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There is no age limit on stupid sailing stunts

2009 October 1
O K, I admit it. I'm caught on the horns of my own dilemma. Hoisted by my own petard.

A while back, I wrote about my first attempts at sailing as the master and commander of an 8-foot pram. About the joy and freedom of making your own decisions and about responsibility. I pointed out how much better it is for kids to be spreading their wings than sitting at home playing video games or watching endless television.

Now I'm stunned by the rash of kids, barely in their teens, who are trying to set records for being the youngest to sail solo around the world. It started with 17-year-old Zac Sunderland who, at press time, was dethroned by Mike Perham, who is a few months younger.

About to set sail is Australia's 16-year-old Jessica Watson, followed by Zac Sunderland's 15-year-old sister, Abby. But Laura Dekker, who plans to be underway aboard a 27-footer as you read this, is just 13!
She has the approval of her parents (she was born on a boat while her parents were circumnavigating) but not from Dutch social workers, who have threatened to make her a ward of the court. In turn, Laura plans to cancel her citizenship and go anyway.

Readers of this column know that I can rant at length on one thing (well, several if you include the America's Cup) and that is stupid record-breaking stunts. Loonies looking to get into Guinness World Records by sailing a 5-foot dinghy across the Atlantic or windsurfing across the Pacific or jet-skiing around Cape Horn espouse lofty ideals of freedom and challenge and courage. In the end, however, they're looking for a fast buck from a book or a few moments on "Good Morning America." If they survive.

You might remember there were several who tried to set records for sailing the smallest boats across the Atlantic. First there was Robert Manry in the 13-foot, 6-inch Tinkerbelle, only to be topped by Tom McClean in a 10-footer, and then Bill Dunlop in a 9-footer. At this point, it became dumb and dumber, and I think the current record stands at 5 feet, 4 inches, although someone gave it a shot in a 3-foot, 11-inch dink you wouldn't use as
a tender.

Still looking for glory, Dunlop then set sail around the world in his 9-footer and disappeared somewhere in the vast reaches of the Pacific. His wife/widow raised a huge stink when the Australian Navy and Coast Guard declined to search several million square miles of ocean.

And there we have my issue with Stupid Sailing Stunts. I don't care what people do, as long as they do it by themselves and don't drag anyone else into their problems. As I've said before, look up laissez faire in the dictionary, and my picture is there.

This isn't about girls, because I'm an absolute believer in equal opportunities, whether it's for a career or to kill yourself. And besides, She Who Must Be Obeyed would poison me if I said otherwise.
This isn't about kids, although I don't think these youngsters have the wisdom or experience to deal with life, let alone sail around the world alone. It's about stupid sailing records.

This is also a no-win situation: if a teen doesn't survive, it's tragic. If they make it, they encourage others even younger.

I fear these kids have stage parents. In the case of Zac Sunderland, his father is supposedly a shipwright, yet Zac set off on a boat with a bulkhead so rotten it had to be replaced after just a thousand miles before the chainplates tore out. What kind of loving parents allow halfway preparations for such a voyage?

I don't know if Laura Dekker's parents are stage parents, but the fact that a television station is one of her sponsors should give us a hint. They, station and parents, should be ashamed of themselves and they might heed Jessica Dubroff. This 7-year-old wanted to be the youngest pilot to fly transcontinental, in no small part to help support her evicted family. In the rush to meet media obligations, she crashed, killing two others as well. But her mother was still able to write the book.

When my Dad cast me off in my little dink for the first time, he winked at me and said, "Sail smart and be safe."

Good advice, of course, but this was in a big bay surrounded by sandy beaches and docks. It wasn't exactly the Roaring Forties or hurricane season or pirate-infested waters.

Yes, Zac apparently encountered pirates in the Indian Ocean, but he eluded them after getting out his pistol. Pirates? Pistol? Hey, this kid hasn't even finished high school!

Laura Dekker sounds like she's a pretty fair seaman (seaperson?), and certainly as good as many of the middle-aged dreamers setting out on their own world cruises. I wish her fair winds and no problems she can't handle.

But if she gets in trouble, she puts a lot of people in harm's way and that is what's wrong with this picture. Sure, rescue skippers and pilots need their training, but every one of them pushes the safety envelope when they know that someone is in danger … that it's not just another exercise.

This all seems part of the "I.D." generation: I Deserve. Don't think of anyone else: just do what works for you. I deserve to sail around the world and if I get in trouble, someone will come save me. I. Me.

If it weren't for the chance at a fleeting moment of fame, of being lionized by Oprah or Matt Lauer, I don't think many of these wackos, kids and adults alike, would try their stupid sailing stunts.

As I say, I'm conflicted, but I believe you have the right to your own foolishness. Just don't expect someone to save you, whether you're 13 or 63.