Smooth Sailing? Not Likely!

Veronica Writes

I’d been following the controversial Abby Sunderland story with interest.

Remember Abby? She was the sixteen-year-old sailor who, while attempting to sail her vessel around the world solo, found herself stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Her parents took quite a bit of flack over the situation.

I’d looked at this story from many different angles – and, as usual, my feelings were mixed.

The helicopter Mommy in me shouted, “What the &#*% were her parents thinking?!” But after calm reflection I saw things a bit differently. I too have a child with “dangerous dreams.” My son, The Boy, has been flying airplanes since he was thirteen.

Sure, I’ve heard all the arguments – the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to the airport (blah, blah, blah). Let me tell ya, when it came to plunking my junior high school-aged kid at the helm of a single engine plane, I quickly called B.S. on that line of logic.

When The Boy came to us with stars in his eyes and told us that he wanted to take flying lessons, my initial reaction was “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?”

Luckily, David stayed calm, gently peeled me off the ceiling and we discussed a game plan.

As with all of our kids “endeavors,” whether it be violin lessons or rodeo clown school, we required multiple beggings to prove that we were dealing with more than just a passing whim. And beg The Boy did – relentlessly. So we agreed to one free introductory lesson.

Unfortunately, after the flight The Boy was hooked. In response, we upped the sneaky tactics ante to test his resolve.

I arranged for The Boy to work for a local pilot in exchange for lessons. I was convinced that cleaning planes with kerosene under the vicious Caribbean sun would diminish this crazy passion of his. Nope.

In fact, I’ve never been more disappointed in an offspring having so much pride in his work. I’d pick his reeking, sweating, smiling self up at the airport and listen to the glory stories all the way home.

I gave in. The Boy had found his passion. I couldn’t find a fear strong enough or an argument sound enough to tear him away from his dream.

My terror didn’t ebb as the years went by. I forced David and The Boy into a pact. I was not to hear (or overhear) any talk about these subjects:

–Stall training (also referred to as “deadstick” — nice, huh?)

–Flying under the hood (yup, wearing a hood to simulate flying with no visibility)

–Spin Training

To name just a few of many.

If we were actually going to do this, I needed to be blissfully unaware. And I did all right – for three years.

The Boy had set a goal to fly his first cross country solo at the earliest legal age, sixteen. Because we lived in the Virgin Islands, this meant allowing my baby to go up in a plane – all by himself – to fly a hundred miles across the two-mile-deep ocean to Puerto Rico.

It certainly didn’t help that a close friend of ours had recently died doing just that.

The Boy was the only chick left in the nest and, to add to my dismay, his equally horrified sisters, The Piglet and Decibel, were calling home at regular clips. “Mom, this is crazy.” “Mom, please don’t let him do this” and the like.

I appreciated their concern but the last thing I needed was this kind of fear provoking encouragement.

Heading to the airport, I was a calm-on-the-outside nervous wreak. I was aware that it wasn’t going to do The Boy any good to have a terror-stricken Mommy hovering over him.

The Boy Flies!

I sat proudly on the sidelines as my son fielded questions from newspaper reporters that his equally proud instructor had tipped off – Local Boy Flies Solo on Sixteenth Birthday. This was, after all, a lofty and rare achievement.

So, like Abby Sunderland’s parents, I let him go.

And like Abby Sunderland’s parents, I got the scare of a lifetime.

The circumstances of what happened next are vague – I was so petrified that my brain can’t fully remember the details. At the time it was most unhelpful that I had purposefully kept myself ignorant of aviation lingo.

About an hour into the flight I received a phone call from an airport in Puerto Rico. The woman on the other end explained to me that The Boy had never “closed his flight plan.” They didn’t know where he was.

I did what most proactive people do when they can’t be proactive – I handed the phone to David and became comatose. I was incapable of comprehending any of the ensuing conversations David became engaged in. I just sat there like a petrified lump.

The eternity that passed was probably only twenty minutes while David and The Boy’s instructor sorted out the situation. It turned out to be a miscommunication between two airports and a phone call to the emergency number (ours), rather than the contact number (the instructor’s) on the flight plan.

Having gone though this experience gave me a glimpse into what Abby Sunderland’s parents must have felt when Abby was lost at sea. It’s not possible to explain this unique mingling of terror and guilt.

Where does the line between being a parent that supports a child’s dream and a parent that enables dangerous behavior lie?

I don’t have enough information to make a judgment in the case of Abby’s parents. I can’t know how hard Abby trained to make this endeavor possible.

Would I allow my own child to sail around the world by herself? Probably not. But then none of my kids are sailors. Abby’s parents would probably have reservations about sending Abby up in a plane all by herself. Parenthood and comfort level rarely coexist.

My guess is that, like my son, Abby was so focused on her objective that she did not engage in many of the behaviors that endanger teens everyday. I tally this on the plus side of having a kid with a passion.

The Boy, now 21, is in college studying Aviation Science and has spent his summer obtaining his instructor’s license. While I still refuse to listen to the scary stuff, I couldn’t be more proud of him. I’m also proud of myself for not letting guilt, fear and selfishness get in the way of my child’s dream.

My guess is that we’ll be seeing Abby Sunderland sailing off into the sunset again very soon.


Update: I now have something new to worry about. Look what The Boy is up to now. UGH.

YOUR TURN: You’ve heard my story and (sort of) opinion. What’s yours?

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17 thoughts on “Smooth Sailing? Not Likely!”

  1. Jac, there’s nothing at all wrong with not letting your kids ride a bike with protective headgear. Not the same as insisting they keep their training wheels on.

  2. This is definitely difficult! My son took up rock climbing at 18 and I had to ask that he not show me pictures that showed how high up he was. I knew that finding a passion was important to him and so put my own fears aside. It would have been difficult to let a daughter who was several years younger attempt such a dangerous mission but alas crossing the street, driving a car, smoking, drinking, none of them is too safe, are they?

  3. Congratulations on supporting your son and being so open minded. He is much better off with your interest in his well-being than many who’d have just said “no”. And I am sure his self-confidence and his life messons are far greater than if he’d not been allowed to pursue his passion.

  4. I have a son (now 24) who likes to travel by himself—sometimes to out of the way places. ( I think it might be genetic. When I was 9, my father decided we should live in Mexico for a year. Neither of my parents had ever been out of the US, did not speak a word of Spanish and weren’t sure where we were headed. They rented out our house, loaded us (kids 9,7 and 4) into the ’57 Chevy and away we went. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I wondered “WTF were they thinking?” It turned out ok. I speak Spanish and only one of us ended up with scar tissue on our lungs from exposure to active TB.
    It sounds to me that you handled your son’s desire to fly responsibly. I realized when my older son was 6 that there are no guarantees. That year, a light plane and a helicopter crashed over one of our local elementary schools. Three first graders were killed in the schoolyard. You can walk your kids to the bus stop, kiss them good-bye…and then get that phone call. My mother once told me, “You never stop being the mother.” She meant that there is always a little corner of your brain that is reserved for worrying about your offspring. It’s hard-wired.

  5. I am on the fence with this one and glad that those decisions are past me with my children all over 21 now – what they choose is out of my control, therefore out of my range of feeling guilty is/when disaster strikes.

    You see, that’s the hangup for me and I admit to being the mother who said, “Not as long as you are a minor and living under my roof.”

    If I had agreed to some of their more danger fraught requests, and they’d been seriously harmed, or worse, died – I’d have gone off the deep end.

    Kind of a cop-out, but it worked for me.

  6. I am an experienced sailor, and while I haven’t spent much time sailing solo, I have two Atlantic crossings under my belt, along with 7 years of tall ship sailing experience on all types of rigs. I’ve seen 12 year olds make good calls and seasoned captains make bad ones. Everyone, even experts, make mistakes, and no amount of preparation will keep you from the deep if mother nature decides to intervene.

    While I am not pleased to discover that the parents signed a reality TV contract, I do commend them for encouraging their daughter. I started seriously sailing at age 12 on the Great Lakes, and some of my most dangerous moments in life (solo sailing, survival courses where, at age 10, I was left alone overnight in the woods, copiloting a small plane from Texas to Alaska and almost crashing in the mountains, etc) were my most formative. Protecting children from the bad things in life merely serves to produce ill-adjusted adults who, later in life, avoid difficult situations because they don’t know how to cope with adversity. Additionally, encouraging the pursuit of a passion produces just the type of go-getters that our society needs right now to help find innovative ways to deal with our current crises.

    Next year I will be undertaking a relatively dangerous voyage myself. I will be traveling around Mongolia on horseback for 3-6 months with only myself and a guide, to produce a photojournalism project. I will face a lot of obstacles: lack of water, animal injury, personal injury, bandits and kidnappers, getting lost in a country without reliable maps, as well as plain old illness. I’ve had a lot of folks try to warn me off the trip, but they’re also the type of folks who have barely left their hometown. Sometimes you have to face adversity in order to challenge yourself and grow as a person.

    My parents raised me as a “Free Range Kid”, and I was rarely supervised as a child. Sure, I learned a few things the hard way, but it was better than not learning them at all! I learned independence, problem-solving skills, and self confidence. Most of all, I learned to question folks who say that something is impossible. I feel that these are all important skills for today’s youth, and they have served me well as an adult.

    All in all, I’m glad she was found, and I maintain my position that the parents made the right decision.

  7. hard as this is, i think both you and these parents have raised exceptional children-more than most of us who wont even allow our youngsters to ride a bike on the sidewalk without protective headgear.
    Unfortunately, this is so rare nowadays–we’ve become so afraid of taking chances that we’re creating a generation of weak mindless gamers who dont know what a passion is, who are afraid of taking chances, who don’t know what living is.
    How did our great grandparents deal with their fears when their children left home to travel to the new world? or earlier, those that went off to make a home in the wild west? they all risked life-threatenting disasters-even more so without cell phones or satellites…most never saw their families again.
    without this sort of courage and strength of character, our country wouldn’t even exist today.

  8. If we all made our decisions based on the fear of “what if…” no great things would ever be accomplished. It takes those who dare to dream big and then do it that shows us our true capabilities as human beings. I’m not sure that age really matters. Like Denise #1 I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision and like Denise #2 I can’t even begin to know what it involved.

  9. I think that I am a parent so geographically and experientially removed from this family that I have no business pretending to know what is best for them. Family full of experienced sailors, pretty sure they knew and went over all the possibilities, this sure as hell isn’t Balloon Boy, so why not?

  10. Ty said…

    When her brother did it, he had to out run pirates, what if she found herself in the same situation? would she have faired as well? what would have been her fate? In my opinion the parents had the responsibility to keep her out of harms way.

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