As I write this entry, rescue teams are rushing to the last known position of 16-yr-old Abby Sunderland and her 40-ft sailboat, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Less than an hour after talking with her support crew, the emergency beacon on Sunderland’s boat was activated as she sailed through a storm. Readings from the beacon indicate the boat speed is currently only 1 knot, leading searchers to believe that it is adrift. The condition of Sunderland, or if she is even still onboard the boat, is unknown.
When the crisis struck, Sunderland was just over half-way through her round-the-world voyage. She set out in January from Marina Del Rey, hoping to set a record for the youngest person to singlehandedly circumnavigate the globe without stopping. Mechanical glitches forced her to make a pair of unplanned stops, but she sailed on, planning to arrive home sometime in October.
It was nearly a year ago that the world welcomed home Abby’s brother Zac from his own solo circumnavigation – we even chronicled it here. And, as we pointed out at the time, it was an admirable if dangerous accomplishment. But in the six months between Zac’s arrival and Abby’s departure, Zac’s record as youngest to accomplish the feat was beaten, and a second sailor fell just short. Now Abby is lost at sea, and you can’t help but wonder if this isn’t becoming a grossly misguided pursuit of records.
At sixteen, Abby Sunderland couldn’t even drive her friends to school without parental supervision, yet she is sailing around the world. In a society that won’t let their kids walk to school in fear of what might happen, three sets of parents stood dockside and watched their kids sail over the horizon – one pair twice. I appreciate the willingness of parents to encourage and even endulge their children’s dreams, but shouldn’t there be a limit? In recent months, we’ve seen a 13-year-old climb Mount Everest (while a member of another climbing party was killed), a tourist company be criticized for their introduction of a child-sized shark cage for swimming with great white sharks, and now this. I pray this isn’t some kind of sibling oneupsmanship gone tragically wrong.
A few years ago, there was a similar episode of younger and younger children setting records in a particular accomplishment – in that case, piloting a plane cross-country. The string of flights only ended when one young pilot was killed, and the FAA was forced to step in. I think the appropriate authorities really need to take a look at these teenage circumnavigations and determine at what point someone should be allowed to put themselves so completely at risk.
But that can wait for another day. For now, join me in praying for the safety of Abby Sunderland.
UPDATE: A Qantas airliner chartered to search for Abby spotted her dismasted boat and was able to make contact with her. She can’t do anything but wait to be rescued, but at least she’s safe. Judging from the reports I’m seeing, we’re going to get the best of both worlds – rescue for Abby, and a serious question about the wisdom of sending teenagers into harm’s way in such a fashion.