Abby Sunderland Sails Into A Media Shitstorm

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Sixteen-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland may not have circumnavigated the globe, but headlines of her ordeal certainly did. She's only the latest teenager to push herself to the limit while barely pushing puberty. And now her whole endeavor is being judged harshly by the self-appointed surrogate parents in the media.

News swirled Thursday night that Sunderland had lost satellite contact and set off emergency rescue beacons after being battered by storms that whipped up 60-mph winds and 25-foot ocean swells. Finally spotted by aerial crews yesterday, Sunderland was picked up by a diverted French fishing vessel early yesterday morning nearly 2,000 miles off the coast of Australia.


But sighs of relief have given way almost immediately to clucks of concern, with the media questioning her age, her experience, and the lawfulness of her parents. Again and again (and again) the question is being asked: How young is too young?

"Whether she was 16 or whether she was 40 the storms still would have happened," George Caras told me over the phone. The vice president and director of operations at Nashua, N.H.-based marine weather forecasting center Commander's Weather, Caras (and his colleague Ken Campbell) had worked closely with Sunderland leading up to and during her sail.


To his knowledge, Sunderland "did everything she was supposed to do, and did it well," Caras said, adding that he was waiting on more specific details of exactly what had occurred. "A rogue wave or a squall — it could have been any number of things."

Barely hours after her rescue Sunderland updated her blog, apologizing for not having posted of late ("as you probably already know I had a pretty rough couple of days") and offering this harrowing account:

Within a few minutes of being on board the fishing boat, I was already getting calls from the press. I don't know how they got the number but it seems everybody is eager to pounce on my story now that something bad has happened.

It's not surprising that Sunderland's age has become such an angle. She would have been the fourth teenager in less than a year to lap the globe on a sailboat, an odd spike considering that it's been 10 years since 18-year old Jesse Martin became the then-youngest to do so.


On May 15, Jessica Watson was given a hero's welcome as she sailed into Sydney Harbor after completing her 210-day nonstop journey, alone and unassisted, just three days shy of her 17th birthday. Previously the title had been held by the U.K.'s Michael Perham, and before that by American Zac Sunderland -– the oldest of Abby's 6 siblings.

Armed with the knowledge that Marianne and Lawrence Sunderland had bade bon voyage to two of their children, hacks from coast to coast are using the near-tragedy to showcase their own sterling parenting.


"I barely trust my girls to operate a blender," wrote the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach in a column that makes Dave Barry look like H.L. Mencken. "I will let one of my kids sail solo around the world the day I let my ancient cat Phoebe drive my Honda."

The Los Angeles Times's Steve Lopez constructed a similar hypothetical, concluding that should any daughter of his express an interest in sailing around the world, "I'd compliment her bravery and then lock her in her room, chain her to a tree or slip sleeping pills into her oatmeal."


Nor could True/Slant's Sue Frause imagine this kind of trip for her son. "Oh, he did fly off to Europe by himself in high school; I think it was between his junior and senior years," she admitted. "But he was staying with family friends in Switzerland, not trying to sail around the world."


(Contrast with Ernst Aebi, a Swiss-born, New York-based artist who in 1985 offered to buy his "rebellious" daughter Tania a boat to sail around the world if she'd agree to write about it. With little more than a sextant and a lot of pluck — her prior sailing experience consisted of "a six-month cruise of the Atlantic" — Tania finished the trip. "I didn't feel it was irresponsible," her father told People Magazine in 1987. "It's a lot less risky to be on the ocean than to be hanging out in bars at 4 a.m. on the Lower East Side like she used to do.")

But it's the Los Angeles Times's T.J. Simers who deserves credit for starting the "well, in my family" meme. Way back in December he bragged:

I don't let my daughter walk to her car by herself at night, and it's parked in our driveway and she's 33.

But these folks are going to let their 16-year-old become a human bobber day and night on the ocean because it's been the child's dream since she was 13.

My daughter dreamed she would marry Prince Charming one day.

She ended up with a Grocery Store Bagger, and amazingly is both happy and pregnant.


Simers's musings on his daughter's fertility and his bullying judgment of Sunderland — "How mature is a 16-year old girl who makes the choice to spend months on the water instead of in the mall with her friends?" he sneered back in December — earned him a spot on a 20/20 report that aired only a week ago. (ABC producers must be secretly chest-bumping over the timing.)

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The 20/20 hit job frames even successful young voyagers like Jesse Martin as tormented and tear-stained and ultimately damaged. "He struggled with loneliness," a voiceover gravely intones at one point in the segment over a clip of a wet, weary, and frustrated Martin that is really no bleaker than any other teenager-made video to be found on YouTube.


There's legitimacy to the media's pearl-clutching, of course: the would-be explorers are trending astoundingly young. Thirteen-year-old Laura Dekker's own proposed round-the-world jaunt was blocked just last year by the Dutch Council for Child Protection. (She intends to set sail this fall, once the order expires.) Another wee pioneer, 13-year old American Jordan Romero, climbed Mount Everest just a few weeks ago, becoming the youngest to straddle the summit.


It's one thing to critique the rise of these mini-Magellans, though the criticism seems particularly rich coming from a media that helps create the phenomenon in the first place. But it's another to roundly accuse their parents of "child abuse" the way Simers repeatedly has. Abby Sunderland dreamed of her trip at age 13 too, sure. But as her parents told the L.A. Times last year, they would not allow her to go until they felt she'd become mature and experienced enough to handle the emotional and physical challenges posed by the "terrifying ocean." At 16, they believed that she had.

Marianne and Lawrence Sunderland may be quirky, but they're a far cry from the child-endangering monsters that the media would have you envision. They haven't yet, to my knowledge, written vaguely offensive columns about drugging their daughters. And they're not the only ones insisting that Abby was perfectly qualified.


"We've worked with a lot of people," said George Caras of Commander's Weather, whose client list includes some of the biggest names in the maritime world. "And from what we found, in our view, Abby Sunderland was completely competent and confident. She was extremely knowledgeable and capable."

"It was just an unfortunate thing," he added, his New England-y understatement a welcome respite from the media's salivating frenzy. "She got hit by a storm."