Obligatory thoughts on Abby Sunderland, a.k.a. That 16-Year-Old What Set Out To Sail Around The World:  as so often happens, I’m of two minds and don’t know what to think. 


On the one hand, I’m glad that she’s found herself a challenging hobby that she loves, and even gladder that she has supportive parents who encourage her to get her geek on.  Set a course for fearless adventuring; I’m pretty sure she’ll make one hell of a grownup.

On the other hand, I’m nonplussed by the marketing of the whole thing, where the already incredible feat of sailing solo around the world is downplayed compared to being the youngest person to do so.  I am reminded rather forcibly of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in 1996 trying to become the youngest person to fly across the United States.  In Dubroff’s case, it was pretty clear–then and now–that she may have been a precocious pilot and an extraordinary kid, but the whole trip was a stunt orchestrated by her dad for the media’s benefit.  I can’t help but wonder how much of Abby’s trip scheduling was because she and her parents had reckoned her abilities and concluded that she was genuinely ready for it, and how much was pressure to do it NOW before someone younger slipped in ahead of her and her story became less salable.  Part of a parent’s job is to substitute their (hopefully) mature judgment for their kid’s still-developing judgment, and I feel like her parents at the very least weren’t an effective firewall between their child and the seduction of the media, and at worst were accomplices in a stunt that nearly turned fatal.


On the OTHER other hand, my 16-year-old self pokes her head up out of my subconscious to tell me that I am now twice her age and therefore old and crotchety; that she considered herself reasonably mature, thanks so much; and that one of the things that sucked the most about late adolescence was all these well-meaning adults telling you what you could and couldn’t do.  I must admit she has a point.  I can’t judge Abby’s abilities, stamina, drive, etc.–she and her parents are better equipped to do that–and people mature at different rates, so it’s entirely possible that 16-year-old Abby is better able to take care of herself, even alone in some of the remotest parts of Earth, than many adults could.  And I really hate the attitude that kids must be raised in bubbles and carefully kept from anything but sunshine and bubblegum and pre-chewed food: I’m a firm believer that kids need alone time, unsupervised time, time to take risks and make mistakes, and time to take on bigger challenges than they thought they could handle, because that’s how you acquire stories to tell around the campfire learn and grow.  16-year-old me wasn’t up to sailing around the world or anything like that, but 17-year-old me was up to spending a summer in Paraguay.

On the FOURTH hand, there’s a world of difference between regular adventures that are awesome and thrilling and huge achievements that are still potentially achievable by teens, like, I dunno, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail; and batshit insane stunts, like sailing around the entire freaking world solo, that stand a remarkably good chance of killing you.  The winds around 40 degrees south latitudes kill people.  Rounding Cape Horn kills people–kills lots of people, including (read up on the age of sail if you doubt this) expert old sailors with great big sturdy ships and a literal shipload of experienced crewmembers.  It seems to me that, if one is determined to have an adventure, one should perhaps select one that is not quite so… foolhardy.  Do we really need kids pulling a Jessica Dubroff trying to become the youngest to climb Mt. Everest barehanded and blindfolded and without supplemental oxygen, or ski down an avalanche, or arm-wrestle a grizzly bear?

Which brings me back to my first thought, which is that no matter how pure Abby’s motives may have been to begin with, money corrupted them into something darker.  I think it’s fair to say that media success was at least part of the plan from the outset: her 17-year-old brother Zac has already sailed solo around the world, and apparently the family financed it by making a documentary about it.  I don’t begrudge Abby her dreams–even if her dream is “just” to be famous–but I can’t say I like the way they’ve taken form.  At the very least, the family’s chosen a questionable way to fund their kids’ hobbies. (But who am I to say that?  Should only rich kids have dreams?)  A way that looks less like a kid’s genuine desire to sail the world and more like parents willfully risking their child’s life in pursuit of a media-friendly story.  It’s less about her even than it is about our society’s fascination with people living out slightly gimmicky dreams and reporting live on the experience[1], less an adventure than an ADVENTURE! ™, conceived and produced for media consumption way more than for oneself.


[1] Am I the only one bewildered by the craze for books written by people who’ve vowed to do (or not do) X for a year, apparently with the express goal of writing a book about the experience?  Why, people?  WHY?