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A telling reaction

N23.DEPARTURESunderland critics doth protest too much, and it's a sign of troubled times

OK, trying to get in the record books as the youngest solo circumnavigator may be a bit silly, but it's nowhere near as ridiculous as the bile hurled at Abby Sunderland and her parents by the American public. That reaction is more revealing about us as a nation than its value as commentary on a 16-year-old's quest to sail around the world.

First, let's filter the discussion. The fact that the voyage involved a record and vague talk of a reality television show may have raised the temperature a few degrees, but these are peripheral to the argument. Does anyone reading this believe that the individuals accusing the Sunderlands of recklessness would have different opinions if, say, Abby were allowed to sail alone around the world just for the experience? Too young is too young, most of the critics would say. Quoting one: "Her brain isn't even fully formed yet."

Compared to other cultures, Americans do not really like other people's children, probably because they see them as being in competition with their own kids. In Abby Sunderland, most American parents would have to see a kid superior to their own, which might lead to the conclusion that Abby's mother and father are better parents than they. To me, this is the best explanation for America's bitter reaction, the most sour of grapes.

Consider today's teenager: They are overweight, overmedicated and overprotected. A recent report by retired military leaders says 27 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are ineligible for the service in our armed forces because of obesity, literally "too fat to fight." Blame school menus, maybe, but this outcome may also have something to do with an environment of parental coddling that would have been considered absurd just two generations ago, but is today the norm.

Since man first put to sea, mariners have seen themselves as an elite group. A teenager from the slums of London, rising through the ranks of the British navy, may have had to defer to his "betters" on land, but he and his mates were confident they were in fact the better men because they were seamen. In their years before the mast, each would develop to differing degrees a grasp of engineering, navigation, weather, geography, languages and a host of skills. By god, they could harness the wind to drive a ship and they were a tough in a fight.

I have seen the children raised on and around boats today. They are not like the pasty-faced legion of electronic gamers. They tend to be well-adjusted, confident and resourceful. They are respectful in conversation, looking adults in the eye while speaking to them as equals. I don't pretend to know Abby Sunderland, but from what I've heard and read, she is all of that. She is a capable sailor who put to sea on a boat designed to go around the world. Too bad the rogue wave took away her spars, because it would have been interesting to see what she would have jury-rigged to keep going. That, she says, was her first thought after being dismasted.

Now let's put the perils of the sea in perspective. No ocean voyage should be undertaken lightly, but the greatest danger lies closer to home. From childhood, I will never forget that sign posted at the exit to the old Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass. Its message was a reminder to base personnel, many of whom had fought in World War II and Korea: "You are about to enter the most dangerous place on earth - a public highway."

Yet in Abby's state of California, and numerous others, a 16-year-old can get a license to drive a motorcycle on public highways. By definition these new bikers begin with little experience and do something statistically far more dangerous than an experienced sailor making bluewater passages in a well-found boat with modern electronics. How many of the Sunderlands' accusers wanted the family presented with the bill for Abby's rescue - a theme echoed ad nauseam in forums and blogs? Why not bill the parents of the dozens of teen motorcyclists whose remains we must scrape off our public roads each year?

That military report "Too Fat to Fight" also mentioned criminal records and failure to graduate high school as secondary disqualifiers for service. All are signs of weakness, not just on the part of kids but their parents, too. However flawed the notion of circumnavigating for a record, no one can doubt Abby Sunderland's abilities, character and uncommon toughness. She is a mariner, and for that we must credit her mom and dad, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.


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