No. 5: Abby Sunderland

Circumnavigating the globe isn’t the same today as it was for Ferdinand Magellan in the 1500s: A sailor can call home via satellite phone and, of course, can blog. But when the elements are at their worst, it’s just you, your boat, and the ocean — a frightening prospect.

But apparently not for the parents of teen Abby Sunderland, who grew up sailing with her family. Her older brother Zac was the first person under 18 to sail around the world solo, so her parents were probably not shocked when 16-year-old Abby told them her intention to follow in his wake and set a new record. On the morning of her departure, her father, Laurence Sunderland, said of Zac and Abby, “It’s great to be able to encourage them in something that’s noble and of good character, and help them with those ambitions as opposed to throwing water on the flames of excitement in life.”

Unlike her brother, Abby chose a route that stayed mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, where the risk of pirates would be lower but the weather can be more extreme. She set out from California on her 40-foot sailboat, Wild Eyes, on January 23. By March 31, she was rounding Cape Horn, the youngest solo sailor ever to do so. But when she encountered high winds on June 10 that knocked down her boat several times, breaking the mast, Abby activated her emergency beacon. She was in such a remote part of the Indian Ocean that the closest ship was 400 miles away. It took two days for a ship, a French fishing vessel, to reach her.

Abby’s dramatic rescue set off a firestorm of criticism. Her parents should never have allowed the teenager to attempt such an endeavor, some people said. Others justified the journey by pointing to her considerable experience as a sailor, plus her older brother’s achievement. The controversy was still raging when Jessica Watson, a 16-year-old Australian, proved that a teenage girl could make the trip. Jessica had lived on a houseboat as a child and had decided by age 12 that she would sail around the world. Jessica had a head start on Abby — she’d left Sydney in her boat, Ella’s Pink Lady, on October 18, 2009. Jessica hit some bad weather too, but her boat was not incapacitated. She sailed triumphantly back into Sydney Harbor on May 15.

There’s something about teenage girls and the open ocean. Thirteen-year-old Laura Dekker, a Dutch citizen, ran away from home in 2009 when authorities tried to block her from attempting a record-breaking voyage with her father’s support. Dutch police issued an international alert, and Laura was found in Saint Martin, in the Dutch Antilles, and placed in the custody of child protective services. A month after her release from state custody, Dekker promptly set out on a second attempt to sail around the world solo. Now 14, she might still make history.

–Cicely Wedgeworth