Sailor’s parents unswayed by critics

To the legions of critics who have questioned why they allowed their 16-year-old daughter to sail solo around the world, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland offered no apologies Friday.

“If people are looking at age, they’re looking at the wrong thing here,” Laurence Sunderland told reporters Friday outside the family’s home in Thousand Oaks as a rescue ship headed to where Abby Sunderland had been spotted the night before, adrift in her damaged boat in the southern Indian Ocean.

“Age is not a criteria. Abby is a fine sailor,” he added. “I’ve never advocated this for 16-year-olds. I’ve advocated this for experienced sailors.”

An article in Saturday’s Section A about the parents of teen sailor Abby Sunderland and their response to critics of her attempt to sail around the world referred to the family, in a subheadline, as the Sutherlands.

In an era when social scientists worry about “helicopter parents” hovering over their offspring, shielding them from dangers real and invented, the saga of the globe-circling, teenage solo sailor presents a dramatic counterpoint.

Abby set sail from Marina del Rey on Jan. 23 and was roughly halfway through her attempted round-the-world solo sail when her 40-foot boat, Wild Eyes, apparently lost a mast in rough seas. Her family lost contact with her early Thursday morning, and many feared the worst until she was located by an Australian spotter jet late Thursday night. The rescue vessel was expected to reach her position, about 2,000 miles southwest of Australia, late Friday night.

From the moment that the teenage skipper was reported missing, debate over her parents’ decision to permit the risky adventure has boiled on blogs and among child-rearing experts. Some have suggested that the couple engaged in child endangerment.

The heated debates reflect the ambivalent attitude that many people have about teenagers, said David Halle, a professor of sociology at UCLA . “The culture is conflicted,” he said. “The culture has constructed this elaborate extended childhood that holds it is a difficult world, and on the other hand, there is this other point of view which is that young people can do amazing things, and every so often it bursts out.”

The Sunderlands say their critics simply do not know Abby, her upbringing and experience or her family. Children, Laurence Sunderland argues, should be encouraged to confront and manage challenges.

“Let’s face it. Life is dangerous,” he said on “Good Morning America.” “How many teenagers are killed in car accidents? … Should we stop every teenager from driving a car?”

Abby had said she had wanted to attempt the challenge since she was 13, her father told a Times videographer before her departure. Nonetheless, the decision to let her go was extremely difficult. He and his wife agreed only after Abby proved herself with intensive training. “This wasn’t an easy decision to make. It was done very carefully,” he said.

Some who have observed the family see a mix of factors at work.

The family livelihood is centered on boats. Laurence Sunderland works as a shipwright, maintaining, delivering and repairing boats at Marina del Rey. The children’s lives have revolved, at least partly, around sailing. Abby has said she has been on boats since she was 2 months old.

“It kind of just happens,” she said in the video interview. “You live on boats. You know how to sail.”

A solo circumnavigation that would be unimaginable for most families is “kind of a fit for our family,” she said. Her brother, Zac, had already sailed around the world alone at 17, she noted.

The family also draws confidence from a regimen of meticulous preparation and a certain fearlessness from an intense born-again Christian faith.

“We don’t make any decisions just based on a feeling, or even on sound knowledge,” Laurence Sunderland told The Times in the video. “We also pray about it. The conviction of prayer and answer to prayer has led to where we are with Abigail’s campaign.”

Critics say that they simply can’t fathom letting a minor child voyage alone for months in hostile seas and that they worry about emotional damage from such isolation. Last October, a Dutch court ordered a 13-year-old to be supervised by child protective authorities to stop her parents from allowing her to set off around the globe in a boat.

“I have a daughter who is 36, and if she wanted to do it, I’d tie her down,” said Frances Rothschild, a California Court of Appeal judge.

Margaret Stuber, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said that “as a mother, I would be terrified” about letting her children attempt such a trip. Such a challenge would be inappropriate for most 16-year-olds, she said. But Abby grew up with boats and has a unique skill set, she added.

From a developmental perspective, 16-year-olds have the reflexes and intellectual skills for the tasks involved, Stuber said. What is often slower to come is their ability to control their impulses, she said.

“I guess you have to make a judgment about what is reasonable, and what someone’s skill level is,” she said. “When my 16-year-old first got on the 405 and it was raining, I was terrified.”

Friday on the Web, the parents had their detractors and supporters.

“What is wrong with these parents?? She is 16, a child,” read one typical post on The Times’ website Friday.

“Good for her! Fix her boat and let her finish her trip! Good Luck!” wrote another commenter.

Some child-rearing experts said the story actually highlights a deficit of self-reliant, character-building nature experiences for many teens.

“Young people who are prepared to take those kinds of adventures with all those risks are really an exception,” said Cheryl Charles, president and chief executive of the Children and Nature Network.