To the legions of critics online and on cable television who have questioned allowing their 16-year-old daughter to sail solo around the world, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland offered no apologies on Friday.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — To the legions of critics online and on cable television who have questioned allowing their 16-year-old daughter to sail solo around the world, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland offered no apologies Friday.
“If people are looking at age, they’re looking at the wrong thing here,” Laurence Sunderland said outside the family’s Thousand Oaks home as a rescue ship headed to where Abby Sunderland had been seen the night before, adrift in her damaged boat in the southern Indian Ocean.
“Age is not a criteria. Abby is a fine sailor,” he added. “I’ve never advocated this for 16-year-olds. I’ve advocated this for experienced sailors.”
In an era when social scientists worry about “helicopter parents” hovering over their offspring, shielding them from dangers real and invented, the saga of the globe-circling, teenage solo sailor presents a counterpoint.
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From the moment the teenage skipper was reported missing Thursday, debate over her parents’ decision to permit the risky adventure has boiled on blogs and among child-rearing experts. Some have suggested the couple engaged in child endangerment and, at a minimum, should be financially liable for all search-and-rescue costs.
The Sunderlands, however, say their critics do not know their daughter, her upbringing and experience or her family. Children, Laurence Sunderland argues, should be encouraged to confront and manage challenges.
“Let’s face it. Life is dangerous,” Laurence Sunderland said on “Good Morning America.” “How many teenagers are killed in car accidents? … Should we stop every teenager from driving a car?”
Some who have observed the family see a mix of factors at work.
The family livelihood is centered on boats. Laurence Sunderland works as shipwright, maintaining, delivering and repairing boats at Marina del Rey. And the children’s lives revolve, at least partly, around sailing. Abby has noted she’s been on boats since she was 2 months old.
“It kind of just happens,” she said before her departure in January. “You live on boats. You know how to sail.”
A solo sailing circumnavigation that would be unimaginable for most families, is “kind of a fit for our family,” she said. Her brother, Zac, already had sailed around the world alone at 17, she noted. The family also draws confidence from a regime of meticulous preparation and a certain fearlessness from an intense born-again Christian faith.
“We don’t make any decisions just based on a feeling, or even on sound knowledge,” Laurence Sunderland said. “We also pray about it. The conviction of prayer and answer to prayer has led to where we are with Abigail’s campaign.”
Those who criticize the Sunderlands said they can’t fathom letting a minor child voyage alone for months in hostile seas and worry about the emotional damage of such isolation.
“I have a daughter who is 36, and if she wanted to do it, I’d tie her down,” said Frances Rothschild, a California Appeals Court judge.
Margaret Stuber, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical School, said that “as a mother, I would be terrified” of letting her children attempt such a trip. Such a challenge would be inappropriate for most 16-year-olds, she said. But Sunderland grew up with boats and has a unique skill set, she said.
From a developmental perspective, 16-year-olds have the reflexes and intellectual skills for the tasks involved, Stuber said. What is often slower to come is their ability to control their impulses, she said.
“I guess you have to make a judgment about what is reasonable, and what someone’s skill level is,” she said. “When my 16-year-old first got on the 405 and it was raining, I was terrified.”
Laurence Sunderland said allowing Abby to go was an extremely difficult decision. He and his wife agreed only after she proved herself with intensive training. “This wasn’t an easy decision to make. It was done very carefully,” he said.
Renowned Australian round-the-world sailor Ian Kiernan was unconvinced, saying the teen should not have been in the southern Indian Ocean during the current southern hemisphere winter.
“Abby would be going through a very difficult time with mountainous seas and essentially hurricane-force winds,” Kiernan told Sky News television.
The teen set sail from Los Angeles County’s Marina del Rey in her boat, Wild Eyes, on Jan. 23, trying to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo, and continued her trip after mechanical failures dashed that dream.
Abby set off a distress signal Thursday after rough seas disabled her ship and her satellite-phone reception. There were 20 hours of silence before a search plane launched from Australia’s west coast made brief radio contact with her and found her alive and well Friday.
A rescue vessel was expected to reach Sunderland’s 40-foot boat, which has a broken mast, drifting about 2,000 miles southwest of Australia, on Saturday.
She told searchers Friday that she was doing fine with a space heater and at least two weeks’ worth of food, said family spokesman William Bennett. Support team member Jeff Casher said the boat had gotten knocked on its side several times.
Casher said the teen’s vessel is so badly damaged, her attempt to circle the globe was over. “This is the end of the dream. There’s no boat to sail,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.