With 16-year-old Abby Sunderland making headlines for her attempted solo sail around the world comes a lot of commentary along the lines of “what on Earth were her parents THINKING?”
It's true that most parents would not permit a teenage girl to walk across town unaccompanied at night, let alone circumnavigate the world by herself. I myself – if I let a child of mine attempt such a feat – would probably cheat, following her on another boat just out of her sight. There are times, however, when it is appropriate for parents to allow their child to do something that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
If you've been reading Millie and Mollie for any length of time, you know that I am a huge proponent of a) you know your child better than anyone and b) pay attention to your instincts. The same traits that will lead you to push for that extra test when the doctor says there's nothing wrong can lead you to think twice about something that other parents wouldn't consider at all.
I realize that a lot of the “what were they thinking?” comments are a way of whistling in the wind. When we read about a child being hit by a car, snatched in a store or – yes – being stranded alone by 60-foot waves, we tend to think: That can't happen to MY child, because I have taught them to use sidewalks/ keep them in sight at all times/ would never let them sail by themselves. The world is a big place and there are dangers waiting around every corner; we want to protect our kids.
Do we, though? Do we want to wrap them in cotton wool to keep them safe, or do we want to give them as many tools as we can and then trust in their native good sense to help them navigate the world on their own? I take a sort of middle-of-the-road approach, and it's different for each child.
Our kids started taking the city bus cross-town to their middle schools when they were 11 or 12. It's true that they were exposed to some certified Whack-a-Moles on the bus. It's true that our daughters (and sons, come to think of it) were propositioned; it's true that our youngest two got massively lost in a different town on their first attempt; it's true that two of our sons got mugged. They all lost a little childhood innocence, a little of their sense of safety and a lot of umbrellas; but they gained the feeling of being citizens of the world, of self-respect and self-reliance, of trust in each other (because they usually traveled as a team).
After the mugging I was ready to call it quits. Full of self-recriminations, I was fully ready to get out the cotton wool, re-build the moat and drive my city kids wherever they needed to go until they were thirty-five. Finally Red, exasperated, said, “Mom, you've been telling us what to do if we ever got mugged since we were 5 years old; it just happened, that's all.” That was a watershed moment for me if ever there was one.
So, yes; if we were a seafaring family, if our daughter had been messing around with boats since birth, if she was trained in what to do in an emergency and if she was fairly responsible, I might let her try to sail solo around the world. True, there's always the chance that something would “just happen;” but meanwhile, our daughter would be developing into an exceptional human being.
John and I haven’t been sailing together long. As a couple, we bought our first boat four years ago. She was a 26 foot MacGregor, the Escape, slightly used and nicely outfitted with all the basic gear, plus sonar, jib, spinnaker, GPS, auto-pilot and a host of other upgrades. She was a nice little boat, with the emphasis on little. By the time we had her stowed and ready for a trip, there was very little room to sleep if we were going on an overnighter.
As a result, we took a step (or two) up and bought a 40 foot Beneteau. With three cabins, two heads, a nice galley and two navigation systems, auto pilot, radar, sonar, sailing instruments, two VHF radios, in-mast furling (for the girly sailors), dinghy with outboard and other accessories, she was perfect for us. We re-named her Pangaea. She was a little older, and, thankfully, broader in the beam: a much more comfortable cruise. We quickly got her outfitted and started sailing in earnest.
John had sailed a lot as a young man, racing with various crews all over the Pacific Northwest. He retired from the US Naval Reserves and knows his way around a boat. I’d sailed some, but mostly as a passenger, and was still enthralled with the Cheoi Lee mystique, not because of the romance of currents and tides but the romance of an all teak boat. The Pangaea was the perfect choice; the interior cherry and the exterior fiberglass (fiberglass being much more reasonable for long term upkeep), the in-mast furling a good solution for our particular dynamic, an experienced captain with a handicapped amateur first mate. And all those extras - I just love the GPS.
Since acquiring the Pangaea, John and I have taken some trips locally, mainly to Rosario, Deer Harbor, Friday Harbor and multiple other sites. I spent one week on the boat, and I mean on the boat, not disembarking for love nor money, to see if I could handle long periods of time on a small craft. As it happened, with a well loaded Kindle and genial sailing partners, the trip was a breeze. But then again, so was the wind. No small craft advisories or high wind warnings marred the trip.
We currently limit our sailing to Puget Sound and the inside passage between Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Frankly, if we did nothing but fair weather sailing during fair weather months, we could sail for the next decade without repeating too many ports. This has been plenty for us.
The image of any person, alone, sailing a boat around the world is challenging. If every accessory we have on the Pangaea is working perfectly, John could sail her alone. But add a typhoon, even a small one, loss of radio contact, and the need to simultaneously reef the sails and navigate, and things can get tricky, quickly. And rescue, being what it is, does take days.
I am right up there with others who want to instill tenacity in our young, but from my perspective, as a sailor with physical limitations, sailing around the world, alone, is a huge task. I simply wouldn’t do it, nor would my 60 year old husband with no relevant physical limitations and a long history of sailing. It’s simply too dicey, unpredictable. I wouldn’t allow my underage child to do it either, especially if there were no other boats following (leading?) her. The incidence of natural disasters (rain and wind) and man made disasters (piracy) gives me pause.
It would be one thing to turn Pangaea over to a high-schooler for an overnight sail, a weekend, or even a week if the sailing was done locally and the parents knew every port on the kid’s proposed route. But I have to add my own personal NO! to allowing a minor person to sail the world, alone. It’s just too dangerous.