by | Jun 13, 2010 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Most parents worry if teenagers are an hour late. Just imagine if they were lost at sea.

For several tense hours Thursday, that was the case for a 16-year-old Californian named Abby Sunderland. She was in stormy waters on a yacht somewhere in the Indian Ocean, about 2,000 miles west of Australia.

And she was alone.

When I first saw the reports, my heart sank, imagining the worst. A teenager, attempting an around-the-world solo sailing trip, lost at sea forever. Her body never found. Some piece of her boat washing up years from now, reminding her grieving family of her watery grave.

I knew her journey would be criticized, and I thought it would be a long time before a kid that young would try a trip that dangerous.

How naïve. Young, younger, youngest

Do a Web search on “youngest person to sail around the world.” It reads like a “Can You Top This?” competition.

In 1996, a 20-year-old Hawaiian named Brian Caldwell set the mark. A few months later, it was broken by an 18-year-old Australian named David Dicks. Three years later, Jesse Martin, another 18-year-old Aussie, did it with no assistance, thus upping the bar.

His mark was broken last year by a 17-year-old named Zac Sunderland. Yes, he is the older brother of Abby. You wonder what this family is feeding the kids.

Of course, Zac’s mark was broken that same summer by a Brit who was – aha! – three months younger. And his record was bested last month (under some protest) by a 16-year-old Australian girl named Jessica Walton.

Abby Sunderland had been alone at sea for six months – perhaps trying to win back the family honor – before stormy waves knocked her boat over and left her adrift.

Her rigging was broken. Her sail was in the water. The ocean, you see, doesn’t really care how old you are.

Luckily, her distress beacons were detected and the storm abated enough for rescue operations to locate her. Very luckily.

Because different weather might have meant a different story. Death was a real possibility. And then her parents would be answering some pretty tough questions right now, instead of posting the headline on her blog: “Abby is fine!”

Abby is fine. Can we say the same about Mom and Dad? Risk vs. ridiculous

Let’s face it. We’re in a world of super-early achievement. A 13-year-old just climbed Mt. Everest. But no matter how much parents tell you, “We don’t push,” and “This is my child’s dream,” no kid gets to these levels without Mom and Dad encouraging, if not prodding. Where else does the money come from? The organization? Dealing with school? And something called “permission”?

The obvious question then is, why couldn’t Abby’s journey wait? If you want to see what sailing around the world is like, what’s the matter with trying it when you’re 21?

Because clearly this wasn’t only about sailing. This was about beating records and grabbing fame too. Abby’s dream “since she was 13” (according to her publicity machine) was to be the youngest to sail around the world. She has a clothing product line called Abby16. That wouldn’t sell as well if it were Abby21, would it? Of course, a year from now, if a 15-year-old broke her mark, it wouldn’t mean much, either.

Which is where the parents come in. Kids have lots of dreams. A 16-year-old may want to be a stunt pilot or spend a winter alone at the North Pole. This is why the words “Not yet, kiddo” were invented.

Instead, her father, Laurence, said, “You obviously don’t know Abigail,” when asked by “Good Morning America” about criticism. He also said, “Let’s face it, life is dangerous. How many teenagers die in cars every year?”

If he really thinks a drive to the movies and six months alone at sea are the same thing, he’s hopeless. But instead of a network TV appearance, he and his wife should be on their knees right now thanking heaven they’re not mourning a child in an empty coffin. Sixteen is teen-aged. A time to learn, socialize, grow up. Just being alone for six months at that age is a bad idea.

So is tempting death in a wintry sea.

There are normal risks. There are foolish risks. And there are risks done in the name of fame, records and clothing lines. Kids may not know the difference. Parents should.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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