I suspect that more than a few of us may be asking ourselves those questions, given the recent spate of youthful sailors who have set their sights on girdling the globe.
The "race" for the youngest solo circumnavigator title started in 2008, when two young men, both 16 at the time, set out to sail around the world. Both teen sailors were successful and, by all accounts, did a fine job. And Mike Perham, the youngest of the pair by 108 days, give or take, was recently given an Award of Merit by the Ocean Cruising Club. He can add that to his Guinness World Record. (Both Perham and Zac Sunderland were 17 when they finished.)
While it's hard not to admire their youthful moxie, it's also hard, as both a parent and boatman, not to worry about just how poorly things could have gone. Not only did they make it back in one piece, but their accomplishments were well-celebrated and publicized, including in the pages and on the cover of this magazine.
And if that were the end of the story, it would be one thing. But it's not.
Two 16-year-old girls are currently working their way around the world alone. And a 14-year-old Dutch girl would also like to be out there circumnavigating the blue planet, but a court ruled, wisely, that she is not yet ready. Initially, she had hoped to leave when she was 13. It makes you want to shout, "Enough!" Someone is going to get hurt - or worse.
I don't like the trend, even though we may have inadvertently helped stoked the fires a bit through our ample coverage of the Perham and Sunderland voyages. It seems as though these efforts are being driven as much by the desire to grab a record as to complete a journey. The prize should be the experience, not a Guinness notation.
And why the big hurry? After completing such an ambitious journey, what do you do for an encore?
"It doesn't leave a lot for the rest of their lifetimes in terms of sailing experiences," says veteran sailor Steve Black, founder of the Cruising Rally Association, which runs the Caribbean 1500. "I just fear they're doing the wrong trip for the wrong reasons. They should be in the learning mode, not the record-setting mode."
I applaud the spirit of exploration, adventure and independence that has lured folks onto the water for centuries. And I am reluctant to criticize the young, given my own head-strong ways as a teen and the wanderlust that led me down blue highways far from home. But I think it's fair to wonder whether by age 16 these young people have the experience, judgment, maturity, physical strength, mechanical acumen and a host of other tangible and intangible attributes for such an undertaking.
"If you're going to sail around the world alone, you're going to be in some wicked storms sooner or later," Black says. "How do you even understand your own mortality at 16?"
And if one of these brave, young souls falters and a big midocean rescue is required, the critics will come out of the woodwork over the cost and their ages.
You can say kids grow up faster today, but there is still a big difference between a 16-year-old and someone who is 18 or 20. At that stage of life, a couple of years make a big difference.
The sea doesn't give a damn about record books, sponsors, blogs or whether you have a pink boat or not. It waits for opportunity and pounces on mistakes and weakness, be it in the person, the vessel or the gear.
Perhaps my concerns are simply those of a middle-aged parent with three daughters and a son. Perhaps we've just written too many stories about capable, experienced cruisers who have lost their boats - their lives, in some cases - because of things outside their control. A container, a whale, a reef. The 60-knot low that there's no hiding from. Perhaps.
There's an old saying: Heaven protects children, sailors and drunken men. I pray these young people return safely; I'm just not comfortable with the odds.
"She is really a sturdy boat, sweet in any kind of sea, and she has a very low-cut stern with a large wooden roller to bring big fish over."
- Ernest Hemingway, on his 38-foot Wheeler, Pilar
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.
A 1981 Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate, Bill has been writing about boats for more than two decades. His boating travels have taken him from the Persian Gulf to the Baltic Sea, and always back home to Little Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. As editor, Bill is responsible for planning and executing the publication's boating coverage each month, and his Under Way column starts each issue. Bill has been with Soundings for 20 years and in 1997 won the Moulton H. "Monk" Farnham Award for Excellence in Editorial Commentary.