Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old sailor from Thousand Oaks, California, who was attempting to circumnavigate the globe by herself. Abby hit rough waters in the Indian Ocean a couple of days ago, and yesterday, two of her emergency alert beacons went off, sparking a rescue search for the teenager. After several harrowing hours which included some jurisdictional spats and the efforts to secure a plane that could cover the distance required of a search (she was 400 miles out to sea), Abby was located early this morning, her boat still sound, but minus a mast. She reported to the airplane crew that spotted her that she was fine, and had not been badly hurt. She has not yet been rescued, since her little sailboat was tossed into the middle of nowhere, and she now sits about 2,000 miles off the coast of Australia. Australia, France and the US are dispatching a rescue vessel. Thirty miles of some fairly choppy seas sit between Abby and the nearest rescue boat, however, so she's not entirely out of the woods yet.
I've been conflicted about Abby's story for the last couple of days. My thoughts have wavered between, "What a brave thing for a 16-year-old to try!" (knowing I would never have had the guts to attempt it myself, regardless of how good a sailor I might be), and "What were her parents thinking, letting her attempt it?" (knowing that, at 16, a person's sense of danger and mortality are highly impaired... which is why we have parents who will keep us from killing ourselves until we come to our senses). I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Reading scores of Twitter posts and comments to the news stories, many, many people chastised Abby's parents for letting her try this, even after she encountered some mechanical issues a week or so ago.The implication that somehow the Sunderlands were bad parents for not keeping Abby at home were adamant and explicit.
After some serious thought, I really can't join that chorus. I still think what Abby Sunderland tried was brave, and -- yes -- a little bit crazy. Most brave acts of accomplishment usually are. Death awaits us all, and adventure and challenge do not necessarily mean a person will die young. Take Steve Fossett, the adventurer who went solo around the world not only in a sailboat, but also in a hot air balloon and two types of fixed-wing aircraft, survived all of those adventures, including several unsuccessful attempts, only to die in what was supposed to be an afternoon flight from one point near his Nevada home to another. Conversely, Paul "Red" Adair, the dashing firefighter who took on burning oil wells all over the world, including Kuwait and Iraq, after Desert Storm, died at 89, safely in his bed, surrounded by friends and family.
The thing that Fossett and Adair... and our intrepid Abby Sunderland... have in common is that they lived lives that they loved, doing what suited them and what challenged them. And really, isn't that why we're put here?
The more I think about it, I realize that Abby's age is only a footnote in the story. It might have been interesting had she been able to beat the record as the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone, but it isn't the brave thing about Abby. The ocean is a big and lonely place. It also really doesn't give a damn about you. My ex-husband was a sailor who loved (still loves) the sea, but was perfectly aware that his love was thoroughly unrequited.. The ocean can kill you in a million different ways, he has said. Not intentionally. The sea isn't angry with you. It's just busy being the ocean, and doesn't have time to be bothered. It's as if it were swatting a gnat away from its massive face. The ocean doesn't hate you. It just doesn't care. To choose to put your fate in the hands of such a gigantic and indifferent entity is a pretty courageous thing, regardless of your age.
Abby Sunderland is, by all accounts, a gifted and thoughtful sailor. The fact that she'd been pummeled by hours and hours of rough water, was having engine and electrical issues, and managed, when things finally became unmanageable, still set off her alert beacons, stayed with her crippled ship, avoided panic, shows some serious guts that most adults wouldn't have displayed. She was found because she kept her wits about her, and did all the right things. Should her parents have let her go? As I've said many times, if parents were allowed to set the limits on what our children did in adolescence, kids would never leave the house without a full compliment of Kevlar, bubble wrap and duct tape. The Sunderlands have seven children, and so far, thankfully, none of them have been misplaced or damaged too terribly. I think they have this parenting thing covered. A friend of mine who goes to the same gym as Abby's father, says that Mr. Sunderland made what Abby was attempting (she'd only just begun her journey then) "sound so simple and safe" -- which, if you're a parent, is really what you have to tell yourself. I had to tell myself that putting my teenager behind the wheel of a car six years ago was "simple and safe", or I'd have gone out of my mind. And she was just driving from Reseda to Encino.
Should Abby have been allowed to start this wicked adventure? Should her parents have pulled the plug when she experienced mechanical difficulties? I don't know. I'm not a sailor, and I'm not Abby Sunderland's mother. Did her parents consider ending the sojourn at every turn? I can honestly say that they thought about it a million times, not because they didn't have faith in Abby, or her abilities or her good sense, but because they're parents. The natural instinct of a parent is to protect your child, ferociously, viciously and with every last ounce of strength in you. The hardest thing in the world is to realize that some children need to be let go, set free, to do what they need to do. All children need that eventually. Holding on to your children is easy. Letting them go, so they can grow up and be who they were meant to be, is a bitch and a half, and everyone has to figure out how to do it their own way. I can also guarantee, though I've never met Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, that they've had to mull over this question seven different times, because every one of their children is different and must be handled differently.
As I sit here, waiting for my daughter to become a mother herself, negotiating the twists and turns of adulthood, of relationships, of responsibility, I have, on a daily basis, to hang my motherly instinct on the hook, and let my daughter figure it out, work it out, fight it out for herself. Because it's her life, and I want her to be the pilot of it. Trying to run your child's life seems natural and normal. It's what we've done since they were born. Letting them go and butting out, so they can figure out how to run it themselves, seems freakish and against every instinct we have.
But often times, letting go is the right thing to do. When Savannah was a child, I used to say that parenthood was the only job where, if you did it right, you would most certainly render yourself redundant and obsolete. I'm realizing that my planned obsolescence is now a fact. I'm needed as a friend, a mentor, an advisor, a sounding board.... but as a mother, the way that mothers are with their very young children? Not so much anymore. It didn't really happen overnight. Each vestige of motherhood fell away a particle at a time,
I'm far from a perfect parent. I would like to think that I've done enough of the right things that my daughter still seems to enjoy my company and want my advice. But I've put my adventurer in her little boat and let her set sail on a big, uncaring sea, hoping that she can keep her wits about her and do the right things on her own.
Here's hoping that Abby Sunderland is pulled from the water safely, and that she is back in the arms of her parents as soon as possible.