We begin with the manifesto, right off her Web site:

My name is Abigail "Abby" Sunderland and it is my dream to sail around the world. I've been around the water and on boats since I was 6 months old. I began single-handing when I was 13. I had this idea several years ago, even before my brother, Zac Sunderland. But watching him do it in 2009 made me realize my dream could come true with lots of hard work, support and perseverance. In January 2010, I set sail around the world on Wild Eyes, an Open 40 racing sailboat. I am attempting to become the world's youngest solo circumnavigator! This will be quite the adventure! I invite you to follow my journey as I will be posting pictures and videos, blogging as much as I can and keeping you updated on my location. I am amazed at all of the support I am getting from all over the world. Thank you to my family, friends, supporters, sponsors and Team Abby. Without all of you, this would all be just a dream.

Things went according to plan, until a little bit beyond the halfway point:

We spoke with Abby early this morning and learned that she had had a very rough day with winds up to 60 knots and seas 20-25 feet. She had been knocked down several times but was handling things well. The wind had subsided to around 35 knots which she and Wild Eyes are quite comfortable with.

We were helping her troubleshoot her engine that she was trying to start to charge her systems. Satellite phone reception was patchy. She was able to get the water out of the engine and start her up. We were waiting to hear back from her when American Search & Rescue authorities called to report having received a signal from her emergency beacon (EPIRB). We initially thought that the signal was sent automatically from her water-activated EPIRB and that it had been activated during one of her knockdowns. As we pulled the paperwork from her EPIRB registration, we learned that the signal had come from her manually activated EPIRB.

And things wound down quickly after that: Wild Eyes' mast was snapped off in a storm; the boat could not be saved. Abby, however, was picked up by a French fishing vessel.

Abby wrote shortly thereafter:

Within a few minutes of being on board the fishing boat, I was already getting calls from the press. I don't know how they got the number but it seems everybody is eager to pounce on my story now that something bad has happened.

There are plenty of things people can think of to blame for my situation; my age, the time of year and many more. The truth is, I was in a storm and you don't sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. It wasn't the time of year it was just a Southern Ocean storm. Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world.

Still, you could hear the Omigods from all over. "What kind of parent," they demanded to know, "allows a teenage girl to sail around the world all by herself? Why, we don't even allow them to send text messages to boys!"

You've heard this before, of course, and even if you haven't, The Worst Mother In The World has:

[O]n that sunny Sunday, I took the [nine-year-old] boy to a big, bright Manhattan department store Bloomingdale's and left him in ladies' handbags.


I didn't leave him defenceless, of course. I gave him a subway map, a transit card and $20 in case of emergencies. I also gave him some change to make a call. But here's the thing I have yet to hear the end of: I did not give him a mobile phone.

The kid made it back home in about an hour, absolutely bursting with pride at having pulled it off. Neighbors, friends, and total strangers were all equally horrified. Said Mom:

Growing up in the suburbs, I'd cycled to the library and walked solo to school. Friends who grew up in the city took the subway to baseball, the bus to ballet. We all played in parks without our parents. No one thought anything of it. But somehow, in just one generation, these normal, unsupervised activities had morphed into daring deeds on a par with filling cougar cavities.

Now why is that? Are the streets that much less safe? Crime data says no. And after puzzling over this for an hour or two, I finally hit upon an explanation that seems to make sense: we have millions of people who don't understand the concept of risk, who don't comprehend the mathematics of risk, who resent bitterly the idea that there is risk at all. How in the world some of them ever got to be parents is beyond me.

I walked to school in first and second grade. (It was about four-tenths of a mile, though if you cut through a certain then-undeveloped parcel of land, which apparently got mowed once a year whether it needed it or not, you could save half the time.) By my senior year in high school, the trip home involved a one-mile stroll across town to catch the local bus, which ran only to within a mile and a half of where I lived, so there was yet another stroll. It would have been easier, I suppose, to schlep a bicycle along with me, but the bus system wasn't then inclined to allow that sort of thing. Besides, I would have scary bicycle adventures soon enough.

Still, at this point, nothing had actually killed me, although an involuntary dunking in a rural cesspool had come closest. (Scarlet fever and pneumonia? Yeah, that's the ticket.) Kids are often tagged as "heedless," but thinking yourself indestructible, I submit, is an irreducible element of growing up: if you're constantly hiding in your room, lest something horrible happen to you, you're ill-prepared for that moment in the future when something horrible actually does happen to you.

Then there are the purely legal aspects of it all:

[T]here are three age-related milestones: birth, adulthood, and retirement. There's plenty worth discussing on these three topics, but important to understanding the Abby Sunderland issue is that adulthood is much fuzzier a concept than the other two. Children in Maryland can start working at age sixteen, and new adults can vote but still can't buy alcohol. Young girls in some states can get an abortion without parental consent in some states. "Children" can now enjoy being on their parents' insurance plans until the age of twenty-six.

Laws have adjusted the privileges of adulthood beyond the legal, clear-cut definition mainly because some groups have gotten burned due to tragedy and would like to make adjustments for everyone else as a result.

Which comes back to that whole "risk" thing. We all know people who are spooked by the very idea of risk, who think we have too many choices out there, who believe that equal lack of opportunity is just as good as equal opportunity. Entirely too many of them have managed to worm themselves into public office. You'll be able to hear their jaws hit the floor while they read this:

Everything you do, everything you say, comes with risk. Any decision you make, even the smallest and most insignificant, may have consequences you never imagined. You can't legitimately call yourself a grownup "adult," remember, is a legal term, nothing more until you come to grips with that fact. Which is why one Abby Sunderland is worth far more to the world than a whole chamber full of Henry Waxmans could ever be.

The Vent

  21 June 2010

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 Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill