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The quest for fame has teenage girls chasing Joshua Slocum

2010 February 1
An editor of a magazine published in England called to ask me for some comments for an article about the 16-year-old Australian girl who, amid controversy over her demonstrated incompetence as a bluewater sailor, has set sail on a quest to claim a record as the youngest person to sail around the world alone.

I gave her my comments, which in short form were that I think the young lady is involved in a silly stunt and I hope she has a safe passage. Then I went home and read a book about George Mallory.

When Mallory climbed Mount Everest in the 1920s, many people thought that what he was trying to do-reach the highest point on the planet-was impossible for a human to accomplish. Airplanes had not even flown that high. The earth at 29,028 feet above sea level was terra incognita, an alien place that even some thinkers of scientific bent believed was as hostile to life as the moon. Mallory and his party walked hundreds of miles in Tibet just to reach a suitable place for a base camp on a slope of Everest. When he climbed into 40-below-zero (Fahrenheit) air driven by shrieking gales, he wore ordinary winter clothing bought at a London haberdashery and wool mittens knitted by his wife. He tried three times to reach the summit and may have made it in 1924, but no one knows for sure because he never returned. He and his climbing partner were last sighted close to the top. His body wasn't found until 1999.

Mallory, an Englishman, made his living as a school teacher and climbed mountains as a hobby. Amateur or not, he is regarded to this day as a climber of awe-inspiring technical ability and undaunted courage. Many who studied his climbing career and final effort believed he was the first person to conquer Mount Everest.

Twenty-nine years would pass before it was certain that the feat had been accomplished. Another amateur climber, the Kiwi beekeeper Edmund Hillary, and his Sherpa climbing mate Tenzing Norgay reached the summit in 1953. Hillary said later he wasn't sure that what he was trying to do was humanly possible until he had actually done it.

It is not a play on words to say that these are towering achievements. So too was Joshua Slocum's accomplishment in 1898, even though it took place more than five miles lower-at sea level. No one had ever sailed around the world alone before.

It is George Mallory who is credited with saying, when asked by a reporter why he wanted to climb Everest, "Because it is there." That's a quote for the ages, but perhaps what he meant was-because it is there and no one has ever climbed it before.

Brave people like these who ventured into the unknown reaches of an often hostile natural world and achieved seemingly impossible goals own revered, and deserved, places in the annals of extraordinary human endeavor. I only wish they could reside there without the company of so many who sail or climb or otherwise travel in their wakes and footsteps to grab a spot in the reflected glory of those pioneering achievements.

Don't get me wrong. Some of these subsequent records are worthy. Robin Knox-Johnston's 1969 solo circumnavigation, the first ever without stopping, put him and his boat Suhaili just astern of Slocum and Spray. There are more than 20 Mount Everest climbing records on the books, and though they are differentiated from the original by distinctions so fine as to be borderline ridiculous (sex, age, nationality, route, time of year, etc.), they all derive from great fortitude, attested to by the fact the slopes of Everest are littered with 120 climbers' corpses.

Jessica Watson, the Aussie teenage sailor, obviously doesn't lack for courage. She started her record attempt in spite of being found at fault for a collision with a ship during a practice voyage, being criticized by investigators for poor sailing skills and having to weather a well-publicized effort by Australian circumnavigator Andrew Cape to persuade her parents to make her keep her borrowed sailboat, painted in pink and festooned with sponsors' logos, at the dock. Success, if she achieves it, will mean celebrity for her but almost nothing to the sailing world. It matters not at all that she would be a few months younger than the current holder of the youngest solo circumnavigator title.

The record would be not only meaningless, but probably short-lived. Californian Abby Sunderland, 15-year-old sister of a one-time youngest circumnavigation record holder, is preparing for a record attempt. Then there is 14-year-old Laura Dekker of the Netherlands, who was stopped by a Dutch court from attempting to set the record in a 26-foot sailboat named Guppy, even though her father not only approves of the record attempt, but has been promoting it vigorously. The court fight and her subsequent disappearance have made her a celebrity without leaving the dock. Police found her in St. Maarten in December. There is speculation she went there to elude child-care authorities and start her voyage from the island.

I don't know how well prepared the girls' boats are, but their celebrity-making apparatus is certainly well oiled. They have commercial sponsors, sophisticated Web sites and souvenir products for sale. Dekker (more likely her father) is said to have been negotiating with television companies to sell the rights to make a documentary of her voyage.

Mallory climbed Everest because it was there. He and Hillary and Slocum and the others in their cohort of pioneers aspired to do what was thought impossible or at least had never been done. Today's record chasers seem more interested in achieving fame and finding its frequent companion fortune.

When Andy Warhol coined his famous phrase, I think he meant that in the age of ubiquitous, pervasive media, everybody would get their "15 minutes of fame." That hasn't happened yet, but it does seem that more people than ever crave those 15 minutes. How else do you explain television reality shows in which adults allow themselves to be viewed by millions in situations that once would have been thought embarrassing, if not debased and utterly shorn of dignity? It may be recalled it was a shot at becoming famous by appearing in a reality TV show that motivated a Colorado father to release a spaceshiplike balloon and call 911 to report that his young son was trapped aboard the high-flying craft.

At least it can be said that the balloon boy spectacle was a fraud. Sadly, children sailing around the world alone in pursuit of fame is the real thing.

It's not likely to stop. One of these years the world's youngest solo circumnavigator will be a pre-teen. And then someone will surely say: What's so great about Joshua Slocum? A 12-year-old can do what he did.