At the mercy of the sea and public opinion

Published on: June 17, 2010


mitch02   Most parents are reluctant to hand over the car keys to their 16-year-old children. A few parents, however, are somehow able to hand over a 40-foot sailboat and stand on the dock and wave as their teenaged daughter heads out to sea to sail around the world alone. Today, two of those parents have become the object of scorn and accusations in blog posts across the Web.

   “The wind is beginning to pick up. It is back up to 20 knots and I am expecting that by midnight tonight I could have 35-50 knots with gusts to 60 so I am off to sleep before it really picks up.”
— Posted by Abby Sunderland at 9:49 AM (from Abby’s Blog,

   Some time after making that blog update from the vast nothingness of the Indian Ocean, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland went missing at sea.


Mitch Traphagen Photo
Sailing into the ocean alone is not for the faint of heart. Here, I am only a dozen or so miles off the coast of New Jersey. Solo teenage sailor Abby Sunderland was 2,000 miles from the nearest land when she was rescued after her sailboat was dismasted during a storm.

   I have a few thousand miles under my keel at sea. I’ve spent overnights under sail well out of sight of land. I have been mesmerized and terrified by the beauty and power of the ocean. At sea, I’ve seen my place in this world. I am but a small, insignificant collection of cells and thoughts on a vast ocean of life.

   Sunderland set sail alone from Marina Del Rey, Calif., in her sailboat, Wild Eyes, hoping to set a record to become the youngest person to sail nonstop around the world. It is a record her brother Zac briefly held before another teenager took the title from him.

On June 9, she made a final post to her blog describing having battled winds of over 50 knots and being very busy with keeping her sails up and patching them when the winds overpowered them.

   Two thousand miles off the coast of Madagascar, both of her emergency satellite beacons were activated. The beacons, known as EPIRBs, are the last line of defense for those at sea. Activating one means that you have abandoned all hope. It is not an act that is done lightly, nor is it taken lightly by those around the world dedicated to monitoring the signals. In Sunderland’s case, that two of them went off was most worrisome. It was assumed that one of them was attached to a survival suit, designed to be set off by a person in a life raft — or in the water.

   Moments after the beacons were activated, the US Coast Guard, along with NOAA, began working with Australian search and rescue officials. Thanks to the EPIRBs, finding the needle in a haystack, or rather, a young girl in thousands of miles of ocean, made the job somewhat easier. Thirty foot waves and heavy winds, made the job infinitely more difficult.

   Sunderland was well beyond the range of any rescue helicopter. The nearest ship was two days away from the location provided by the EPIRBs. In the meantime, there was no way to know if she was dead or alive. The EPIRBs would continue to chirp until the batteries died, regardless of whether or not her heart was still beating. Quantas Airlines sent out a jet which finally answered the question. She was alive. Her sailboat had been dismasted. She was effectively at the mercy of the sea. Two days later, she was picked up in good health by the French fishing vessel, Ile De La Reunion. It will be a few days before her family can see her, the rescue ship is a long way from land.

   What kind of parents could or would do such a thing? With my limited experience as a foster parent for three teenage girls, I can’t answer that question. I can’t imagine it. But I do know that a rush to judgement is a mistake. That this young girl had the confidence and ability to sail halfway around the world alone is a huge testament to both her and her parents. That she was able to fight through storms in one of nature’s most violent places and survive to tell the tale says much about how her parents could stand on the dock in Marina Del Rey and wave goodbye as their little girl sailed off over the horizon.

   To many older people, teenage girls in a generic sense (meaning those not our own) are often percieved as barely literate shopping mall rats. They leave overly dramatic and frequently embarrassing posts on Facebook. They seemingly expend all of their efforts and energy appearing to be something they are not. In hindsight, adolescence is rarely pretty.

   Abby Sunderland appears to be none of that. She is a young woman with the confidence to sail away alone from her family, friends and the shopping mall into the unknown and unforgiving sea. That is no small feat for anyone of any age. She possessed the skills and ability to sail halfway around the world; and then had and maintained the state of mind to survive the worst that could be thrown at her. Abby Sunderland is a young woman who will accomplish things in life. She is capable of great things. We need more young people like her.

   “Everyone on board has been really friendly. They have come a long way out of their way to help me and I am so thankful that they did. My mom has told me about all that the different rescue groups did to help find me. So thank you to all of you. I had only hoped that a ship would pass by me within a few weeks. I am really in awe. Thank you to everyone involved.”
–Posted by Abby Sunderland at 12:57 PM, June 13, 2010

   It is true that by going out alone on the ocean and then activating her EPIRBs, she risked the lives of those who rescued her. In fact, one of the crew from the fishing vessel fell into the ocean during the rescue — and he, himself, needed to be saved. But they volunteered for the job. The rescue organizations volunteered for it, too. It is their job, their responsibility. It is what they do. The crew of the fishing vessel understands what she was trying to accomplish. They aren’t angry or resentful. They are proud. Their pride comes from not only fulfilling the traditions of the sea in helping a fellow mariner in distress but also in associating with an impressive young woman who chose searching for the frontier over shopping at Ambercrombie and Fitch. She wanted to push the boundaries. She wanted to break new ground. This young American woman attempted something for which America used to be known — she chose the path of the heart over the path of convenience. It didn’t work out this time but I have no doubt, there will be a next time. Her courage, ambition and skill at such a young age are things this nation should applaud.

   “The story of Wild Eyes is over, but my story is still going. I’m still out on the ocean headed to a little island called Kerguelen and then will be on another boat for ten days up to an island near Madagascar. From there I will eventually make it home. So, on goes my adventure!”
Abby (from her blog, June 13, 2010)

   Since her rescue, she has been quoted as saying she wants to try again. To that, I say “Fair winds, Abby. Follow your dreams. Make America proud.”

   It is clear she has what it takes to do so.