Saturday, June 26, 2010

Young Adventurers Sail On

From Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Hillary’s climb of Mount Everest, record-breaking adventures have captivated us. Those who set them are often celebrities for life. And it seems that each time we think there are no more record-breaking adventures to be made, someone comes up with a new twist.

At Sporting Chance Press we believe that inspiring stories of sacrifice and achievement motivate us to reach our own potential. But extreme adventures need more scrutiny.

Recently, new extremely dangerous record-breaking exploits have been set by children. This trend is unsettling and some have suggested that parents that permit, if not promote such attempts, should face criminal charges. Regardless of whether we see these attempts as a positive test of mettle or a form of child abuse, they will continue because they are a global phenomenon.

Sailing records have been targeted by several teenage adventurers recently, although the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC) has discontinued its endorsement of the age based records. The Council’s absence from such endorsements may leave a void in rigorous sanctioning of such attempts, but it hasn’t stopped the exploits.

The Sunderland family of California includes at least two very adventurous children: In 2009, Zac Sunderland became the youngest person to sail solo around the world last year at the age of 17. His sister, 16-year-old Abby, followed in her big brother’s footsteps this year, but her journey ended when her mast broke in rough weather in the southern Indian Ocean on June 10. Thankfully, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority speedily coordinated her rescue effort and spotted her from the air. She was found 2,000 miles off the Australian coast about half way between Australia and Africa. Abby was picked up by a French fishing boat Ile De La Reunion two days later--a full 20 hours after her family lost contact with her. Abby's de-masted "Wild-Eyes" shown below.

Abby’s exploits followed in the media. Every aspect of her journey has been scrutinized strategically and technically. Her parents have come under tremendous criticism.

Abby was sailing in the southern Indian Ocean in the winter when the weather conditions are most treacherous. Abby views herself as a sailor and is upbeat about her attempt and is quick to defend it:
Any sailor that goes out to the water knows that being hit by a rogue wave is a risk, no matter where you are...You can't eliminate risk, you can do a lot to minimize it but it's always there.


Once pulled from the Ocean, Abby was in for a long voyage to the French territory of Reunion near Mauritius off eastern Africa. Abby's record-breaking attempt at an unassisted solo sail around the world had actually run aground in April when she and her support team decided to stop in Capetown to repair her main autopilot, a critical piece of equipment that had died. But Abby went on determinedly with her trip until her mast was broken. From start to finish, Abby, like most 21st Century adventurers was blogging along the way. Whether you look at Abby’s trip as a dangerous stunt, a misguided adventure or a noble endeavor, most will find at least some of her postings compelling reading at http://soloround.blogspot.com/. A book may follow.

Australian Effort

A number of other young sailors have attempted the round the world solo sail recently. Three months before Abby set sail, in October of 2009, sixteen year old Jessica Watson of Australia set out on her around the world sail in the Pink Lady and arrived home in Sidney Harbor on May 15, 2010 just three days before her 17th birthday--a little over three weeks prior to Abby’s mast catastrophe. Jessica is a national hero in Australia.

There is of course a commercial aspect of these adventures. Jessica is said to be under contract to Rupert Murdoch for her exclusive story in his newspapers. Her book called True Spirit: The Aussie Girl who Took on the World should be out this summer. Jessica Watson merchandise and trip details can be found at her website http://www.jessicawatson.com.au/. A documentary is in the works. Some sailing experts say that Miss Watson did not sail far enough above the equator to qualify as a round the world journey, but that has not seemed to dim the enthusiasm for her effort.

England’s Youngest Sailing Superstar

Even if Abby had been successful, she would not have broken her brother Zac Sunderland’s record. Zac’s record had all ready been surpassed by 17 year-old Michael Perham who hails from outside London. Perham completed his voyage just six weeks after Zac’s trip. Perham has authored a book about his experiences, Sailing the Dream, released in March 2010. Find out what Michael is up to these days at www.challengemike.com.

Younger Still – The Dutch

The quest for the youngest around the world unassisted sail record parallels some of the early efforts of competing European nations to be the first to discover parts of the new world! As Abby Sunderland was sailing to Africa after her ordeal at sea, Laura Dekker a young Dutch sailor was fighting in court to make a run for glory from the Netherlands. After nixing her attempt last year when Dekker was just 13 years old, a Dutch court extended the ban on 14-year-old Laura Dekker this year. She is still hoping to get clearance for her attempt to beat Australian Jessica Watson’s record.

Certainly commercial rewards and national pride are entering into the picture and may further cloud the debate on whether these very young adventurers ought to be allowed to risk their lives. As long as all these young people and their would-be rescuers have made it back alive, these exercises have a fantastic feel, but if risk turns to tragedy, it will be very painful for everyone involved along with the millions who follow such adventures from all over the world and want to see these kids succeed. Reading just a bit of what goes on in these small boats in the ocean is proof enough for me that these young sailors are especially courageous.