Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Devil's Bargain

The last few days I've been following the adventure of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old girl from California who is attempting to break the record for the youngest person to sail single-handedly around the world. Her brother Zac briefly held the honor a year or so ago when he completed the task at age 17.

I find I'm quite conflicted about the whole endeavor. On the one hand, well, she's a 16-year-old girl. It's hard to keep one's head around all the ways this little stunt could go horribly wrong. I don't have a daughter, but the high-school-aged exchange students we've hosted (all fabulous kids) wouldn't have had the first clue about, say, putting a quart of oil in the car or how to change a tire. I've read several accounts of single-handing around the world--from Joshua Slocum to Francis Chichester and Edward Allcard and others--and this is a serious thing she's undertaken. It's hard for me to feel very sanguine about Abby's ability to meet all the unforseen challenges she will likely face here, both in terms of having the mechanical ingenuity to solve complicated problems or improvise her way around broken equipment (in very rough seas in the midst of stormy weather), and also in terms of her having the physical strength to manhandle a 40 foot boat when her automation fails, a boat the sails of which generate a huge amount of force. If everything goes well and everything works, I'm sure she'll be fine. But that seems unlikely with this kind of voyage, and then it all seems quite perilous.

With Abby's father being a sailor and her brother having accomplished the same solo circumnavigation (and I'd have felt the same trepidation with him) she certainly has people helping her who DO understand the challenges she's up against. But one wonders at the family when two kids undertake the same expensive, life-threatening challenge in back-to-back years. In interviews the father seems to me like a snake oil salesman, giving a slick little spiel and treating her, a young girl, like a force of nature. Some have gone so far as to call this child abuse on the parents' part, and it clearly plays at the boundary. Regardless, it's hard not to see this all as a calculated play for notoriety. This sensation is not helped by the father's statements that "We're born-again Christians, and we've prayed about this and this is god's will" (I'm paraphrasing). If he had contended that god wanted Abby to do this at age 14 he'd be locked up for trying. I've heard a couple quotes of him deflecting question about Abby's safety by saying "god is in control of EVERYTHING." What a rotten hill of bullshit on which to prop the life of your beautiful 16-year-old daughter. Either it's a ploy to pacify the stupid American public, or he actually believes it; either option seems contemptible. And let's face it, the only reason to undertake this at age 16 instead of a more sensible 21 is that THIS makes for a record and press coverage and whatever follows on from that. It's just very hard for me not to feel contempt at this. (Abby herself says "This is something I've dreamed of doing since I was 13." Honey, that's, like, yesterday. Clearly the planning for all this was begun when she was 14 or sooner.)


On the other hand, I've dreamt of doing this very thing for years. I think single-handing a boat across oceans and into strange parts of the globe is an absolutely mesmerizing thing to do, and I'm very plainly jealous as hell of Abby. The risks involved, the reduction of one's day-to-day life to essential tasks (on many of which your very existence relies), the management of a complicated machine, the business of navigation and communication and reading the weather; all these things absolutely capture my imagination. Maybe a bit like warfare, I think this time for Abby will constitute a period where the trivial bullshit was swept from her life. This will likely be the most vital six month period in her life, at least until she moves onto another, further challenge.

So though I think the timing of this and the motivation of her family in not saying "Are you out of your frickin' mind?" is a bit suspect, I would love to trade places with her for this adventure. But if I were her dad, I'd encourage her and challenge her to finish high school and keep sailing and learning; and we'd start planning on her 18th birthday.

Of course I wish her the best and hope her adventure is a smashing success, not least because it will mean she has returned safely. I will follow this all with fingers crossed, and I'll dream of maybe plying some of the same waters someday in my comfy retirement.


Jon said...

Couldnt have said it better myself. She may be a bit jealous or brainwashed or both. She may have the skills, but at 16 she does not have the chops yet. I too, hope that all goes well and that she does make it. The first time that boat lays flat in 100 mph winds, she will find out what shes in for! Good luck to her!

BrianAlt said...

I agree, she's too young. And I have a (nearly) 14 year old daughter.

However, can you imagine the empowerment it gives to a person at that age? Can you ever believe there is anything you CAN'T do?

wunelle said...

I think of, say, olympic athletes and the really astounding things a 16-year-old can be capable of, and I certainly don't mean to dismiss her capabilities (though it seems natural enough to wonder at their extent at this age).

But olympic athletes seem to me less like Ernest Shackleton and more like a thoroughbred race horse: with careful coddling and management and an enforced laser-like focus they are capable of extraordinary feats.

It seems a VERY unusual high school girl who can happily spend six months without any human contact.