Abby Sunderland Is a 16-Year-Old Sailor. Deal With It, America

[Update: Abby Sunderland has been rescued. She says she’ll try again.]

Abby Sunderland is alive and well. Her boat is upright (see photograph, courtesy Australian Search and Rescue, on her blog). She’ll be rescued within 24 hours by a French fishing vessel now speeding to her location.

I’ll bet her first interview will reveal she’s not one bit sorry about her quest to become the youngest sailor to traverse the globe solo. The youngest, mind you — not youngest girl.

On June 10, emergency signals went off when Sunderland got caught in 25-foot waves in the wintertime Indian Ocean, a sea her brother Zac, who achieved the same youngest sailor feat when he was just shy of 18, described as “rough.”

A recent 20/20 program titled “How Young Is Too Young?” raised the question of whether or not children (such as 13-year-old Jordan Romero, who last month became the youngest person to summit Everest) should be allowed to attempt world records. Indeed, some have suggested the Sunderland parents should go to jail for child abuse. Check out the comment section on “Teen Sailor Missing at Sea.”

Aviatrix Bessie Coleman and sailor Abby Sunderland

Let the tsk-tsking begin! And make it loud, why don’t ya, so we can find you and shout you down.

Female daredevils are nothing new. Remember all those sepia-toned photographs of cowgirls and female pilots?

Amelia Earhart may be the most famous aviatrix, but she was far from the best. Lesser known but highly respected was Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot, and the first African-American of either gender to hold an international pilot license. When she died in a plane crash in 1926, tens of thousands turned out for her three funerals in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago.

In 1889 journalist Nellie Bly began a unprecedented attempt to go around the world and turn into fact the fictional “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne. Bly departed Hoboken, N.J., on November 14. Seventy-two days later she arrived in New York after circumnavigating the globe.

Ever heard the name Annie Edison Taylor? In 1901 Taylor became the first person (not the first woman, but first person) to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She was 63 years old.

Georgie White practically invented river rafting as the sport we know today. In 1952, she became the first woman to go the full length of the Grand Canyon (plus Marble Canyon). Later she lashed together three rafts for stability, not unlike the J-Rigs you see on the Colorado River today. White began taking passengers to help her pay for her passion.

Mabel Stark wrestled tigers in the 1920s. She got her start by skipping after-school activities in favor of trips to the zoo in her hometown of Princeton, Ky. After she visited the A.G. Barnes Circus during a trip to California, her nascent career as a nurse was finished and a new one begun when Mr. Barnes himself noticed her interest in animals and offered her a job.

From Stark’s 1938 autobiography “Hold That Tiger”:

I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children, even when they are the most wayward. They are killers because they know their own strength. They can be subdued but never conquered, except by love. And that is the secret of all successful animal training. I have learned it at the risk of my life…Mine may seem a strange profession for a woman, but it is not physical strength that counts in the big cage.

Surfer Bethany Hamilton didn’t pull back after a shark chomped off an arm when she was 13. Within a month she was surfing again, and she went on to win prizes. Despite her one-armed disadvantage, in 2008 Hamilton came in 3rd in a competition for best female surfer in the world.

Americans do a lot of talking about freedom on Memorial Day and July 4th, but if freedom is so important, why are today’s playground slides encased plastic chutes rather than the open steel slides of my youth. Yes, it was a little scary, but that was the point.

Our arms, legs and heads were free. We’d roller skate in dresses. We’d ride bikes and feel the wind in our hair. I’m not suggesting we throw away elbow pads and helmets. But please recognize that there’s a trade-off for all that safety.

Abby Sunderland is no idiot. She weighed the risks and she made her decision. Americans love to toss around the phrase “you go girl.” Let’s put some conviction behind it, shall we?

For the record, rafting pioneer Georgie White died of cancer at age 81. Without regrets, I’ll bet.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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4 Responses to Abby Sunderland Is a 16-Year-Old Sailor. Deal With It, America

  1. Glad she’s going to be okay. Who wouldn’t be glad of that? But I’m sad that she’s stunt-sailing. Puts potential rescuers at risk.

  2. kenvhyt says:

    hahaha. bessie coleman. didn’t she fall from her plane and die?

    seriously though. following your dreams is one thing, but this is just fucking stupid. and i don’t put the blame fully on abby. her parents are real wonders.

    if you teach a teen how to do something, i’m sure ANY teen, with the right guidance and determination, can do this. but for the purpose of being able to say you were the youngest to do it? that’s just silly. it would be more impressive if she were to wait and do it at 90. at that age, you know you’re mortality; at 16, you feel invincible. this was just a careless act.

  3. jjoshuajj21 says:

    I want her memory to be her as an “Alive” person, because she’ll only be rescued “once.” I’m proud of her, she is a very brave and courageous girl, but she has reached her limits, on the ocean blue, and she is now 10X more famous than she would have been if she had won the title. So,… It may be too early to tell, and I know that Abby has not reached USA Home Soil; however, Abby should have a very rewarding future after this, but only if she can keep herself away from any future solo ocean voyages >>> http://realhumanheros.wordpress.com/ <<<<

  4. zooeyibz says:

    I think Abby and her parents should be very proud of her achievement. Bad weather is no-one’s fault and there is nothing “irresponsible” in encouraging a young person to pursue their dream. Teenagers take risks all the time — most of them worse than the ones Abby ran. I hope the Sunderlands refuse to be discouraged by the negative press and that Abby keeps chasing her dreams.

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