Teen Sailor Abby Sunderland Missing at Sea

16-year-old California teen Abby Sunderland is seeking to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. CBS

Updated 8:33 p.m. EDT

A 16-year-old Southern California girl attempting a solo sail around the world was feared in trouble Thursday thousands of miles from land in the frigid, heaving southern Indian Ocean after her emergency beacons began signaling and communication was lost.

Pictures: Abby Sunderland
Sunderland's brother discusses the search mission

An international effort to rescue young Abby Sunderland began, but the vast distances meant long hours of waiting for her family and support team, which expressed confidence that she was alive because the beacons were deliberately turned on rather than set off automatically.

"She's got all the skills she needs to take care of what she has to take care of, she has all the equipment as well," said brother Zac, himself a veteran of a solo sail around the world at age 17.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Carly Lusk said three vessels were sent from the French territory of Reunion Island and an aircraft was to depart from Perth on a four-hour flight to Abby's location more than 2,000 miles from both Africa and Australia.

It was not clear when the vessels left, but it would take a day for the nearest ship to reach the area. Reunion Island is off Madagascar, the very large island along the east coast of Africa.

Support team member Jeff Casher said the two emergency beacons were continuing to broadcast and GPS location data showed they were together and drifting at 1 mph. He believed the beacons were on Abby's boat but said they could be with her on a raft.

Casher offered several scenarios: The boat may have flipped over and Abby could still be inside; the boat's mast may have been damaged; or she was injured and could not pilot the boat. He said that if the boat flipped, the hull would prevent her from calling from her satellite phone.

Conditions can quickly become perilous for any sailor exposed to the elements in that part of the world.

"She's in the middle of nowhere, pretty much," Sunderland's brother, Zac, told CBS Radio News. "There's nothing close to her."

Zac told Los Angeles radio station KNX that Abby was in a heavy storm at the time she called home.

He said Abby's boat was most likely not completely submerged because another beacon would be triggered at a depth of 15 feet.

The Associated Press reports that Abby's family was talking with U.S. and international governments about organizing a search of the remote ocean between southern Africa and Australia, family spokesman Christian Pinkston said.

"We've got to get a plane out there quick," said Pinkston, who was in close contact with Sunderland's family in Thousand Oaks.

"They are exhausting every resource to try to mobilize an air rescue including discussions with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and various international rescue organizations," he said.

Abby last communicated with her family at 7 a.m. EDT and reported 30-foot swells but was not in distress, Pinkston said.

An hour later the family was notified that her emergency beacons had been activated, and there was no further communication. Pinkston said the beacons were manually activated.

Sunderland was at least 400 miles from the nearest ship and even farther from land. She'd been combating 20-plus foot waves and high winds in the Indian Ocean.

Abby Sunderland's website

The nearest land is the French-controlled Reunion Islands off Madagascar. Authorities there detected Sunderland's emergency satellite signals, the GrindTV blog reported Thursday.

"Abby's father struggled with emotions and said he didn't know if his daughter was in a life raft or aboard the boat, or whether the boat was upside down," GrindTV reported.

Casher told ABC that Sunderland told him her boat was "knocked down" twice during the night, meaning that her sail had touched the water.

Sunderland, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., set out into a sunny, calm Pacific in January.

Her boat-builder father, Laurence, along with other family members and friends, cheered at the Del Rey Yacht Club as they watched the 40-foot craft - called Wild Eyes - depart.

The teen's trip has stirred controversy from the start, CBS News Correspondent Kelly Wallace reported for "The Early Show." Critics have accused Sunderland's parents of being irresponsible for letting her try sail solo around the world.

The planned route took her from Southern California south and then around South America's southern tip Cape Horn where, according to American Sailing Association Executive Director Charlie Nobles "you can literally have waves of 100 feet" if the weather turns nasty.

From there, Abby would head into the Southern Atlantic, known for having the roughest waters on the planet - and where she apparently ran into trouble this week.

"It is dangerous," Abby said at the time. "But you have to kind of understand what you're getting into and be ready for it."

Her father said Abby is ready for the challenge, observing that, "She's pretty much been in training for this her whole life."

Abby said she "decided to do this when I was 13 years old."

And to critics who say she's too young and the trip too dangerous, Laurence Sunderland asserts, "I don't agree with them. Not everybody should be put into a box, the boxes of society."

Sunderland had to suspend her journey in South Africa in April when her autopilot malfunctioned. She consequently dropped the "non-stop" aspect of her record-setting goal.

On May 15, Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson claimed the record after completing a 23,000-mile circumnavigation in 210 days.

Abby left Cape Town, South Africa, on May 21 and on Monday reached the halfway point of her voyage.

On Wednesday, she wrote in her log that it had been a rough few days with huge seas that had her boat "rolling around like crazy."

"I've been in some rough weather for awhile with winds steady at 40-45 knots with higher gusts," she wrote. "With that front passing, the conditions were lighter today. It was a nice day today with some lighter winds which gave me a chance to patch everything up. Wild Eyes was great through everything but after a day with over 50 knots at times, I had quite a bit of work to do."

Information on her website said that as of June 8 she had completed a 2,100-mile leg from South Africa to north of the Kerguelen Islands, taking a route to avoid an ice hazard area. Ahead of her lay more than 2,100 miles of ocean on a 10- to 16-day leg to a point south of Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Australia.

Last year a Netherlands court concerned about safety blocked a 13-year-old girl's plan to sail around the world, sparking debate on the role of authorities and parents when children want to undertake risky adventures.

Such attempts have resulted in success and tragedy.

Last month, 13-year-old Jordan Romero of Big Bear, Calif., became the youngest person to scale 29,035-foot Mount Everest. But in 1996, 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff, her father and a flight instructor were killed in a crash in Cheyenne, Wyo., during her attempt to become the youngest person to fly across the country.
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