What We Think of Abby Sunderland

Note: I have a very strong opinion about this specific issue, but have tried to write a fair post and not slant it to either side. Please let me know in the comments if there is something that contradicts the statement I just made above. Thanks for reading. -Taylor.

For the past couple days, the news media has been in turmoil about the Abby Sunderland issue. Are her parents to blame? Is she to blame? There have been a huge amount of opinions coming from all different directions about the undertaking. Here’s some things I think everybody can agree on:

  • The endeavor is dangerous, and requires a lot of planning and time in order to come up with a feasible strategy.
  • Funding the trip is also a large problem.
  • Teens who decide to make this trip come under a lot of criticism. The younger you are, the more you’re challenged.
  • Making a voyage like this requires a huge number of skills; not just sailing skills. Some teens may not possess the life and experience skills needed to make a trip of this magnitude.

There also things that I’ve seen in the media. Some I think are valid points, but others I believe are people making ignorant statements because they don’t care to research the background of the situation. Here’s some things you may not have known (read on after the break):

The Facts, and Some Questions, Too

  • The Sunderlands are a well-respected sailing family. Abby Sunderland is not just some “random girl” who decided to sail. Her brother made the same voyage at her age, and completed his trip successfully. Her father is a sailor by trade, and Abby (according to her website and sources close to the family) has been sailing from a young age.
  • Abby has the sailing skills. She didn’t make it from California to the Indian Ocean (roughly 15,000 nautical miles by my calculations – just an estimate) on good fortune alone. She has to have sailing skills, which I believe she does, to successfully make it more than halfway across the world.
  • The weather was a factor. There are many offshore sailing races that take place every three years or so. The most popular are the Volvo Ocean Race and the Clipper Round the World Race. They encounter rough weather every day, but are simply better equipped to deal with it. For one, at Volvo, teams are privately funded by big-name companies. PUMA in the United States, Telefonica in Spain, Ericsson in Europe. There are 11 guys working on a boat outfitted with million-dollar equipment. Abby, on the other hand, is one person on a 40-foot boat with good, but much less expensive equipment. She has to spread herself pretty thin to get everything done during the course of a day. Having 60+ knot winds (as reported by Abby through her blog) in the Indian Ocean surely must have played a factor in the dismasting of her boat, an event in which the mast breaks off and renders the boat basically unusuable.

Which brings me to my next point, a question that people have been asking for a very long time:

  • Why would Abby’s parents allow her to do such a thing? Again, this goes back to the fact that they are very apt sailors. Her parents obviously thought this was something she could handle, just as her brother had. Her parents were obviously willing to give her a great deal of latitude.
  • Why would the cost of a rescue or recovery not be covered in the cost of the trip? Unknown. It’s a good questions.
  • Why is Australia absorbing the cost of the search for Abby? This is a twofold answer. According to media reports, when Abby activated her distress signals, she was inside the Australian Search & Rescue area, an area of about 2,000 miles around the continent. That means that it is an Australian responsibility to initiate a search and/or rescue. Presumably, this would be covered in the national budget somewhere. I don’t know how Aussie Searches & Rescues usually go, but chartering an Airbus A330 from Qantas does seem out of the ordinary. However, they might not have aircraft in their military with that range. It was reported that the Airbus cost the Australian government $200,000 AUD (about $170,000 USD). However, some sources from Australia have reported that Abby was not inside the Search & Rescue limits. Who knows?
  • Why in the world would Abby and her parents ask for money to salvage Wild Eyes, Abby’s boat? Unknown. I really don’t think they were prepared for something like this to occur.
  • Does her age have anything to do with this incident? Unless she’s figured out how to control the weather, last time we checked, weather was purely random and controlled by Mother Nature. And since that’s what caused this accident, I think it’s safe to say that her age was a nonfactor.

From the Sailors and People Around

  • George Caras, president of the NH-based Commander’s Weather Center told Sailing Scuttlebutt, “‘Whether she was 16 or whether she was 40, the storms still would have happened.'” (Scuttlebutt)
  • Said Abby’s dad, Laurence, “‘If people are looking at age, they’re looking at the wrong thing here. Age is not a factor … I’ve never advocated this for 16-year olds, I’ve advocated this for experienced sailors.'” (Seattle Times via Scuttlebutt)
  • Leighton O’ Connor, a maritime photographer based out of Boston, has worked many sailing events, including the notorious Volvo Ocean Race, told me this over Facebook: “I don’t see a problem with letting a person of that age doing a sail like that. I think it’s great and amazing! I’m not sure if I’d let one of my kids do it though but they don’t have the sailing experience she does.”
  • Andrew Cape, an experienced sailor on PUMA’s Volvo Ocean Race campaign, had this to say to Jessica Watson, an Australian teen who completed her journey weeks before the Sunderland incident occurred. She was 15 when she left. “‘Obviously you have to start somewhere to gain experience but to head straight into the Southern Ocean on your own is foolish.’ Cape estimates Watson’s chances of making it around the world at 33 per cent, of damage to boat or crew that “prevents continuation” at 33 per cent, and “33 per cent of total loss of boat or crew. Believe me that when you are at the mercy of the weather it is a matter of probability. These odds change rapidly with experience gained.'” (Volvo Ocean Race)
  • In the letter, of which excerpts were published at VolvoOceanRace.com, Cape compares the endeavor to “‘growing up on a farm and, upon acquiring a 303 rifle, (feeling) you are ready to take on the Taliban.’”

Anyway, it’s a very interesting discussion piece.

Our Sources

The Daily Caller

The Washington Post

Volvo Ocean Race

Leighton O’Connor

Sailing Scuttlebutt

Australian Search & Rescue Service

Eye on Annapolis

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8 responses to “What We Think of Abby Sunderland

  1. Taylor–incredibly well reasoned post. Personally, my concerns lie in that a minor was sent to sea without a backup. Not being a sailor, is this something that could have been done? You say the Volvo teams are 11 men. Could there have been a shadow boat with a crew following her yet not assisting?

    I have no problem with the Aussies picking up the tab and I know that any nation would do the same regardless of nationality. Call it Karma.

    Here is where I get a little skeptical. The girl was literally saved from what could have been probable death. Their daughter. Yet in the aftermath of the rescue, they create a site to save the boat? Certainly the site was not created PRIOR to the incident-in fact it was created yesterday–whew! I can think of a million other things to do than to build a website asking for donations.

    You talk about the age not being a factor. And I agree when it comes to a skillset which she obviously possesses. I saw a video (and I wish I could find it but perhaps you can) of a young sailor (not as young as Abby) who undertook a similar voyage and it was him in the cabin of the boat just having a breakdown–crying, despair, etc. I have heard that loneliness and the duration takes its toll on most anyone, but particularly a teen who likely has not been away from home for that long of a period. Here is where I feel her parents screwed up. Sure she is a competent yachtswoman but how mentally competent is she for the trip.

    Her brother did it–but he is a different person–and he was older. Does two years make a difference? Perhaps.

    Look at the stupid things kids do for lack of mental maturity. And I am not dissing kids; but in town on New Years Eve there were three underaged kids who were likely drinking, they hit and killed a guy and decided to go on home (rather than get caught drunk) and claim they hit a deer. These kids are sharp kids but under the stress of the situation, things did not go as they should have.

    Just my two cents!

    • I do agree with everything. I wonder – at what point do people consider someone “competent?” Is it at a certain age? (this isn’t directed at you at all) Because, as we all know, age is not necessarily the best measure of someone’s maturity.

      I will look for that video.

      The shadow boat is certainly a good idea. I do remember something about that when there was the Laura Dekker scandal, however I’m not sure if that’s considered “cheating” or not.

      I think the main theme we need to realize is that this is a dangerous expedition, but the risk is proportionate to the reward. Had she made it back home safely, (I believe) no one would have really given a second look to her safety on the water. As I expressed on your blog, I think people get vindictive when there is a disaster that they think they could have handled better.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  4. For what it is worth, the family spokesman was on Geraldo last night defending everything and other guests included some professional sailors with opinions adverse to sending her. A local to MDR sailing expert who said he would never consider the father an “expert” sailor himself. The videographer who documented her pre launch who stated that she told him her dad really forced her to do the solo, and someone on the crew that claims the father manually modified (with a hacksaw) either the mast or boom (I can;t recall which they said).

    So this plot thickens for sure.

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  6. Her pre-trip videos also have her admitting that if her computers and auto-pilots failed, she would have to give up the trip. How can she be that great of a sailor if she needs these things to complete her voyage? People have been circumnavigating without computers and automation for over a hundred years.

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