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Focus on the journey, not record-seeking

It was inevitable, I suppose. Tempt the fates too many times and eventually you're going to roll snake eyes. Mother Nature will be denied for only so long.

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So after three teenagers successfully sailed around the world alone in the last 24 months, the door was unceremoniously slammed shut on 16-year-old Abby Sunderland in the east Indian Ocean in June (see story, Page 14). After her rig came crashing down in 25-foot seas and 30 knots of wind, Sunderland triggered two of her three EPIRBs, and the world held its breath as headlines proclaimed the young sailor "missing."

We exhaled in relief when she was found alive - and then we wagged our collective finger at the kid and her parents for undertaking what many are calling a stunt, for putting the lives of searchers and rescuers in danger and for running up a rescue bill the family says it can't pay. The latter point is moot, given that the Australians have no intention of billing anyone, but it certainly helped fuel the debate over the wisdom of allowing 16-year-olds to sail on their own just this side of Timbuktu.
Whether you gave two hoots about boats or not, Abby Sunderland's age, her wide-eyed optimism and girlish looks - she could be anyone's daughter - clearly touched an instinct for sheltering our children from harm's way. As such, the incident captured the attention of tens of thousands of viewers and readers far outside the world of boats. I knew the story had gone mainstream when the morning radio jocks on Boston's WEEI all-sports network jawboned over the parents' decision to help their daughter in her record venture.
I ask a question that I posed before Sunderland departed on her voyage: How young is too young?
While it's easy to get caught up in the spirit of adventure embodied in today's nautical brat pack, the trend toward ever-younger record seekers is troubling. (In May, a 13-year-old California boy was feted for being the youngest to climb Mount Everest.)
At some point, I fear someone is going to get in real trouble, and all the EPIRBs, sat phones and prayers in the world aren't going to be enough to save him or her.
In some respects, Sunderland was fortunate that the weather that caught her about 2,000 miles west of Australia wasn't of such strength and ferocity to have overwhelmed and sunk her 40-footer. She was in a region swept by powerful storms.
With four teen sailors in the last two years sprinting around the world in hopes of wearing the mantle of youngest circumnavigator, you didn't have to be Nostradamus to predict that eventually the odds were going to catch up with at least one of them. How could they not, given the realities and vagaries of ocean sailing?
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1969 became the first person to sail solo, non-stop around the world, has had his misgivings about the very young record seekers. "The danger I see is from pushy parents wanting some glory through their children," Knox-Johnston told me in an e-mail. "Personally, I do not like this current craze for youngest; it's better to look at the voyage itself. And I can see it ending in tragedy if it continues."
How young is too young? Remember, before Sunderland left port the courts put the kibosh on the plans of a 14-year-old Dutch girl to sail around the world alone, too. And she had wanted to go as a 13-year-old. Madness.
Abby Sunderland said it was about the journey, not the record, but it makes one wonder: Why the big hurry? And what does a young sailor do for an encore after he or she has sailed around the world alone? Wednesday night beer can series? Reality TV is more likely.
We live in a culture that glorifies records at the expense of more noteworthy accomplishments. It's just that these other feats don't come dressed in the glitzy gauze of "first," "highest," "fastest," "youngest" and so on.
The debate sparked by Abby Sunderland's misfortune shouldn't turn into a scolding of young, talented free spirits, as some comments have suggested. Kids need to fledge, but the old expression about learning to walk before you can run still has a ring of truth.
I think it's the motivation of these sailors more than just their ages that cause many of us to worry. Record-seeking by its nature involves taking risks that the prudent passagemaker avoids as if they were Somali pirates. The quest for ever-younger only pushes those with less experience and maturity into the fray.
The current record for the youngest non-stop solo circumnavigation was set in May by Australian Jessica Watson, who finished two days shy of her 17th birthday. Will the next seeker depart at age 15, with all the invincibility that youth serves up but little of the experience and judgment, not to mention the jury-rigging and mechanical skills, needed for such an undertaking? How many rabbits can you have up your sleeve by the time you've reached the ripe old age of 16? Not nearly enough.
It's time we put the brakes on, time we said enough. Let's focus on making the journey - not a Guinness footnote - the real prize.

"... the music of the scuppers ..." - Frank Wightman

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.