Saturday, June 12, 2010

Young Solo Sailors

A conversation sprang up here last night. My 22 year-old son said that he thought it was inappropriate that young people set off to sail solo around the world. Certainly at the age of 16. I told him he was a conservative old fart!
It got me thinking however. What are the rights and wrongs of allowing or more correctly supporting your child to go off and do something like this? Is it dangerous? Is it foolhardy? I came to a split decision and here it is.
Firstly I think many of the issues which kids face today have, at their root, the fact that we don't challenge our kids enough. I mean that kids don't face physical and mental challenges and they don't face controlled danger. Somebody described the kids of today as leading meaningless and insipid lives. I believe that that's true to a large extent. I also think that leads to kids seeking out their own challenges - often inappropriate challenges like violence and drinking.
The problem for parents, teachers and others is this: as soon as you support your children to take on challenges and risks you begin to worry!! It's inevitable, you care, you feel responsible and you worry. My personal view is that the worry is part of your job as a's your responsibility to work with your children to try and make sure that the risks are proportional and that they are equipped to manage them. It isn't your job to stop them taking those risks. Indeed as they get older the notion of "stopping" your children from doing something becomes simply irrelevant. They'll find a way. So you are much better being part of the process than a powerless bystander.
In short that means that I'm not against young people trying to sail around the world at the age of 16. It's not for every young person and I'm sure those parents agonise over it, lose sleep over it and worry more than I can imagine.
Part two is where I have problems however. I mentioned above, that I think it's part of a parent's role to make sure the risks are proportional. In the most recent case of Abby Sunderland the story is interesting. I'm not trying to judge either Abby or her parents in writing this - that's not my role. Rather it's to tell you how I think about it and I'd be interested to hear how you think about it.
Two things are of concern to me: Firstly in January - mid-summer in the Souther Hemisphere - in the area where Abby has been dismasted, the frequency of gales is less than 5 days per month. In July (the nearest month with data) the frequency of gales is greater than 10 days per month, the gale area stretches further north and the extreme limit of icebergs is also further north. Not by much, but by enough to now become an issue at her latitude. So we have over double the incidence of gales and added iceberg risk. (Data from Ocean Passages for the World). Ian Kiernan, a solo circumnavigator himself, has gone on record as saying that it's not the place for a 16 year-old to be in winter. I'd certainly hesitate to go there myself at this time of year. Too cold, too rough, too windy!!
The other issue is the choice of boat. In my view, it's no accident that many successful solo circumnavigations have been in S&S 34s. These aren't modern boats, they're not extreme in their proportions and they're not fast. They are however sea kindly, strong and safe. The Open 40 that Abby is sailing is a more extreme hull form, faster, designed for fast running and perhaps not as sea kindly. There's no doubt that they are perfectly capable of circumnavigating, many have. Indeed Mike Perham conducted his recent solo circumnavigation in an Open 50. But whether they are the ideal boat for a young solo sailor is in my view questionable.
So if I had to sum all that up, I'd say I'm heartily glad that young people like Jessica Watson, Mike Perham, Zac Sunderland and Abby Sunderland are having a go. I do have some questions however about planning and timing in some of the cases.
Whatever the case Abby will have had some experiences that will nourish her soul and her spirit for the rest of her life. Good on her.
What do you think?

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