Abby Sunderland and parental responsibility

Like many people, for the past two days I’ve been closely following the saga of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old California girl whose attempt at a solo circumnavigation of the globe came to an end when her mast snapped in a fierce winter gale in the Southern Indian Ocean.

And, like everyone who has been following this saga, I heaved a huge sigh of relief and uttered a prayer of thanks when I learned that a Qantas Airbus dispatched from Perth had spotted her boat and had made radio contact with her. As I write this, a French fishing vessel is on its way to rescue her.

What I find perplexing about this story is not that her parents allowed a 16-year-old to attempt this voyage, but that so many people appear to be outraged at their decision. And that some of that outrage is directed at their faith in a sovereign God who controls all things.

First of all, what does her age have to do with it? Abby has been sailing her entire life. If she has the seamanship skills and the maturity — and, by all accounts, she has both — and if she has the right equipment, why shouldn’t she go? I’d be far more worried about a 30-year-old who’s had two sailing lessons taking a daysailer across Chesapeake Bay than I would about a teenager with Abby’s experience and training setting off to sail a properly designed yacht around the world.

Second, why is it the business of anyone other than her parents? Some of those commenting on the websites that have been following this story want to have Abby’s parents, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, thrown into jail for child abuse. It is our misfortune to live in an age of meddling busybodies. Why should their opinion count for more than the judgment those who know her best, who brought her into the world and brought her up?

The fact that the Sunderlands are evangelical Christians who, in addition to allowing their children to sail solo around the world — their older son, Zac, completed a solo circumnavigation in 2008 at the age of 17 — also homeschooled their children, is seen as further evidence of their irresponsibility.

There is one criticism, however, that I think has some validity. Abby’s plan was to sail south from Marina del Rey all the way to the tip of South America, then pick up the West Wind Drift — also known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current — and follow it eastward until she cleared New Zealand’s South Island before turning north again.

This route was chosen in order to avoid pirates — her brother had encountered some during his circumnavigation. Also, by exploiting the West Wind Drift, she would make better time.

However, her late January departure, along with a forced stop in Capetown for repairs, put her in the treacherous Southern Ocean in the middle of winter. She should have left no later than the end of November. I suspect that she didn’t because she wasn’t quite ready. (In fact, she wasn’t quite ready when she did leave; she had to stop in Cabo San Lucas for some repairs, before starting again in early February.)

She could have waited until late August or early September, which would have put her in the Southern Ocean at a time of year in which it is much more benign. But if she did that, she wouldn’t realize her goal of becoming the youngest person to complete a non-stop circumnavigation.

As it turned out, she didn’t reach her goal anyway, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered that much if she had. The Guinness Book of World Records, citing the risks involved, has announced it will no longer recognize the youngest person to complete a circumnavigation.

Personally, I think she should have waited a few months. Even so, I still think that what she has done is pretty amazing. And I think her parents are pretty amazing for encouraging her to do it.

3 thoughts on “Abby Sunderland and parental responsibility”

  1. Abby’s motivation to become the youngest person to solo navigate a sailboat around the world introduced unnecessary risk into the equation, and, frankly, there were enough risks associated with the attempt already. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t be content with the accomplishment itself, but felt the need to get her name in the Guinness Book of World Records. That decision introduced a sense of urgency that could have had fatal consequences. Obviously, she and her parents were supremely confident and were willing to accept the additional risk, but I wonder how her parents would have felt if Abby had died for the sake of a little notoriety.

  2. I respect Abby Sunderland. She is such a bold daughter. Been able to cruise alone in very risky seas for reaching her ambition. Too awful she got an accident and could not finish her journey.

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