May 21, 2013
When Adults Help Kids Flirt With Death
Posted on Jul 18, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
Thousands around the world were relieved to learn late last month that Abby Sunderland, 16, is safely back in the bosom of her family in Southern California.
If you weren’t one of those, at this moment you’re probably asking, “Who?”
Abby Sunderland, the international hero and role model to admirers near and far, that’s who. The girl whose name fetches almost 7 million hits on Google, that’s who.
The teenager—called an adventurer by some and a daredevil by others—returned to her home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on June 28 after being plucked out of the Indian Ocean following an accident that terminated a colossal solo voyage. She and her 40-foot sailboat had ended up in quite a pickle when a heavy sea snapped off the racing vessel’s 60-foot mast, leaving, as she later told a throng of reporters in California, a 1-inch stub.
The mast broke when the sloop Wild Eyes encountered a 30-foot wave during a squall and turned upside-down, briefly knocking the young sailor unconscious. Largely because of the emergency radio beacons onboard, she was rescued two days later. But during the long hours when there was no way for her to tell anyone she had survived, anxiety over her fate ran high. (A few pessimists declared she probably was dead.)
It’s no exaggeration to say that even with the access to electronic technology she had before and after the mast was lost, Abby Sunderland was in a perilous state, one that easily could have turned fatal there in the Indian Ocean 2,000 miles from land.
Sunderland set out early this year in the hope of becoming the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo and nonstop. She had covered 12,000 miles when the mission ended so suddenly and dramatically. But before she reached that point her effort to complete the voyage without stopping had long been frustrated. Soon after she set sail from Marina del Rey, Calif., she needed to make port in Mexico to deal with an equipment problem, and later she stopped in South Africa.
On abbysunderland.com—“The official website of Abby Sunderland … and her quest to become the youngest solo circumnavigator”—there was a message this month that the teenager posted during her journey: “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!”
Her prediction in that last sentence certainly proved to be correct, and her exclamation point at the end certainly proved to be called for.
Early in July on her website (now changed) there was an aerial photograph of the dismasted boat, which was emblazoned with a company name, Shoe City, in large capital letters. The picture was taken when the disabled craft was at the mercy of currents, and within the photo was the printed question “Where is Wild Eyes?” A mouse click on the picture took one to an undated map and a caption: “Wild Eyes is drifting eastwards at approximately 24 nautical miles per day towards the Australian coast. This map shows its estimated location.”
A guest at the site could click on a device to expand the map, and that yielded an interesting perceptual result. As successive clicks enlarged the frame step by step, the indicator of the boat’s changing position was dwarfed ever more by a surrounding expanse of blue ocean. For seemingly countless miles, one saw nothing but water. A few more clicks, and two specks of land appeared in the image, and then, at last, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Although it was nothing but a map, its effect on at least this viewer was striking: The portrayal of sheer physical isolation was intense.
In assessing what happened to Sunderland, it fairly boggles the mind that adults were involved in placing this child in such a situation, however precocious, smart, strong, talented and ambitious she might be. After all, we are talking about a girl who doesn’t yet have a driver’s license or a high school diploma and who wouldn’t be old enough to legally enter a California nightclub until the autumn of 2014.
On her website, Sunderland thanked “family, friends, supporters, sponsors and Team Abby” for helping to make the adventure possible. On the word sponsors was a hyperlink that enabled site visitors to see the assembled logos of more than two dozens concerns that presumably had provided money or some other support for the attempt.
Besides Shoe City, the sponsors named on the website included a movie theater chain, a marketer of sunglasses, a camera retailer, several sailing-related companies and a number of food-related operations, among other businesses. In a June 18 article the Los Angeles Times reported that the sponsors had collectively contributed $100,000 to $200,000. Also, according to the newspaper, Laurence Sunderland, the father of Zac and Abby, says the family put a quarter of a million dollars into the ocean-spanning voyages of the two teenagers.
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