing the daily grind of a typical teenager. "But I'm keeping it under control."

Sunderland, whose trek began June 14 from his hometown of Marina del Rey, Calif., grew up with sea legs. A bunk on a 55-foot sailboat served as his first bedroom. And thanks to homeschooling, he spent his youth on family cruises to Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Mexico, one such trip extending three years.

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That time on the water birthed a dream and the necessary confidence from Sunderland's parents that he could accomplish it. The goal of setting a world record for youth appears well within reach: Sunderland has until January 2010 to best the record of David Dicks, who began his nine-month voyage at age 17 in 1996 and finished at the age of 18 years, 41 days. Sunderland plans to complete his route long before his 18th birthday on Nov. 29, 2009.

His charted course through the Southern Hemisphere will wind between New Zealand and Australia, across the Indian Ocean, around the horn of Africa, and up through the Panama Canal. He'll make stops in such exotic locations as Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; the Cocos-Keeling Islands; Cape Town, South Africa; and Port of Spain, Trinidad.

But for now, he's storing up some sleep-filled nights and stocking up on fresh produce. Sunderland's voice echoes through the muffled connection once again, explaining the challenges of nightfall on the open sea: "You get pretty knocked around sleep-wise. You can be up all night. It's pretty crazy having no control over the weather, so you have to take what you can get."

Sunderland names solid chunks of shuteye among the trip's highlights, a sort of daily respite to which he looks forward and relies on to keep going. But there are more meaningful moments, too: the calm after a successfully navigated squall, the daily phone calls with a supportive mom, the time alone with the oceans' maker. Sunderland says the experience has deepened his connection to God: "It's great having that time out here that you wouldn't have in your normal busyness back home."

But the daily schedule of a solo sailor is hardly wide open. With shifting winds, traffic from other boats, and radio calls, Sunderland's time is often in high demand-just how he prefers it. Between sailing duties, he's taken to reading the books of other solo circumnavigators and has designs on writing his own when he finally steps ashore on the California coast. The seedlings of that adventurous tale are already taking shape on Sunderland's blog, which he updates regularly for the scores of readers tracking his progress.

For some, Sunderland is a testament to the virtues of homeschooling. For others, he is an inspiration to pursue dreams. He's happy to accommodate both types of onlookers: "This trip has great potential. People email me all the time saying it has inspired them."

Some ill-informed emails have also levied criticism, questioning why Zac's parents would agree to put their son in such danger. In truth, the risk is minimal: High-tech communication devices and safety instruments track weather conditions and Sunderland's positioning, continually sending reports to a team of experienced sailors ready to offer advice and direction.

And the reward: life experience and perspective to rival the Ivy League, perhaps even a rite of passage. So has the trip thus far made a man of the boy sailor? "That's kind of a hard thing to tell about yourself," the composed voice crackles through the sat-phone one last time. "Other people will just have to look and see."

Olympian, anyway

For one class of fourth-graders, a swimming hero needs no hardware

By Paige Carrick and Warren Cole Smith

Swimmer Michael Phelps wrote enough captivating stories with his world-class swim strokes at the Beijing Games to fill two weeks' worth of nightly news openers-not to mention a few magazine covers. But trailing deep in the wake of Phelps' record-setting eight gold medals, little known Olympians carved out stories all their own.

Bahamian swimmer Jeremy Knowles, 26, returned from competing in the Games to a classroom of wide-eyed fourth-graders. He stepped into his first day on the job at Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School in Charlotte, N.C., just one day removed from Beijing's closing ceremonies.

Knowles, who hails from one of the Bahamas' leading sports families, brought no gold, silver, or bronze for show-and-tell. He made it no further than the preliminary heats in any of his three events. But with personal best times and national records in two of those races, he proved a hero to one tiny nation of 300,000 people and one small classroom in what has become his new home.

With fair skin, blonde hair, blues eyes, and what his family calls a Southern accent, Knowles says he feels at home in North Carolina, where he will also be the swim coach at the 1,000-student school. No stranger to the South, he spent his college years at Auburn, swimming to All-American status under coach David Marsh. When Marsh moved to Charlotte's Mecklenburg Aquatic Club last year, Knowles moved with him, the first step in one final run at Olympic glory. He previously competed at both the 2000 Games in Sydney and the 2004 Games in Athens, never so much as advancing to any event final.

Now, like most non-medal-winning Olympians, Knowles begins the rest of his life. Turns out, teaching could prove his best event. "Let's just say he got a gold medal on that lesson," Hickory Grove headmaster Henry Ward told the Charlotte Observer of Knowles' audition for the job. "Jeremy can connect. He's got a calling, a God-given natural ability with these students. I've interviewed a lot of teachers, and he's beyond his years in his insight."

More than insight, Knowles has star power. His students and all of Hickory Grove Baptist, which began classes while the Beijing Games were in progress, gathered around the television to watch their newest teacher make a brief appearance on NBC's Today Show. The kids cheered as Knowles waved to the camera.

Playing celebrity is nothing new for the Bahamian Baptist. He grew up the son of an Olympic swimmer and the grandson of an Olympic sailor. At age 8, he broke his first national swimming record. At 15, he became the first person to solo swim a 30-mile stretch from Beacon's Cay, Exuma, to Yamacraw Beach, New Providence. Those stories may never fill a Sports Illustrated cover spread, but they no doubt will inspire some fourth-graders.


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