It seems ironic that Abby Sunderland received so little press until she ran into trouble, and only then did the news really pick up on her story. Abby’s parents have been criticized for being too permissive in allowing their 16-year-old daughter to be exposed to unknown perils alone on the high seas. However, Marianne and Laurence Sunderland’s philosophy for building strong, well rounded adults is to mentor their homeschooled children into setting goals, creating a plan to reach those goals, and implementing them, allowing each of them to pursue their dreams. “We’re a clan of adventurers, not accountants,” they confess.
Children who attempt certain challenges are often suspected of being spurred on by ambitious parents who want to live their dreams vicariously through their offspring. However, over the last three years Laurence Sunderland had taken his daughter sailing in nasty weather and bad sea conditions to see if she was serious about going on such a venture, and this just made her more determined. Prior to her trip, Abby received much helpful advice from her brother Zac, who completed his own solo circumnavigation last year. Abby said, “My parents would not let me go if I wasn’t scared or if I didn’t understand what I am getting myself into.”
Most parents don’t think twice about letting their teenager get a driver’s license and risk potentially life-threatening, dangerous situations on the road every day. Why should a 16-year-old with excellent sailing skills not be allowed to venture out into her world? Abby was probably in less danger on the high seas than on the busy highways where she lives in Southern California. And compared to some of the behavior exhibited by other teens her age, there are certainly a lot worse things she could be doing!
By all accounts, Abby seemed well prepared and confident for her journey. It doesn’t seem fair that in the wake of her misfortune, many are questioning Abby’s competence. As Abby said herself, “I think that a lot of people are judging me by the standards they have for their teens and other teens that they know … and thinking, ‘She’s exactly like them.’ They don’t understand that I’ve sailed my whole life and I do know what I’m doing out there.”
A lack of experience cannot be considered a factor anyway, since even the most seasoned mariner can run into forces beyond his control such as unpredictable weather and rogue waves. Those who say that Abby is too young seem to forget that cabin boys on tall ships were usually 14-16 years old. Cabin boys didn’t simply run errands or help in the kitchen, either. The cabin boys did virtually anything and everything that needed to be done on a ship. They had to be familiar with the sails, lines, and other equipment – and know how to use them in all kinds of weather. They would have to climb the masts and scramble up the rigging whenever the sails had to be trimmed. A cabin boy would also stand watch while other crewmen slept or act as helmsman, holding the wheel to keep the ship steady on her course.
Unlike the sailors of old, Abby wasn’t going to be gone away for years; she was planning on completing her trip in six months barring any complications. Abby wasn’t really alone, either; besides God watching over her, she was in constant contact with her parents and support team via a satellite communication system. Abby had an electronic chart plotter, emergency beacons, a safety harness she wore on deck, and a special system that allowed her to sleep while it kept track of any object nearing her boat. The boat was also equipped with a heater, solar panels, batteries, and fuel for the engine, should the need arise.
Abby’s supplies included a stash of Mountain House freeze-dried food and plenty of fresh water, as well as a device for making sea water drinkable. After two separate autopilot systems both failed, Abby had the wherewithal to make do with what she had by swapping parts between them so at least one would be fully functioning. When Abby wasn’t busy guiding and maintaining her boat, she would be documenting the journey, reading books, doing homework, or listening to her iPod.
For those who complain about the cost of Abby’s search and rescue mission, her dismasting was an unfortunate accident but it wasn’t her fault. She was obviously well prepared, fully capable, and wasn’t doing anything reckless. I wonder if her critics would have been so quick to complain if she had been a Hollywood celebrity, rock star, political figure, or other famous person – like the late John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was not qualified to fly a plane by instruments only; but he did it anyway, at night, over open water.
In 1937, during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight around the world, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared. The ensuing air and sea search by the Navy and Coast Guard was the most costly and intensive in American history up to that time. In September 2007, the month-long search for millionaire daredevil circumnavigator Steve Fossett cost $1.6 million, the largest search and rescue effort ever conducted for a person within the United States.
There was plenty of money in Fossett’s estate to reimburse the authorities for his search effort, but they didn’t demand repayment. Nevada State Emergency Management Director Frank Siracusa noted that “there is no precedent where government will go after people for costs just because they have money to pay for it. You get lost, and we look for you. It is a service your taxpayer dollars pay for.” Why should Abby Sunderland – who is not rich, by the way – be any less worthy?
While Abby’s plight was a high profile situation, search and rescue teams do important work all over the world every day rescuing people you never hear about – whether it’s a lost hiker, stranded mountain climber, shipwrecked sailor, downed aviator, or trapped urban disaster survivor. All of these search and rescue missions use manpower, fuel, and equipment which must be figured into the cost. Although the non-combat duty pay of U.S. uniformed services (Coast Guard, Navy, NOAA Corps) is fixed, civilian search and rescue efforts could be thought of as providing extra opportunities for practicing their skills.
The Coast Guard reports that 95 percent of all sea rescue missions occur less than 20 miles from shore. The 10 percent of missions that involve a search cost the Coast Guard more than $50 million each year, an expense that is passed along to U.S. taxpayers. Each year, the National Park Service spends $3 million on search and rescue operations in our national parks. Once again, the federal government picks up the tab, which of course comes from taxpayers. In a few states, search and rescue agencies have the option to charge people for rescue, though they rarely do.
The value of human life cannot have a price. If Australian teen solo circumnavigator Jessica Watson had broken down off the coast of North America, the U.S. Coast Guard would have rescued her and American taxpayers would have footed the bill. Australian authorities stated that they have no intention of asking American sailor Abby Sunderland to pay them back. Whenever and wherever anyone is lost or in trouble, people are willing to help – not just because it’s their job but because they are Good Samaritans. That’s the way it should be.
America was built by adventurers from the landing at Plymouth Rock to walking on the on the moon. Few people have the courage to think outside the box, challenge the culture around them, and take on the unknown; yet they are the ones who lead the way for the rest of us. When individuals set high goals for themselves they deserve acclaim, not ridicule. We should be encouraging teens; not stifling their adventurous spirit.
Families like the Sunderlands inspire other young people to get off the couch, go out and “Do Hard Things.” In this age of video games and instant gratification, has our culture become so alienated from real achievement, so jaded by being handed everything we need, so dulled by our daily routine, that Abby’s vision of adventure escapes us? Or could it be that her critics – the ones living safely and comfortably behind the walls of their gated communities and working overtime at sedentary office jobs – perhaps are jealous and don’t want to admit it?