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Joanna Weiss

Ship of fools

Protecting a 16-year-old sailor, not enabling dangerous dreams, is a parent’s responsibility

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 15, 2010

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‘I THINK it’s a parent’s job to realize their kids’ dreams,’’ Abby Sunderland’s father told the Los Angeles Times last winter. This was just before he waved his 16-year-old daughter off on what was to be a six-month voyage alone on a small boat, her effort to become the youngest person to sail around the world nonstop and unassisted.

Here’s a proposed rule of thumb: any record that requires more than 10 syllables to explain does not need to be broken. At any rate, Abby did not succeed. A massive storm in the Indian Ocean knocked out her mast, launching a massive international rescue effort. She has since abandoned her 40-foot boat and boarded a French fishing vessel, from where she has resumed her blog.

Actually, she has a panoply of interlinked blogs, set up to track and promote her journey, including one that sold T-shirts and shoes with an “Abby 16’’ logo. They’re flooded now with comments offering gratitude and praise, calling her a role model and an inspiration.

So this is the definition of bravery now? Embarking on unnecessary risk that jeopardizes the lives of rescue workers? When I thought of a 16-year-old bobbing alone in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by 25-foot waves, I didn’t feel inspired. I felt sad. And when I thought about her parents, I felt furious.

Abby’s fans would call me a naysayer, I gather from their posts, and tell me I lack a spirit of adventure. And I’ll admit that parenthood requires one to overcome a certain intolerance for risk. I can’t watch my 5-year-old daughter climb the monkey bars without feeling like I’m going to have a coronary. God knows what I’ll do when she starts driving.

But parenthood also requires you to invoke maturity where your child lacks it, whether it’s telling her that she’s too small to slide down the fireman’s pole or that her sailing journey will have to wait until she’s old enough to come to her senses. It involves helping her figure out the difference between a dream and a fantasy.

Perhaps someone should have stepped in to impose some parenting standards on the Sunderlands; last summer, a court in the Netherlands stopped a 13-year-old girl from making her own unadvised solo sail. Better yet, we could give up a culture that treats accomplishment as a race and turns risk into its own reward. Abby Sunderland couldn’t drive without a learner’s permit, but her journey on the high seas got her fawning press and endorsement deals. Now, some fans on her site have offered their own money to recover her lost boat. One pledged to play an extra $5 a day in the lottery, just in case.

When will he realize he’s simply a pawn in the Sunderlands’ audience-building scheme? From onboard the French fishing vessel, Abby has declared, quelle surprise, that she’s writing a book. Her father also disclosed that he’s been shopping a reality show with the working title “Adventures in Sunderland.’’ (What good fortune this family has, to have a name that lends itself to puns.)

Childhood fame is always some mix of the child’s dream and the parents; so it was with Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in 1996, trying to pilot a plane across the country.

With the growing temptations of book deals and TV series, the balance may be shifting even more. We’ll surely hear more from Jordan Romero, the 13-year-old who just became the youngest person to climb Mount Everest. We probably haven’t heard the last of the Heenes of Colorado, who at least had the sense not to actually put their child inside the Mylar balloon.

But while there’s clearly a market for immature stars, we shouldn’t confuse “youngest’’ with significant “first,’’ and we shouldn’t call these publicity stunts anything but what they are. Abby Sunderland may find a way to convert her misadventures into lingering fame. But while she seems to be a skilled junior sailor, calm in the face of danger, that doesn’t make her a hero. It just makes her very, very lucky.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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