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When Adults Help Kids Flirt With Death
Posted on Jul 18, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
The relationship between the sponsors and Abby was probably not much different in principle from the one that exists between corporate benefactors and the race car teams that slather company names over their vehicles. Shoe City and at least some of the other sponsors—their halos of altruism notwithstanding—surely figured to attract favorable attention to themselves through public association with the girl’s voyage.
The shoecity.com website early this month featured a large photo of Wild Eyes—alternating with two images promoting footwear—that showed the boat under sail with the Shoe City sign in full view; touching the bow was an inset picture of the photogenic teenager, next to the words “ABBY SUNDERLAND, YOU ARE OUR INSPIRATION!”
Considered strictly in terms of business promotion, the decision of the companies to be sponsors was reckless and foolhardy. In the end, they lucked out: Abby made it back in one piece. Had she not, the Shoe City chain, especially, would have faced a PR debacle: TV networks might have been broadcasting images of her grieving family within seconds of mentioning the company’s name, or might have been showing scenes of human tragedy at sea with the boat’s Shoe City sign looming large. The saying that “all publicity is good publicity” isn’t always true.
At this moment, Wild Eyes and its Shoe City ad well may rest at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After Sunderland’s rescue in June, the then-unoccupied vessel was expected to sink or be sunk.
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To help a minor undertake a premeditated feat that exposes her to severe risk of death … well, it approaches the territory of exploitation and abuse. The adults around Sunderland were not helping her compete in a bicycle race, or go skiing at Mammoth Mountain, or drive up Interstate 5 to Sacramento—all of which could, of course, result in injury or loss of life. They were facilitating a girl’s desire to go on an ocean trip, alone, that would take her through treacherous waters off the southern tips of South America and Africa and, she hoped, across the seemingly unending Pacific, where countless sailors and aviators have been gobbled up.
When the wave rolled her boat on June 10 and caused Sunderland to momentarily black out, it was only through the greatest good luck that she did not perish. Had she not been below deck, she might have been hurled into violent, frigid water. Safety harnesses and tethers have been known to come apart, and even intact safety gear has failed to save some sailors struck by a monstrous wall of water. And that doesn’t even get into the possibility of the boat’s hull breaking under the sea’s assault, which fortunately it didn’t. If that had happened, the girl might have had to take to a life raft, if she could manage to do so.
Contrary to some arguments, the risks in Sunderland’s venture can in no way be equated with the real but lesser dangers that most teenagers routinely face. Whatever the chances of dying on a movie date or a trip to school (in any part of any city), they are microscopic in comparison with the chances of dying on a solo voyage around the world. If you don’t believe that, ask Lloyd’s of London to quote you insurance policy prices for each.
Ironically, Sunderland’s attempt to set a record ended up almost killing someone who never will bask in the light of intercontinental celebrity or contemplate being the star of a reality show. The captain of the French fishing boat that rescued the girl fell into the ocean during the transfer and was saved only with considerable difficulty.
Here are some questions to ponder in considering the odd case of Abby Sunderland. If it is OK to help a 16-year-old minor defy death in this way, would it be OK to do the same with an 11-year-old? And suppose there was a crackerjack sailor who was only 8 years old. Would you be above blame if you helped that kid flirt with death just because he or she really really really wanted to set a record? Just where should the lower age limit lie? Should there even be a lower age limit? Is a relative’s assertion that a child is a great athlete reason enough to say, “Go for it, Honey”?
Laurence Sunderland discounts the role of age in his daughter’s voyage. “If people are looking at age, they’re looking at the wrong thing here,” he said last month. “Age is not a criteria. Abby is a fine sailor. I’ve never advocated this for 16-year-olds. I’ve advocated this for experienced sailors.”
There can be no doubt that Abby is a skilled sailor and that she isn’t the average teenager. But it isn’t rare for a parent to overrate the abilities of an offspring. In addition, talent and experience are beside the point here: If they were a dependable shield, no top-rated race car driver would ever be killed on a track and no seasoned power boat pilot would ever die during competition. To say one’s child is exceptional doesn’t mean anything in this argument.
Although there has been public debate about whether laws were violated in preparing for and carrying out Abby Sunderland’s aborted mission, to my knowledge the matter hasn’t been considered by officials. Maybe we need laws that more clearly apply to adults conspiring with children to involve them in perilous deeds.
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