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Abby Sunderland is Alive

The tremendous news is that 16-year-old Abby Sunderland of Thousand Oaks, who set off two EPIRBs deep in the Southern Ocean yesterday from her Open 40 Wild Eyes, has been located in good health by a Qantas airliner chartered by the Australian government. While her boat, which has five watertight compartments, has been dismasted, Sunderland reported over the VHF that she was in good shape. Hopefully she can stay that way for the next 24 to 36 hours  until one of three French fishing boats, whose crews presumably have better things to do than risk their lives rescuing fame-struck teenage girls, can save her. Word is expected at any moment from stage parents Laurence and Marianne Sunderland that the very first proceeds from their daughter’s upcoming book and movie deals will be used to generously compensate the crews and owners of the fishing boats who are risking their own lives to save their daughter’s.

There is delicious irony in the Australian government — and therefore Aussie taxpayers — coughing up the dough to charter the Qantas plane that found Sunderland. It was less than one month ago that most Aussies, and their blow-in-the-wind political leaders such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, went ga-ga over 16-year-old Aussie Jessica Watson’s having become the youngest person to have almost sailed around the world non-stop and singlehanded. (Her course was a little too short to meet the criteria, but who wants to split hairs?) One wonders how many times Rudd and his countrymen and women will be willing to charter Qantas jets to find 16-year-olds eager to put it all on the line in search of a spot on the cover of People magazine before the practice becomes old and overly expensive.

The reaction of Abby’s parents — who, based on public opinion, seem to be frontrunners for ‘Worst Parents of the Year’ honors — to the possibility that their young daughter might be dead was illuminating. They seemed to think that if Abby had died, well, all of life is a risk, and she could just as easily have been killed on the 405. Boy, who wouldn’t love to get into a poker game with folks who calculate the odds the way they do? And to think they would ante up their daughter’s life making such a bet. And make no mistake, none of this "Abby’s lifetime dream since she was 13" rubbish would have been possible without the undying commitment and encouragement of her parents.

As we read many of the comments to various media about Sunderland’s EPIRBs going off, we were reminded of how ignorant — perhaps understandably so — the general public is about sailing and sailing around the world in particular. Most astounding were the number of commenters who believed that Sunderland had been picked off by Arab pirates! Indeed, some thought she had become a victim of the white slave trade as opposed to the weather. Little did they realize that icebergs were a 1,000 times greater threat to Abby than were pirates. Others speculated on how difficult it was going to be to find Sunderland, given that the area she was in — between Antarctica, South Africa and Australia — is as big as Russia. Not quite clear on the near pinpoint accuracy of EPIRBs and GPS, are we?

What many sailors don’t even seem to realize is the amount of risk that Sunderland’s parents were willing to expose their daughter to. After all, there are ho-hum circumnavigations, and then there are difficult circumnavigations. Abby’s brother Zac’s trip around was the former. Shepherded by his parents at great expense, he went around on a route that many people have done on tight budgets and without any assistance. Heck, Berkeley’s Serge Testa did it on a homebuilt 12-footer. Such circumnavigations are not to be sneezed at, but they normally aren’t that hard. The difference is that most circumnavigators don’t make such a big deal of it, such as spending the last night at Emerald Bay on Catalina in order to give the press a chance to congregate for the really big media fest at Marina del Rey the next day.

As we’ve written before, Abby’s circumnavigation was like climbing Mt. Everest compared to Zac’s, which was like climbing Mt. Tam. Her attempt was to not only be non-stop, but non-stop via the Southern Ocean. That 16-year-old Jessica Watson was able to accomplish that is a truly remarkable feat, and a credit to both her and the durability and reliability of her S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady. As silly and completely stupid as we think age-based record setting is, there is no denying what Watson accomplished.

In order to get into the non-existent record book — World Speed Sailing Association as well as Guiness and many others won’t accept age-based records because of the risks — Abby had to start her circumnavigation at the wrong time or she would be too old. When you sail around the world, even the easy way, you do it by the seasons. That’s even more important when going around the hard way. When the great maxi French mulithulls attempt around the world records, their window is always November to about March. Why? Because as Adrienne Cahalan, navigator on Playstation‘s record circumnavigation said, "You don’t sail in the Southern Ocean in the winter." You just don’t do it. Not the Volvo, not the Vendée, not The Race, not nobody. If the world’s greatest sailors will wait a full year just to stay out of the Southern Ocean in winter — when there are gales 30% of the time as opposed to 5% of the time in summer — you’d think the parents of a 16-year-old minor would make their daughter do the same. But then more than a few parents have been blinded by the lure of the possibility of their child becoming famous.

From the ghetto, Fiddy Cent rapped that he was going to "Get rich or die tryin’." We suppose this is the Thousand-oh-so-close-to-Hollywood-Oaks’ version, which might be titled ‘Get famous or die tryin’. We’re sure glad Abby didn’t die. As for becoming famous, she’s gotten even more of it than she could have dreamed of. In fact, you have to feel sorry for Watson who, despite being the one who actually accomplished her goal, has now been upstaged by Abby’s failure. In the minds of experienced sailors, however, we think Abby Sunderland is going to be famous, not for her sailing, but for having been played for the fool by her irresponsible parents.

Of course, all this is just our opinion.

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