Abby Sunderland’s compelling adventure

August 2010

By Dodge Morgan

Abby Sunderland is the American woman of 16 years who was attempting to be the youngest solo circumnavigator. She has impressive sailing credentials as a member of an impressively sailing-savvy family. Abby’s boat, Wild Eyes, was a 40-foot sloop specifically designed by Scott Jutson as a singlehanded vessel, and the boat had already been solo circumnavigated once.

Abby was rescued after being dismasted in the southern Indian Ocean in weather reported to be 30-knot winds in 30-foot seas. Abby and Wild Eyes were in the national news for days. The story became a debate over her right to put herself at risk and her parents’ right to allow it or encourage it, then finally how is the cost of the rescue to be addressed.

Let me put the debate on risk to rest. Abby was not a child, was sailing-experienced, and had every right to a sea voyage of her own definition. There is no evidence she was forced into the venture by her parents, a fate too often occurring, witnessed by 17-year-old Robin Lee Graham in 1965 and 18-year-old Tania Aebi in 1985, both inexperienced to start and shoved offshore by their fathers. Graham retired to a Rocky Mountain hideaway, while Aebi matured into a first-class sailor and sailing writer. Abby’s brother had solo-circumnavigated while still in his teens a year before her attempt.

The risks Abby faced are well known. They can be described by three words: “The Southern Ocean.” This is an open ocean around the globe, broken only by Cape Horn at 57 degrees south latitude, in the south latitude “roaring forties” and “ferocious fifties.” A parade of eastbound fronts bellow out of the west every three days like clockwork. It is a graveyard of singlehanded sailboats and, perhaps because of this fact, a popular challenge for solo sailors over the past quarter-century.

When I accomplished my solo, nonstop circumnavigation in 1985-86, there were just two well documented such voyages, and 12 claimed. Following my record-breaking voyage of 150 days, one hour and seven minutes (solo with stops record was 159 days, and nonstop was 292 days), the French organized a nonstop race because they are used to owning all the singlehanded sailing records.

Since then, close to a couple of hundred sailors have entered these races, and the fact that less than half of the starters have succeeded as finishers serves to emphasize the risk factor. As example, the highly competent and experienced Frenchwoman, Isabelle Autissier, was dismasted and rescued twice in the weather rages of the Southern Ocean.

So 30 knots wind and 30-foot seas may not seem that highly threatening for these waters. But my experiences down there lead me to guess she was knocked down by one of the continually ravaging rogue waves. These monsters seem to occur more often over seamounts on the ocean bottom. I am one who celebrates Abby’s attempt and her achievement because I deeply believe that all of us are obligated by the gift of life to test the outer reach of our capabilities in some chosen way: physically, intellectually or emotionally. And that is exactly what Abby was doing.

The cost of Abby’s rescue – I have read it was some $200,000 – illustrates a debate of very different proportion. I do not believe a person attempting a challenge should do so with the assumption of being rescued from a failure at no personal cost. Some years ago, when the subject of responsibility for rescue costs was debated after several sailors needed it during a solo race, I made the point that a sailor should publish a legal document stating no rescue is wanted or expected. The point here is not that the solo sailor would refuse the rule of the sea that obligates one to help others in distress, but that he or she is taking on full responsibility for the outcome, good and bad.

My feeling about the objective to be the youngest to accomplish a solo circumnavigation is that it can be, will be and is being carried too far. It leads to some ridiculous conclusions. I used to think a more reasonable challenge is to be the oldest – until I learned that Francis Chichester entered a solo transatlantic race when he was 70 and wandered in circles of confusion the very first day.

Former record-breaking solo circumnavigator Dodge Morgan lives on, and sails out of, Snow Island, Maine.