Schaeffer wins AP's 'Beat of the Week' award for teen sailor exclusive

Memo to the Associated Press staff


Abby Sunderland's family had been adamant that they would not cash in on the 16-year-old California girl's brush with death as she tried to sail solo around the world, and when she refused to give any interviews, there was an even greater rush to get her story.

Through sheer persistence, APTN Senior Producer Jeffrey Schaeffer got it.

When news broke that the young sailor had been rescued from the Indian Ocean 20 tense hours after three-story-high waves snapped her mast and cut off her satellite communications, Schaeffer started putting together a team to fly to Reunion Island, a French territory where Sunderland’s family would be waiting.

He repeatedly asked officials to connect him directly with the patrol boat taking the girl to Reunion, but they refused, citing security reasons.

Then Schaeffer noticed that she was stopping at the remote Kerguelen Islands, near Antarctica, for just a few hours. He figured that was his best chance, even though Sunderland had written on her blog that she wasn't ready to deal with the media who had bombarded her with interview requests.

By then, Schaeffer was well known to officials who had dealt with him _ in French _ on the phone. He convinced a press attache in Reunion that one interview with the AP would cover the widest audience, including most of the outlets trying to reach Sunderland, and the attache agreed to pass the request on to her directly.

Finally, Schaeffer was patched through.

The phone rang twice. A woman answered.

"Hello, is that Abby?" he asked.

No. The woman said she was "Natalie" and then could be heard speaking French with someone in the background.

"I will connect you," the woman said, and Schaeffer had his scoop.

Sunderland told Schaeffer that her adventure "can look pretty crazy," but she defended her parents against critics who say she never should have been allowed to attempt it.

She declined to go into detail about the moment her 40-foot yacht became disabled, other than to say: "You don't have time to be terrified. If you get terrified, things just get worse. You just deal with what you get given and make the best out of it."

The interview was digitally recorded, and a text staffer wrote a story off the transcript. Broadcast put out audio, and photos obtained pictures. The story was among Yahoo's most recommended and viewed, and a Eurovision exclusive.

For doggedly tracking down the young sailor sought by media around the world and convincing her to give him the exclusive interview, Schaeffer wins this week's $500 prize.

Mike Oreskes
Senior Managing Editor

  • Jim Romenesko

    From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August of 1999, after seeing his, a hobby site he started in May of 1999.


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