June 15, 2010

Dear Abby:


I'm trying to make some sense out of the story of Abby Sunderland, the sixteen-year-old who was recently dismasted in the southern Indian Ocean while attempting a single-handed circumnavigation.

I wonder if the worst part of Abby's ordeal isn't ahead of her.

The swirl of controversy and media attention that awaits her when she gets off the fishing boat that rescued her may be worse than anything the Southern Ocean was able to throw at her.

I'm always amazed, when something unfortunate like this happens, at the number of experts who materialize with opinions about what should or should not have been done.

Of course, this is not just the story of a shipwrecked, single-handed sailor. There are the questions of whether Abby was too young to attempt such a voyage, of whether she did this freely or was pressured by parents with egotistical or commercial motives. There's even the question of whether writing a simple blog post like this just contributes to the hype that encourages such things.

You certainly won't find any expert opinions here, though.

I'm writing this to sort out my own thoughts. I've wavered from one side to the other since this all began. Should we leave Abby and her family alone to do what they want, or should we join the chorus saying any such attempts are foolhardy and just endanger lives, including those of rescue crews?

At the bottom, and I think what is almost always forgotten, is that none of us know Abby or her parents. None of us was on that boat and can know whether she handled the situation as well as she might have. We can make all the generalizations we like about whether sixteen-year-olds should be out on the ocean alone, but none of us knows if this is that one extraordinary teenager who just might be up to the task.

Abby was able to get half-way around the world on a high-strung 40-foot racing boat. She handled 60-knot winds and seas that were at least 30 feet high for several days before she was dismasted. She had the presence of mind to keep the boat afloat (presumably she secured or cut away the damaged rig), keep herself warm and alert, and summon help.

Many boats with full professional crews have fared far worse than that in the Southern Ocean.

When I was sixteen, I had all that I could manage just trying to learn algebra.

Doc Haagen Dazs has brought up the argument of single-handed voyaging itself being unseamanlike. Technically, he's right. The single-hander can't maintain the perpetual watch that good seamanship dictates, which includes having someone on the helm to best manage the boat in the really nasty stuff.

But, going all the way back to Slocum, some of the most inspiring and encouraging achievements in sailing have been managed by single-handers. Should we have forbidden Chichester or Robin Knox-Johnston from attempting what they did?

There's also the matter of self-determination. Sailing is one of the few things left us that allows us to escape the bounds of what is safe, comfortable, and regulated. It lets us test what we've got against the worst that nature can throw at us, if we are willing to face the risks that we know are out there.

It may be absurd to suggest that this applies to a sixteen-year-old attempting a circumnavigation.

But, with today's technology, maybe it's not so absurd anymore.

If sixteen is too young, how about eighteen? Or twenty? Where do you draw the line? I know that we should be very careful when we start drawing lines. Are other factors more important than age? Training, previous sailing experience, physical strength, formal certification?

I still don't know how I feel about this. I know that I don't know enough about Abby to be making any recommendations to her or to her family. Joe Rouse links to a dark story about what the family's true motivations might be, but I don't know if that has any bearing on the larger issues I'm grappling with.

Abby, I hope that you are resting well tonight. You're going to need your strength to weather the storms that lie ahead.

I suspect that you're a better sailor than I will ever be.



  1. O'Docker - this was a good post.

    My view is that the number of years a person has lived is only one (and, likely not the most important) factor in determining the maturity and capability of an individual.

    I, for one, encourage this type of "walkabout", where a person is likely to discover her own self.

    If there were no uncertainties, no danger, no fear in all of one's life, what would be the point?

  2. Maybe parents of teen circumnavigatorwannabes should have their kids wait until they are 1 day older than any recordholder, official or non. Just remove the attention-getting record thing entirely & make sure that the kid is really doing it because they have a burning desire to sail around the globe alone.

    Letting a kid go sail around the world alone? Generally doesn't seem wise but I think the only people who are really in a good position to judge individual cases are the people who actually know the kid & his or her family.

    But the request for money to save the boat, the idea that US taxpayers should foot the bill for the rescue & especially the reality show? Ugh. Just plain ugh.

  3. Every day do something that does not compute. But don't put to much pressure on your kids.

  4. Too not to. I knew that.

    Verification word: myopme. Excuse by old guy with bifocals as to why he made a silly spelling mistake.

  5. Thanks for the link, O'Docker. Just a couple of points to add.

    I'm hiding behind the oilskins of Dereck Lundy in his God Foresaken Sea, when he argues that the best seamanship and most competitive sailing is done by crewed boats and that distance solo racing has a touch (or more) of stuntsmanship that detracts from something... un je ne sais quoi ... 'performance'?

    Secondly, all distance soloists - Abby Sunderland included - are better seamen than I will ever be. Unquestionably.

  6. I think we can point to specific preparations that would have increased Abby's chances of success.

    And I think at least some of these preparations should be part of a standard by which any prospective future voyages can be measured and tested.

    And I think that if US Sailing and the International Sailing Federation want to have any credibility in this area, that they need to speak out. Otherwise, they risk being seen as even more marginal to most sailors.

    The American Sailing Association is the only sailing organization that's been in the media in regard to Abby Sunderland, and I've not seen them or anyone talk about standards and preparation.

  7. Great book, Doc. And yes, she may very well be better than you or me, but I'm just fine stayin inside and diggin for clams. My mast is still up.

    WV: stille. She probably didn't have too many stille nachts

  8. Earlier in the trip Abby had lot of quiet wind as the weather rounding was very conservative, to the point to where her progress seemed quite slow.

    But, after Capetown, some commentators thought the routing got more aggressive. Interesting.

  9. sorry weather routing!