The Teen Sailor Debate

    Before Jessica Watson set off on her round-the-world sail, she and her family faced growing criticism and calls for the state to prevent her departure. Now the American public is engaging in a similar debate around the upcoming departure of Abby Sunderland on a similar expedition out of Southern California. 

     Once the LA Daily News named the Sunderland siblings 2009 Sportspersons of the Year, Abby has received even more negative attention. Thanks to columnist Tom Hoffarth for defending the family.

     The level of emotion among those commenting on Abby's dream reminds me of the response to our family's decision to embark on what became a five-year trip. Negative reaction seems to be based more on one's own risk-aversion -- whether the commenter might be willing to attempt a similar feat (though no one is asking them to) -- than informed assessment of potential danger. I would guess that many readers' perceptions of danger are influenced by pirate stories and Perfect Storm, not the often-boring voyages that most circumnavigators' logs record. 

     But detractors who cite her parents' alternative lifestyle -- they are Christian home-schoolers expecting their eight child -- as evidence that they are "irresponsible" is ludicrous. So is the charge that they are seeking fame and fortune. To me, their choices show that Abby comes of courageous stock, people who live by their own convictions and aren't worried about conforming. Every home-schooled child I have encountered has proved to be a thoughtful, self-motivated person; peer approval is usually beyond the reach of their radar. They are not "typical" kids and shouldn't be judged by ordinary standards. Rather, they ought to be categorized with elite athletes like the teen Olympians who undergo grueling conditions  -- and whose parents make sacrifices -- to compete in their chosen sports.

     That teens as a class are disparaged and their parents attacked is, I think, detrimental to the debate about individual fitness to attempt a goal and dreams in general. Laura Dekker's recent flight to St. Maarten and Dutch authorities' reluctant decision to encourage her two-year circumnavigation illustrates the agony faced by adults charged with balancing their own fears and experience against a determined youngster's will. The choice was made after her grandparents published an open letter describing Laura's downward spiral and growing distrust of adults during the four months she has spent under state supervision. The court's attitude shift from patriarchal control to concerned partner marks a more realistic, healthy approach toward teen dreams.

     Robin Lee Graham, the 16 year-old who set out more than 30 years ago on Dove, also used drama to make his point. Not until he sailed across the Maui Channel in a leaky boat did his father realize that since he was going to sail whether they wanted him to or not, he might as well make sure it was on a seaworthy boat.

     Of course, the public worries. We want all of our children to be safe. But forcing "safe" choices on kids at the cost of dreams will not help them lead the fulfilling lives they are meant for.