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Sailing in the media: a polluter at play, an exploited teen

2010 August 1
When sailing makes it onto the nightly TV news, it's time for sailors to cringe, because it will likely release a stream of ignorant stereotypes and clichés about the pastime we think is wholesome and good and just about the finest way imaginable to spend leisure time.

So it was with Tony Hayward's not-so-excellent sailing adventure. Hayward decided to take a day off from his job as CEO of BP to sail in the Round the Island Race on the Solent in England on the 52-foot racing sailboat he and two friends own. When Hayward was discovered sitting on the starboard quarter behind the helmsman, a media storm blew up and images of the captain of industry (but not captain of the boat), looking as though he were trying to sail incognito, all scrunched up and covered from head to toe in foul-weather gear on a sunny day, were plastered all over the world's electronic and print information portals. And, of course, the world was shocked, shocked with many exclamation points. Shocked not so much because he took a break from manning the desk where the buck stops in the Gulf of Mexico oil well disaster, but because he went sailing.

Worse than sailing, really- he went "yachting," the media's gerund of choice when describing what rich people do on the water. The race around the Isle of Wight attracts some 1,700 sailboats, most of which are rather prosaic and quite small, yet to the media it was a "glitzy yacht race."

It was almost enough to make me feel sorry for Hayward, in spite of my contempt for his company's negligence. Taking a break is not a mortal sin.

I will have to admit, though, that in this case taking a break by going sailing was a public relations sin. Hayward would have gotten off easier if he chosen almost any other recreation on his day off, say, horseback riding or playing in a croquet tournament. It wasn't just that the image of him out on the comparatively pristine water of the Solent while his oil well continued to foul the Gulf was too much for some to choke down. It was that he went sailing, which everyone knows is a metaphor for the wretched excesses of the indolent rich.

Abby Sunderland's sailing adventure got the attention of the media too (the gamut from staid newspapers to hyperbolic Internet blogs), although in her case some in the press actually got it right. Syndicated Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts was spot-on when he described Abby as a "teenager from Thousand Oaks, California, whose parents allowed her to risk her life in search of a dubious and ultimately meaningless record."

Abby and her parents hoped she would become the youngest person to sail alone around the world nonstop. She was one of the youngsters I wrote about in the February issue in a column titled, "The quest for fame has teenage girls chasing Joshua Slocum."
Since then, Abby has found fame, though not in the manner her parents had hoped. She was rescued from her dismasted boat (which was then abandoned) in the far southern reaches of the Indian Ocean in an elaborate operation involving a number of ships and aircraft.

She is now the poster girl for a controversy over parents exploiting children for financial gain, but before we go there I want to say this about Abby Sunderland, based on the grit she displayed even in failure: This is one brave girl who obviously possesses qualities of determination and commitment developed well beyond those of many adults and certainly of many of her contemporaries, who were strolling malls and chirping into cell phones while she was sailing a 40-foot boat in conditions that would tax any sailor, no matter how experienced.

What's more, if her voyage had resembled the interpretation of it her media-savvy father has been spinning since her rescue-as a sort of singlehanded Outward Bound experience for a splendidly prepared lifelong sailor who has been yearning for years to take on the challenge of sailing around the world-many would have thought it an admirable quest.

Alas, this was something different-a heavily publicized campaign to set a record with the goal of harvesting all of the commercial possibilities that come these days with fame, however fleeting. Pursuit of the foolish record set up a series of dominoes that fell one after the other until the high school girl was left on a disabled boat in 25-foot seas 2,000 miles from Australia and far from other vessels.

The good weather window closed as problems with the boat delayed departure from California, yet the Sunderlands pressed on, lest some other teenager swipe the coveted record. Dangerous weather became inevitable when more time was lost stopping for repairs in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Cape Town, South Africa. It was storm season by the time Abby set out across the Indian Ocean.

Abby could have attempted her circumnavigation in much gentler weather if she had waited until the Southern Ocean winter was over, but then there would be no record for her. Another teenage girl, Jessica Watson of Australia, 4 months older than Abby, was well along in her around-the world record quest.

For her adventure, Abby was given an ultra-lightweight, water-ballasted, canting-keel Open 40, a boat so complex and sophisticated (it had no permanent backstay) that it would have tested the skills and physical strength of a mature, experienced around-the-world sailor. Maybe the idea was that a really fast boat would give Abby another edge in completing the circumnavigation before she was too old to qualify for the record. (Jessica Watson sailed a comparatively heavy 34-footer, strong and seaworthy but no speed demon.)

On the other hand, while Abby's boat may have been hard to handle, it might well have saved her life. Built for the 2002 Around Alone race, it was unsinkable and self-righting, and proved to be a safe lifeboat for Abby in the long wait for rescue.
All of this is prologue to the most disturbing revelation in the whole disturbing drama: Abby's father Laurence Sunderland was reported to have signed a contract to do a TV reality show about Abby and the other kids after she set sail. It was to be called "Adventures in Sunderland."

Sound familiar? As I wrote in February, "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."