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Jun. 11 2010 - 10:56 am | 636 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Abby Sunderland: Would you let your 16-year-old sail solo around the world?

Sunset off the west coast of Oahu. Sue Frause photo.

I don’t typically interfere with parental decisions, but the recent situation where 16-year-old Abby Sunderland was sailing solo around the world and issued a distress signal made me a wee bit angry. At one point, she was thought to be lost at sea, and there has been no shortage of criticism from seasoned sailors.

Fortunately, she was located, and as her parents declared on her blog: Abby is fine! A story in the Los Angeles Times, Sailor Abby Sunderland is alive and seems unharmed, appeared in the sports section.

As the mother of a now adult son, I can’t imagine this type of trip for my kid. Oh, he did fly off to Europe by himself in high school; I think it was between his junior and senior years. But he was staying with family friends in Switzerland, not trying to sail around the world.

I made my first solo backpack trip to Europe when I was 18, flying Icelandic Airlines from JFK to Luxembourg via Reykjavik, Iceland. It was the early ’70s, and I was squished in next to a very large hippie from Holland sporting John Lennon glasses. I recall seeing the volcano spouting off; being stuck at the Reykjavik Airport for way too many hours (not ash related, some other reason); and watching reruns of Leave It To Beaver on a very small black and white TV in a very small airport lounge.

Kids aboard 'Pacific Grace.' Sue Frause photo.

I survived.

Abby said it had been her dream since she was 13 to sail solo around the world. Would you let your son or daughter go?


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  1. collapse expand

    As a long time avid sailor and professional seaman, I will say that Abby is far safer sailing around the World in her well equipped boat with her support team than if she was driving to a mall in her home community. And I know of very few parents who would say no to a teenager going to the mall.
    While I do not personally know Abby, I have been following her story and seen her comments and interviews. I would much rather be sailing on any sea with her than with a majority of the boaters I deal with constantly on the waters of our country. Even at 16 she is more “professional” and prepared and knowledgeable than 90% of those out on the water around the world today. She is well trained and well prepared for this circumnavigation. And in my opinion as a maritime professional, for a bunch of armchair landlubber motormouths with a computer to be condemning her parents is absurd. I for one am proud of her and would gladly sail on any sea in the company of such a mature and well trained sailor.
    I know many professional “captains” who are not as prepared as she is, and the credit goes to her parents for raising such a mature and capable daughter.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment … it’s good to hear feedback from somebody in the sailing/sea world (I travel by ferry and do some kayaking but that’s about it). As far as being an “armchair landlubber motormouth” (ha!), I was speaking purely as a mom, and of course it’s from my perspective, so no … I wouldn’t allow it. The Sunderlands are obviously an adventurous family, and good on them for living life in the adrenaline lane. It’s just not for me, nothing more, nothing less.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I’m with you, Sue. What worries me about this adventure is that it was originally billed as her attempt to be the youngest person to sail the world solo. So there was a fame/Guinness Book of World Records aspect to this decision, similar to the 13-year-old kid who recently successfully climbed Everest, that was condoned by her parents. And that, I think, is the wrong motivation. What was the rush to do this? If she’s that good a sailor, wouldn’t a few more years of seasoning and maturity have been wise? If she did this at the age of majority, it would have been her own decision. But clearly it was not.

        If this situation did not have a happy ending, the narrative about her preparation would have been completely different.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        While I can understand your feelings as a mother and respect your opinion, but also as a father I would not only allow it but encourage it if my daughter was mature enough and well trained. I disagree that it is about “living life in the adrenaline lane” but maybe living life to ones fullest potential. If it is not or you, that is your choice, but one should not condemn or rebuke those for whom the choice might be different, that was my point. As for the “armchair landlubber motormouth” comment, that was not intended specifically to you as a person but to the many comments I have been hearing for weeks now regarding this girls voyage by people who have not knowledge or experience regarding maritime matters. Parents by the thousands send their kids off around the world as foreign exchange students and on missions… without criticism, and the danger potential is probably greater for those young men and women. That is my opinion.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Tani Aiebi did it (solo sailing around the world) years ago at 18 — after her Dad made her do it. Women are capable; if she were male, would there be this much fuss?

    • collapse expand

      Maybe you have a point… however would you let your daughter do it? Not only would I let my daughter do it I would do just as Abby’s parents have done and make sure she had a well equipped boat and the knowledge and skills to do as she has done even in adverse conditions. She has done every bit as well as most men could have done if not better than some I have known. One only has to check the library for books on the accounts of some men who have not shown near the skill, maturity and seamanship that Abby has shown.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    It’s the age that concerns me, not male/female. If my son wanted to solo sail around the world at that age, I’d say no. Ditto if I had a daughter. In kid years, sixteen is a lot younger than 18 (my son turns 30 this summer). That said, families have different degrees/levels of adventure, and obviously this family has a very extreme definition compared to our family’s idea of outdoor recreation (backpacking, biking, skiing, kayaking, etc.). I’m sure there’s a book/movie already in the works and Abby and her parents will be fixtures on the talk show circuit for at least 15 minutes.

  4. collapse expand

    OK, gang: hang onto your hats and read this:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bonnie-fuller/abby-sunderlands-dad-was_b_611948.html

    If it’s true, the man should be arrested for child abuse (not to mention have a state-ordered vasectomy).

  5. collapse expand

    Well, I’m sure their “Good Lord” will see them through, eight kids and all. I don’t think it’s the end of the story, unfortunately. I’d forgotten about the Balloon Boy hoax, which now has its own Wikipedia page:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balloon_boy_hoax

    As does Abby Sunderland:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abby_Sunderland

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    I'm a professional freelance writer and photographer who has been in the journalism 'biz since 1988. I live on a small farm on an island in Puget Sound with my husband, chickens, turkeys and our very own field of dreams. When I'm not packing and unpacking from exploring the seven continents (yup, I've done 'em all), I enjoy theater, movies, jazz, fine food, heavenly spas and long dinner parties with my family and friends. Oh, I grew up in the '60s and I sort of remember it through the haze.

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