Adventure or irresponsibility?

June 18, 2010


And now, a rebuttal from inside the cotton-wool tunnel.

That, according to Laurence Sunderland, is the safe, heavily padded place where critics of him, his wife Marianne, and their 16-year-old daughter Abby live, cushioned from life’s dangers and risks. If the names sound familiar, there’s a reason. Abby Sunderland is the California girl whose attempt to become the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe ended in near tragedy when her boat became crippled by storms in the Indian Ocean. Laurence and Marianne are the parents who let her go.

The girl was found and rescued last week, but her brush with disaster has earned her folks international reproach. A writer on a Los Angeles Times message board called them “moron parents.” A reader of The Herald Sun in Australia accused them of “child abuse and neglect.”

But the Sunderlands are unrepentant. The issue, says Laurence Sunderland, a boat builder, is not his daughter’s age, but her competence; she has been sailing all her life. He sees his family — including teenage son Zac, who sailed the globe last year, as adventurers. “Sailing and life in general is dangerous,” he told the Associated Press. “Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn’t drive a car? I think people who hold that opinion have lost their zeal for life. They’re living in a cotton-wool tunnel to make everything safe.”

But the hole in Sunderland’s logic is wide enough to sail a crippled boat through. Yes, driving is dangerous — though probably not as dangerous as sailing alone around the world. If you don’t take that relatively small risk, though, your ability to get from Point A to Point B and indeed, your very independence, are significantly compromised. There is a compelling reason to drive.

There was NO compelling reason for Abby’s voyage. She was hardly Ferdinand Magellan seeking a western route to the Spice Islands. Rather, she was a teenager from Thousand Oaks, Calif., whose parents allowed her to risk her life in search of a dubious and ultimately, meaningless, record.

The effort to rescue her involved the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, a search plane and a French fishing boat. According to Australian newspapers, this will cost taxpayers there hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the risk for the sailors who saved Abby; the French captain fell into the ocean and had to be rescued himself.

All that, and for what?

Well, it will surprise no one to hear the Sunderlands were shopping a reality show. Laurence claims he pulled out of “Adventures in Sunderland” before Abby sailed, when it became clear he and the producers had dissimilar visions. He wanted an inspirational program celebrating a family of daredevils and risk-takers; they wanted to chronicle what they saw as a family sending a daughter off to certain death.

Cynical as they might have been, his erstwhile partners evidently had a clearer view of things than Sunderland did.

There are obvious echoes here. Echoes of the Heene family whose balloon boy hoax last year was tied to a TV reality show proposal. And of Jessica Dubroff, who died in a crash at age 7 while attempting, before TV news cameras, to become the youngest pilot ever to fly across the country.

The common thread? Parents narcissistic enough to believe they belonged on television and calculating enough to exploit their own children to get there. Perhaps that is only to be expected in an era where fame has become downsized and cheapened until it is a thing seemingly anyone can have if they are, or do something, outlandish enough.

Laurence Sunderland surely qualifies. He sent his daughter to sea all alone for no good reason. But for the grace of God, she would be dead now.

And the view from inside the cotton-wool tunnel is looking better all the time.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


jaywalker 8 years ago

An Australian girl, I believe also 16, just completed the same feat a month or so ago. Sunderland's brother did it at 17. No criticism then, no holier-than-thou pontifications or self-superior "rebuttals." Where was the condemnation when she first set out? And I wonder what the tenor of this piece would have been if Ms. Sunderland had been the first black teenager to attempt such an incredible challenge, hmmm? What gets me about this maelstrom of criticism from around the globe is that the critics all hang their hat on the "alone" facet, as if one other person would have made the difference, avoided that 30' freak wave and 'double-handedly' saved the mast. It's her life and the family's decision. And I have to agree that a 16 year old driving a car after less than a year of experience is at much greater risk than one who's been handling boats since she could walk. Fame is cheap these days (see the promo's for "Betheny's Getting Married), but it's the height of cynicism to believe that this family set their daughter to sea with the sole intention of landing a reality series.

Kirk Larson 8 years ago

Actually, when the 16 year old did it, there was a big outcry. And Guiness had just eliminated the "youngest" categories for a lot of world records, including sailing around the world, to discourage this sort of behavior. Peopled voiced similar views about adventurous kids as the father above, but if either of these kids ended up as floaters I think he would change his tone.

jafs 8 years ago

When parents expose their children to easily preventable dangers, their parenting should be called into question.

fester0420 8 years ago

The girl was well trained and knew what she was doing all i have to say is nice try. good luck next time

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