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Lessons From The 16-Year-Old Sailor

Lessons From The 16-Year-Old Sailor

Just after dealing with an outbreak of panic displayed by a 9-year-old son worried about his tonsils coming out next week, I looked at an article online about Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old determined to sail solo around the world, who ran into some difficulty with that task last week.

Jacob will eventually grow out of his fear of doctors and needles, just as his sister outgrew her fear of riding across bridges. But I hope and pray neither of them reach the level of courage and empowerment to do something as stupid as what Sunderland’s parents let her do.

"If you were my sister — or my daughter for that matter — I would have kicked your butt before I ever let you get in that boat," writes travel correspondent Lena Katz in an Aol column.

"I’d have done it immediately when you very first came up with this crazy idea of sailing away, all by yourself, on one of the most dangerous missions imaginable — all for the sake of breaking some world record that shouldn’t even exist: Youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe alone. "

Right on, Lena. Here’s what Abby Sundeland told the Associated Press by phone from the remote island where she was taken by rescuers after she was nearly swamped by three-story high waves in the Indian Ocean. She lost radio contact and was the subject of an intense search before her small craft was located.

"I think that a lot of people are judging me by the standards they have for their teens and other teens that they know … and thinking ‘she’s exactly like them,’" Sunderland said. "They don’t understand that I’ve sailed my whole life and I do know what I’m doing out there."

When my daughter was barely a teen and asked to go to the mall by herself and complained when I didn’t let her about how trustworthy she is, I replied that it’s not her that I don’t trust. It’s the rest of the world.

Sunderland and her parents seem oblivious to the fact that as we travel in life, our fate is never entirely in our own hands. There are storms that can overwhelm experienced captains four times her age. And, as we have been reminded by recent news events, seafaring pirates are no longer relegated to Johnny Depp movies. There are cretins about who might be just as likely to sell a solo teenage sailor into slavery as to bid her bon voyage.

Using the latest technology, scientists have discovered proof of what parents have been saying all long, that teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed enough for good decision-making. That’s why, with this in mind, humans are the only animals on the planet to nurture our young until full adulthood.

A lack of fear, or the refusal to give in to it is admirable only up to a point, and the line is crossed when risk so far outweighs potential gain, and when the act is infused with self-aggrandizement rather than nobility. It is also crossed when other people are called into harm’s way to clean up the mess, as in the case of the rescuers who took to the stormy seas to answer her SOS. Abby Sunderland didn’t risk her life to escape persecution, to rescue someone else or even to stand up for principle. I would have had more respect for her if she had set out on the misguided Gaza flotilla, because then at least she’d be standing up for what she believed to be noble rather than bragging rights and a book deal.

At my daughter’s bat mitzvah, I recalled the quite apropos adage of the sages: "The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to have no fear at all." Thanks to Abby Sunderland I’m going to amend that advice. A little fear isn’t much of a bad thing after all. It could even save your life one day.

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