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Abby Sunderland: Brave girl, questionable choice


If, at the age of 16, my daughter wanted to sail around the world by herself despite warnings from sailing experts that she’d be crossing the Indian Ocean during the most dangerous weather conditions of the year, I would tell her, order her and, if necessary, beg her to wait a couple of years.

If she insisted on doing it anyway, I’d compliment her bravery and then lock her in her room, chain her to a tree or slip sleeping pills into her oatmeal.

Abby Sunderland of Thousand Oaks said before leaving Marina del Rey in January that her parents were “trying to scare me out of” taking the trip, but her mom and dad, Marianne and Laurence, apparently gave in. Oh, darn, honey. Sure thing, if it’s what you really want to do.

Maybe the parents of seven couldn’t figure out how to say no to their daughter after allowing their son to do the same thing when he was 17, and it makes you long for the days of truancy officers. So what happened?

Abby ran into a storm between Australia and South Africa, with 25-foot waves and 70-mph gales, and her boat's mast apparently snapped like a twig. The good news is she survived, which we know because she was spotted from the air.

Qantas Airways sent a jetliner to look for her along with dozens of harbor patrol spotters, and fishing vessels were changing direction to rush to her aide. To echo the sentiment of some readers who’ve been weighing in at latimes.com, and wondering how this doesn’t come under the category of “reckless endangerment” by the parents, I hope Qantas and anyone else involved in the search sends the bills to mom and dad in Thousand Oaks.

And what’s with Qantas?

I often can’t get an airline to give me a seat assignment six months out from a flight, and these guys drop everything and send up a posse to look for a kid with irresponsible parents?

Look, I’m all for letting kids take smart risks, but this was a stupid one.

I’m no expert, but I’ve done enough sailing to know that when you’re on the water, six dozen things you’ve never even thought of can go wrong at any time.

Just a couple weeks ago, the body of an experienced, 57-year-old sailor washed up in Long Beach after he tried to sail alone from Santa Catalina Island to Marina del Rey in a storm.

She’s a brave kid, this Abby Sunderland.

As for the parents, I don’t know how old the rest of their kids are, but where will mom and dad draw the line on around-the-world trips? Let’s hope they don’t have a 10-year-old who gets the bug next.

-- Steve Lopez

Tell Steve what you think about this issue by commenting below.

Photo: Abby Sunderland

Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (222)

This is a publicity stunt. The parents oen a yatch store or something. Shame!

This is a publicity stunt. The parents own a yatch store or something. Shame!
Steve Lopez you rule!!! :)

Let's remember that we aren't all built the same way. Some 9-year-olds take calculus in college, but it would highly irresponsible for 99% of parents to suggest to their young children to enroll in college classes. You usually don't get killed or need expensive rescues taking math classes, but we have to realize that some highly gifted young people are capable of doing amazing things. It benefits all of us when exceptional young people are encouraged and helped by all of us. When they grow into exceptional adults, they will pay us all back back many times over with their accomplishments.

I wouldn't be so quick to call these parents irresponsible. Are you that great a parent? That superior to the Sunderlands? Right!

The smartest thing that Steve Lopez says in this column comes near the end, where he admits "I'm no expert...." He should have left it at that. Abby's age is a bit of a red herring. It is clear that she has all the skills and equipment that she needs, and that she was probably much better prepared than the unfortunate "experienced, 57-year old sailor" mentioned in the column. The Australians and French are bound by international law to rescue her without charge, as they would any other disabled boat in the same location. They chartered the Quantas plane, to follow their legal obligation. There might be an argument to changing this law to require some reimbursement for rescue charges. But I don't think that the Australian government is going to object to this just weeks after their Prime Minister welcomed their own 16-old solo, circumnavigator as an Aussie hero upon the completion of her trip.

What is most curious is the eagerness of Mr. Lopez and so many other ill-informed posters to compare themselves and their kids to the Sunderlands. The fact that your kids would be ill-equipped for such an adventure is really irrelevant.

I don't get why we're so outraged over this. What about all those parents who just don't give a s?@#t about their kids. Lets get outraged over the amount of children that die in LA foster homes every year. Lets get outraged over child abuse, molestation and abandonment. Leave these people alone.

Okay. I am the father of a 15 year old daughter who also has dreams - just not sailing around the world. For ten seconds I saw the headlines and had the same, "what were they thinking" thoughts about the parents. Then I read more - a lot more - about Abby Sunderland. And you know what? I wish this country had ten thousand Abby Sunderlands. She's an inspiration, and she wasn't reckless - anything but. Search and rescues are done all the time when people get in trouble on the high seas. Give her credit, and frankly, give her parents credit for raising such a brave and fearless - and yes, responsible - young woman. Go Abby!

what has happened that heroic humanism is no longer exalted..... that dollars and conformity are given priority? have we become a nation of sheep? Abby's experience transcends youth and parenthood, it is about a yearning that surpasses the boredom of everyday life and strikes the heart of humanity... hurrah for her and the family that supports her quest!

To the person who accused Steve Lopez of drugging his daughter, I believe that is an example of exaggeration to make a point. Abby Sunderland probably would've gotten the joke. Her criminally irresponsible parents, on the other hand...

To be honest, the girl was white anglo saxon, and we just had a girl return from a round the world trip. Qantas probably sent the plane as a publicity stunt. I agree the parents should pay for all the hassle......If it was an indonesian fishing boat close to Oz no-one would give a damn...they would have drowned back page!!

Comparing the risk to teens driving cars shows the ignorance of the family. Car accidents killing teens are maybe a few in a million, whereas if a million teens set out to solo sail around the world, 1/2 of them would probably never return.

Bad parenting poor girl, trying her best to live up to their money grubing scheme

All I can say is that I agree. Irresponsible parents and brave kid that's suffering the consequences.

I agree with Steve completly. No sixteen year old should be allowed to risk her/ life sailing. Kids' brains are not fully developed and they need parents to say no to them. Some parents don't even allow sixteen year olds to obtain their driver's licenses because they know kids have thinking limitations. I hate people who take big physical risks. Life is too precious to seek publicity and fame for acting crazy.

You're absolutely right, Steve Lopez. If it was a summer trip through the Indian Ocean, I could see the parents saying yes if a larger motorized ship was trailing their daughter by a couple of hundred yards the whole way. I teach high school, and half the time 16-year-olds there can't make it to the bathroom and back without incident.

This stunt sounded strange back in January and now this happens. If the teenager and the parents want to take this big risk, it's their/her life. But asking others to pay for this rescue is another matter. Let the word out the family had to pay big $$$ to reimburse for this rescue and these types of stunts will start to disapear. The same with silly 911 and paramedic calls. An invoice from the city for the better part of a grand will get everyone's attention and hopefully result in a little more sanity. It's simply capitalism at it's finest.

Steve Lopez, I am a fan of your writing, and it's only because of you that I clicked on this article. The media is giving this family what it wants - constant attention.

Please. I don't think it was stupid at all to let her go. It was risky, and yes, she should have waited to leave at the right time. But this exact same thing could have happened if she left before or after or at the right time.
You, just like everyone else in the media, love to look at things from the wrong side.
If she had left at the same time, you and everyone else would have come up with something else to criticized her. Her age, her gender, her boat size...whatever.
She obviously knows what she is doing! Shut up and let people do their thing.
Is not costing YOU any money right...be thankful you got a story to write!
And as far as Qantas....what better publicity that to be the ones rescuing a blonde young woman from the ocean. Cheaper than any other campaign...we're talking about it, aren't we?

Hoo boy is this going to bring out the self-righteous cranks.

Yup, they were over the line on the details. Wrong time, good but not master sailing skills and a modern, high performance boat rather than the trusty, proven rig Jessica sailed with.

But they also prepped a boat designed to hold together after being wrecked at sea - it has multiple watertight compartments, very unusual in a sailboat. She had a drysuit, lifeboat and other survival gear, and successfully handled some pretty nasty incidents, such as untangling the backstay from the boom in a storm. Animals can do that, vegetables can't. I'd **love** to see some of the nastier commenters here try it... because they'd be history.

The lessons illustrated by the contrast between Jessica's voyage (hit everything dead center) and Abbey's (aimed a bit too high, too fast, too much, and -the big one- challenged the sea by hitting the Roaring 40s at a bad time) are worth 100x whatever the Aussies will spend on jet fuel and diesel. *Someone* has to go a bit over the line or the world never sees where the lines are.

All those who condemn the spirit of adventure should be stuffed back in a cave with no electricity and governed by warlord, because all the progress since then involved taking risks, some of them reasonable, many not.

Don't forget the "GOD" was the one that ok'd the trip. The family prayed and "GOD" gave the thumbs up. What??!! More crazy religious fundamentalists screwing up the world. No responsible parent would let their child sail around the world solo. It makes me sick to think what could have happened to either of these kids. If a tragedy had occurred THEN everyone would have come out of the woodwork condemning their poor parenting. If you know anything about sailing or parenting, this was a very poor choice and that needs to be made very clear.

Ahoy Steve,

You know, "Monday morning quarterbacking" is so easy...

First and foremost, I like to think we are free to do whatever we want.
So I don't think it is anybody's business what Abby does. It is between
her and her family. The people that tried to get her parents in trouble
crying child abuse are crazy.

Now the fact she is in trouble and needs to be rescued, I think the
family should be responsible for the costs. They where warned not to travel this time of year and Abby went anyway, so I think it reasonable they should pay the rescue expenses.

My personal opinion, for what my 2 cents are worth. Based on what I have read, her family being lifelong sailors, her brother Zac sailing the globe last year. I wonder if this was "TRULY" Abby's dream. But again, it isn't really any of my business or any of yours. As of this moment, she is supposedly ok, but her boat is too damaged to continue. The mast looks to be completely gone. Hopefully the rescuers will get to her in time.


"If, at the age of 16, my daughter wanted to sail around the world..."

While we're playing hypotheticals, what if, at the age of 16, your daughter was Abby Sunderland? What if she was an experienced sailor who grew up on the water? And what if you, too, were not some paunchy columnist but an experienced sailor and shipwright?

You can't really wrap your mind around that, can you? It's too far out of your ken.

People underestimate the risk involved in the stuff they're familiar with -- driving, high school football, even camping. They overestimate the risk when it's something exotic or unusual -- sailing, shark attacks, killer bees.

I've yet to see anything to suggest she and the boat weren't ready for this trip. Her birth year shouldn't be held against her any more than her astrological sign. I won't ever sail around the globe, because I'm already 38, and that's too old for sleepless night. Abby's more experienced on the water than many other bluewater sailors, and stronger and sharper to boot.

People can do extraordinary things. Teenagers can do extraordinary things. Let's face it, she makes all of us feel old and fat and lazy. Me, I'm grateful for the reminder.

Team Abby, man. Team Abby.

I wish I had a sail boat at age 16...

Must be nice to have rich dad pay for everything so someone could live their "dream"

In the Bible a boy becomes a man at 13. That was 3000 years ago; today's 13 yr olds are physically a whole lot more solid than in the days when they were part of a band of folks wandering the desert.

Btw, I'd like to see 65, 75 and 85 year old whiners and naysayers do a single hand circumnavigation. After all, you have all that experience + maturity, I'm sure you can handle it.
You mean you're not ready yet? OK, get another 10 years experience on the sea; when you're 90 you'll be able to climb the mast in weather like nuthin'!

Most of the frenzy is around the following question: what is the right age to be allowed to sail around the world solo?

I think I have the answer (I am smart!). The right age is when you can go around the world on your boat and you are the one making the key decisions.

It does not mean that you cannot have sponsors who will pay for your boat but on the other hand you cannot have a team (aka parents) making all the decisions for you. If a 14-year old has this this level of understanding and ability to convince sponsors, good for him/her. I am sure he/she will be successful. Most people only mature to that level in their early 20's but other will mature earlier.

Everthing that has been said so far would get resolved if this logic was applied. If a 12-year old wants to drive cross country in a car, he needs to be able to get the car and the training by himself. If dad gives the 12-year old the keys to his Mercedes, the attempt will fail no matter how smart or motivated the 12-year is. You see where I am going...

Steve, totally agree. She started two months late, because the boat wasn't ready. Why not just start 9 months later? THE RECORD. Was she qualified...well, we know, she FAILED. The mast didn't snap because of a faulty boat...this EXACT boat has raced in this ocean before. It snapped because she repeatedly was not able to prevent a knock-down. She did not have the skill, and she didn't have the judgement to understand that this was just a nautically stupid thing to do. But that is how 16 year-olds think! Could she have done this on her own? The attempt must have cost around $500,000. How many 16 y/o have access to that kind of money?

So, there is a record for the person for the longest fall out of an airplane without a parachute (and lived). You guys support a child that wants to beat that record??

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