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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 balloon boy 2.0

Steve, you are off base here. Abby is a competent sailor who probably could sail a boat before she could ride a bike. This is a sailing family. What makes sailing solo anymore dangerous than having a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a car - in Los Angeles! This was not parents seeking money or fame. They obviously live comfortably to be able to have 2 children undertake such a task!

I didn't see you criticizing 16-year-old Jessica Watson of Australia, when she out there this year sailing around the world solo. Where was the criticizm of her parents, or does that matter because she is Australian. Like Abby, Jessica, ran into to some rough weather and was flipped over and over. She was just lucky that her mast didn't snap "like a twig."

Another reader said a National Geographic article that said a 16-year-old did this same thing in 1968, and questioned whether Abby would be the youngest. It matters as to what type of sailing you are talking about. Today, anybody trying to do this at 16 will be trying to be Jessica Watson's record set this year. That has to do with the number of days it takes. By the way, it was a record that was previously held by Abby's brother.

As for Qantas, the Australians have said there will be no bill from them, despite Abby being just outside of their jurisdiction. Their comment was "it's what we Australians do." Bravo to them for helping and bravo to the French fishing boat for plucking her from the boat in the Indian Ocean.

It doesn't matter the age of the sailor, and I would venture that Abby is one of the most experienced sailors on the water today. People need to close their mouths and applaud this girl for attempting something that most of us would never have the courage to even plan! I just thank God that she is safe. Go Aby!

Look at all the venom spewing from people supporting Abby!

Why hate on Steve Lopez?

Just calling a spade a spade

Check out Abby's blog. I have followed her from the beginning. She is an exception to any rule. She is one of three who have tried this. It worked. She did everything right and was rescued safely from other people doing their jobs exceptionally. I commend her parents for raising a daughter so willing to take passion over passivity any day. She is a true adventurer. Please read her blog or mine for valuable insight into just how talented and bright she is.

wow, a 57 year old sailor washed up on shore? What was HIS parents thinking? If only HIS parents told him no, he'd be alive, right? Maybe he should have waited a couple more years, until he was 59.

Yeah, because if she waits a couple years, the storms will see that she's 18 now and leave her alone.

I don't even begin to understand why all the focus is on her age. What's that even got to do with it?

re: "what does Abby's age have to do with her mast snapping off in the middle of a storm? " I guess that reader was quoting Abby (from an article elsewhere online.)

Abby's age matters because her brain (that would be the frontal lobes, to be specific) hadn't matured enough to make the best decisions - such as taking on that particular stretch of ocean at this time of year, despite warnings by experienced sailors.

Adolescent brains aren't mature - hence they can make rash, emotional decisions more often than older people. That's why it's important to listen to more experienced people when attempting something dangerous like this.

And yes, there were experienced sailors who advised against the folly of sailing exactly where she broke her mast, because her equipment wasn't suitable, and the ocean there is roughest this time of year.

She had already lost he age record anyway- so there really shouldn't have been any rush.

OK OK Abby might be a great sailor but this is the wrong time of the year to be in
the southern ocean. Go to this Australian Government website and check out the wave heights given in meters and hold in mind that they can be twice as high as shown. The southern ocean has so much fetch because there is no land to break the wind. Also at this time of year it is a succession of low pressure systems that are as powerful as hurricanes.
Poor planning or just desperate for the fame?

I wrote a comment yesterday that was not posted. Did it hit a nerve? I asked why if Steve Lopez feels so strongly about this that he would drug his daughter's oatmeal to prevent her from embarking on such a trip--why didn't he protest before Abby left? He has pretty strong opinions about what he thinks was her parents' bad decision. Why didn't he chime in when the Los Angeles Times wrote their many front page stories about her plans? Why didn't he voice concern when Abby's brother did the same at one year older? Is this because Abby is a girl? I have a problem with Mr. Lopez's Monday morning quarterbacking. I think other readers feel the same about the opportunistic timing of his column. It's a valid point and should not be censored but posted with the other opinions. Or will you delete this post too and pretend no one has noticed this obvious case of jumping on the publicity bandwagon?

Posted by: Monday Morning Quarterback | June 12, 2010 at 02:42 PM

A 16 year old person, contrary to what the infantilization climate in the USA suggests, and mr. López wants to believe, is not a child. I find amusing that mr. López is so concerned about a bill he is not going to be asked to cover. In fact, he is doing exactly the same thing that the family and the airline and boat company--personally profiting from a deed that could have been awesome, went bad but still is quite remarkable. I'd ask, instead, that mr. López puts his journalistic talents to work in more appropriate, and less gossipy, issues.

People who knowingly put themselves at risk should take responsibility for their actions. Since Abbey was a minor, I suppose this would mean her parents. There are many besides sixteen year olds who put themselves in difficult situations and hope to be rescued. Journalists and reporters who go into war zone and other dangerous situations place not only themselves at risk, but also the very people about whom they claim to be reporting. Yet, when they get into trouble, it becomes a big deal and diplomats and politicians ride to the rescue. Another example of risk takers and bailouts is the entire financial industry. We all now are aware of the risks they took and how the government bailed them out (with our money). Actually it’s, a matter of class. If you’re wealthy you can take “risks” and be bailed out. If you aren’t wealthy (like our soldiers in Afghanistan, for example) you take real risks and put your life on the line, so that the wealthy amongst us (like Abbey and her parents, for example) can play at risk taking. Is this a great country or what? Let’s bring back the draft. Then all of our children will get the chance to take real risks. Mustn’t deprive spoiled, bratty children of wealthy parents of the chance to rake real risks, must we?

Bravery is performing a world first with failure that results in sure death (Amelia Earhart).

Abby, with distress beacons, experienced neither scenario.

Either way Abby supporters spin their arguments, she was never in danger (no accomplishment), or she was in danger (reckless child endangerment).

Excuse me Steve; PANDEMIC would have worked so much better than "typical" ("...You're so typical of the "nanny-socialist" control freak...").
So make that "pandemic". Thank you!

The parents were totally irresponsible in allowing a 16 year to attempt this voyage. It was and is their job to protect her from rash, teen aged decisions that are dangerous . . . . and they gave in. I hope the rescuers, every one of them, bill the parents for costs incurred in her rescue.

Dear Steve

YOU live in ignorance.

Whether or not it was child endangerment is open for debate. I know of 16 year old kids that are hooked on drugs and alcohol, and are free to stay out until all hours of the night with no one in the media, or parent, screaming child endangerment. Not so long ago it was considered good and morally correct to push ones self to the limit, to attain knowledge, and understanding through our life experiences. Our children cannot achieve their full potential if they are constantly told they cannot due anything. It is our job as parents and teachers to prepare them as best we can and know that we did all we could. If they fail or succeed that is up to them. Mr Steve Lopez and the others that can do no better than name call, or spread negativity, live in ignorance and self loathing.

I've thought a lot about how I would handle this, from the beginning and if I could ever begin to agree to letting her do it, to how would I react if I did let her. I'm no parent, so that may disqualify me. But I fully believe in instucting your kids, giving them guidance, and of course disciplining them when needed...but I also believe in doing whatever is necessary to never clip their wings. If they have a dream or a passion or a goal, it would be hard to give them anything but support. What's more dangerous? The risk associated with your child chasing their dream? Or parents destroying the chance to pursue it before it can eveb begin?

Nice to know the world hasn't run out of knee-jerk, nanny-socialists yet! The 'I'm too inept to try a challenge like that' crowd always seems to have plenty of others time to waste to read their comments... unless one treats their babble as entertaining drivel.
Bruce Lee said something to a running partner while pushing his jog mates endurance:
When Lee challenged his friend to run a five-minute mile, the guy responded; "Bruce, I can't go five, I'm a helluva lot older than you are, and I can't do five." Lee responded; "...when we get to three, we'll shift gears and it's only two more and you'll do it."
So they pushed. Four minutes in the friend complained; "Bruce if I run any more... I'm liable to have a heart attack and die." At that, Lee responded; "Then die."

Afterward Lee explained with typical class that comprised his entire being, he said; "... Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it'll spread over into the rest of your life. It'll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man [or in this case, a sixteen year old girl!]... must constantly exceed his level."

Good job Abby, you live with true honor to Master Lee's philosophy!

Now, any other words from the pea-brain gallery for Abby?
I thought not! You armchair cowards, you contribute nothing to make the world interesting. You just whine like victims usually do!

So Quantas won't be sending the family a bill- what about all the other search and rescue $involved. The family should foot the total bill. And Seriously- 16 year olds can't self fund this sort of adventure- this really does give new meaning to spoiled entitled rich kids.

You sir are a twit. Do you realized John Adams was an ambassador to Russia when he was 11? Young people are capable of much more than we give them credit for. My grandfather was a married man at 15. It is our American, spoil the child culture which tries to keep them babies as long as possible. Abby has already done more in her 16 years, than my 40. Bravo Abby!

That's awesome that John Adams was ambassador at 11. I wonder what country he was ambassador from? The US didn't exist until it declared independence with a document he and the others signed when he was 40.

Back in reality, it's not even legal for children in California to drive at night at the age of 16... how can this craziness be a good idea? Just ignore her and the stupidity will stop. Her bravery and ability to do this aren't self generated anyway, so why it is somehow commendable is beyond me. Her brother did the same thing, are we supposed to believe it is total coincidence or do we think somehow the parents are raising them to do this and are the ones who really crave the attention?

Money and a reality show: the facts for a stupid decision making.

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