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World-class sailors and others chime in

I must confess that I'm not risk-averse. Quite a few years ago, at the age of 19, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and requested duty in Vietnam. A few years after finishing my service and following the completion of my undergraduate degree, I started and ran my own construction company with my younger brother. Fast forward a few years and I became immersed in the world of sailing. Multiple round-the-world races on record-setting boats, speed records through the Southern Ocean, and scores of races and transoceanic passages testify to that fact.

The French fishing vessel Ile de la Reunion comes to Sunderland's aid

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In the midst of all of that I had a daughter with a wonderfully independent and forthright woman. Together we raised our daughter to think for herself, taking initiative and responsibility for her actions. I taught her the fundamentals of rock climbing at age 4. Her mother watched over her as she went surfing soon after a hurricane left the area; she was 13 years old at the time. To raise our daughter otherwise seemed hypocritical.

However, having said all of that, we always applied "rules" to the activities. In order to attempt these various things, one needed to first attain a sufficient level of skill, ensure that there were appropriate safety measures in place and have a backup plan organized. Risk is everywhere in life. My own opinion is that we should understand it and face it appropriately without endangering others.

The Southern Ocean is frequently a very hostile environment. For most people, that is difficult to understand in a rational, experienced manner. For a 16-year-old, I'm sure it's impossible. I suspect it's highly unlikely that they would have the depth of experience to understand the risk to themselves and how to appropriately react in 70-knot winds and 50-foot seas. I'm certain they couldn't relate to the risks being taken by those courageous souls who may be sent to rescue them.

I do believe it's important that we learn to accept risk as a concept and part of life. But at the same time I believe that we also have the responsibility to ourselves and others to face those risks with appropriate training and background and with the sober realization that if things go horribly wrong, others will be affected as well.

Bill Biewenga

Veteran bluewater sailor and weather router

Newport, R.I.

I think the idea of a youth taking on a solo circumnavigation via the Southern Capes is not necessarily about how young is too young, but about maturity, experience, preparation and guidance. I think a couple of the criteria of which I speak were overlooked in Abby's case.

In my mind, she was deep in the Southern Indian Ocean too late in the season, therefore the guidance was not sage. I think much of her experience was in a part of the world that is far less challenging than where she was headed, which made her experience substandard for taking on the Southern Ocean. The South is a very intimidating place to solo for anyone, and you need to have as many tools as possible to deal with the challenges you will inevitably experience.

Brad Van Liew

(Velux Five Oceans race, Open 50 Class,

third place 1998-99, first place 2002-03)

Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Your August Under Way, "Focus on the journey, not record-seeking" hit the nail on the head. However, what prompts me to write this letter was the comment from a "female sailor and a marine industry professional" who implored us to see Abbey Sunderland "as a professional in her own right" who "deserves the respect that any professional should receive."

Over the years my fleet rescued recreational sailors in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean who had ventured too far offshore to be able to handle the consequences of the expected perils of the sea and breakdowns. Experienced sailors who know how not to overwork their craft and have the ability to fix rigs and machinery and especially jury rig after a knockdown or rig failure rarely needed rescue. The problem is sailors and sailboats that shouldn't have been there at all or shouldn't have been there under the prevailing conditions.

What every real bluewater "marine professional" knows is the staggering cost of such foolishness. When I began my career, ships would happen upon sailors in distress and rescue them in the best traditions of the sea. The EPIRB has taken the rescue of sailors who are spotted by the bridge watch to being a vast undertaking involving ships transiting anywhere near the position of the sailboat in distress.

What is not apparent is that the cost to the Australian rescuers may be just the tip of the iceberg. Ships in the area are asked to stand by or are diverted. Vast sums of money are wasted. Charters are lost for missing a canceling date; cargo and bunkering stems are cancelled. The consequences are many and often extreme. Crews spend months at sea, and their long-awaited travel arrangements for weddings, graduations, holidays, you name it, are disrupted. The supply chain is disrupted for ore, crude, grain, etc., right down to household goods for a family moving to a new home.

Since Abby Sunderland's parents could find the means to outfit such an enterprise, they certainly are honor bound not to plead poverty as an excuse for not making a substantial financial contribution to help defray the costs of the rescue by the Australians. Unfortunately, if the usual costs associated with broadcasting an EPIRB in the middle of the Indian Ocean are applicable here, a six-figure contribution won't begin to compensate for the true costs and for the disruption to the lives of those called upon to honor the tradition of the sea to aid anyone in distress.

John Love

Marine superintendent (retired)

Norwalk, Conn.

For the life of me I can't understand why the people of Australia and France should be stuck with the bill for rescuing teenager Abby Sunderland from her ill thought-out stunt gone bad. And I can't understand why her parents, who backed the adventure, don't feel any financial obligation for the rescue.

The world is trying to recover from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It's absurd to stick Australia, France and probably the U.S. taxpayers with millions of dollars of expenses resulting from a child trying to get into the Guinness World Records. If there is a book deal or movie deal resulting from Abby's escapade, the proceeds should go to offset the cost of the rescue.

Bill Seale

Annapolis, Md.

I was very interested in your article and editorial on the fate of Abby Sutherland's circumnavigation attempt and the discussions of maturity versus luck. I think she suffered the same fate as I had in the late summer of 1973, when my small boat got rolled 360 as I was soloing from Miami to the U.K., via Bermuda.

I was 39, having sailed for 25 years, and was sailing in the hurricane season (one strike against maturity), although hurricanes that year all went ashore in the Caribbean (a big strike for luck). My boat was a 24 Shark, with 3-foot draft.

When the dice rolled, I was steering northeast in the declining hours of a long-building southwesterly gale, with big rollers from the southwest but only an occasional hiss as a small, foamy crest went past. The only sail up, to port, was a small jib, and as the southwest wind seemed to moderate, I thought about needing more sail for steerage. My fin-keel, spade-rudder boat did not respond well to downwind self-steering in big seas and winds, so I put off doing anything.

As the front went past, the wind veered more westerly and I veered with it, more to the east. I was now more abeam to the big, but harmless-looking, rollers and continued to steer, sitting in the starboard cockpit with my back to them.

There was an occasional big, foamy breaking wave among the rollers and I was lifted sideways occasionally by the foam. There was suddenly a big hiss from behind and before I was aware of what was happening, the boat was rolled to port 360 and I was still sitting in the cockpit, slightly wet and looking at a broken mast in the water beside the boat. My safety harness had not even been tensioned.

A day later the seas had diminished under the lighter northwest wind and I could erect a shorter mast and slowly plod the 200 miles to Falmouth, U.K. My aluminum mast had been stepped on deck, had broken at the spreaders and I had a hacksaw and spare rigging parts.

With plenty of time since to think what I had done wrong, I realized my heading more to the east as the wind veered had opened me abeam to the effects of two wave trains crossing, with the big but smooth southwest rollers being intersected by the smaller come-lately northwest seas, behind the front. The two crests were higher at the intersections, with accompanying rolling foam, often more than 3 feet deep. If I had jibed to port, keeping the big southwest seas behind me, I think I could have surfed on the breaking crests.

It sounds like this is what happened to Abby, who somewhere had commented that the worst of the storm had passed and a big sea came from nowhere. If one assumes that she had let the self-steering keep control, without adjusting course, the boat would have also followed the veering wind, leaving it more beam-on to the now-intersecting waves, with large foaming crests where they met. Even with her 10-foot draft, the hull could be flung sideways and tripped over, as it was, in otherwise not very violent waves.

I'd also suggest that fin-keel, spade rudder boats for single-handers do not belong on the oceans. With a spade rudder, the effective lateral plane shifts fore and aft as steering occurs. Abby had a couple of self-steering failures early on; the steering was being asked to do too much.

For ocean sailing, where a boat might be on one course for a week at a time, a skeg in front of the rudder will save all the other steering systems from working so hard, including the human steering system. For a fully crewed racing boat there may be a case for minimizing wetted area, but the helmsman will definitely have more sweated area.

The preliminary solo trials of my latest homemade self-steerer, on an old fin-keel and spade-rudder C&C 25, have persuaded me that I shall have to add a sturdy skeg to the boat to prevent a swooping course in light beam and following winds, with the resulting overworking of the steering and disturbance of the crew.

More lateral plane aft for more restful voyaging, even on the Great Lakes.

Randal Peart

Eau Claire, Mich.

The current trend of younger and younger sailors attempting such voyages alone will sooner or later end in disaster, and it is the media, including Soundings, who will share a large portion of the blame. In some parts of the world, the media is refusing to cover such attempts in order to discourage them, and I feel you would be doing the sailing community a service to lead the United States in this way.

Neil Gallagher

Glen Cove, N.Y.

Having followed the rescue of solo sailor and 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, I find myself actually angry at the arrogance of both the sailor and her adult parents. They both act as if this were just a temporary setback, no big deal. After all nobody died, right?

This is a deadly trend we are seeing unfolding before us. One has to question both the motives of the parents and the judgment of all the participants, including sponsors. It is bad enough that we see ill-prepared adult solo sailors putting others at risk in high-seas rescue attempts, but to sanction minors is truly astonishing. The rumors of reality shows, second attempts, etc., are flying, and you know other parents are "training" their children to be the next "youngest in the world."

I feel the boating community should band together to put an end to this trend. Not recognizing the accomplishment officially is a good start, but it needs to go further. Sponsors should be pressured to not participate and, at some point, parents should be financially penalized if their children are the cause of an international rescue. I don't care how much practice they get - children are children and do not have the life experience required to undertake a dangerous journey such as this. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Phil Rugile

East Northport, N.Y.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.


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