In covering the story of 17-year-old Zac Sunderland, who is sailing around the world alone and looking to become the youngest person ever to do so, I’m probably guilty of assuming that most people share a similar compassion — and, dare I say, reverence — for the local kid turned world traveler.
But recently that was shook a little when a gentleman contacted The Argonaut with an opinion about the ongoing story and how it’s being covered in the press. The caller, who follows Zac’s daily blog, said he felt that Zac has been turned into a media commodity and as far as he could see was not doing this for an altruistic purpose such as settingÝup a foundation for kids, etc, but doing it for some type of eventual profit, notoriety and perhaps a book in the future.
He went on to point out that if Zac had earned money to build this boat or done some type of work, it would make him a terrific example to other kids as to what they could accomplish. He also stated that Zac didn’t just take to the trip with a “can of Spam and some water,” and wasn’t slugging it out on his own without communication from anyone.
Finally, he mentioned that he would like to see an “even-handed” representation and explanation of all the assistance Zac receives in a future article.
So, driven by the idea that others might have opinions in this general ballpark, I thought I would attempt to address these concepts. I also chatted with Zac’s mother about them and got her opinion. Yeah, that’s right, I told on the guy.
“I have had people say to me things like, ‘Why doesn’t he do something meaningful like find a solution to world hunger?'” said Zac’s mother Marianne. “My response is that, though it is an honorable thing, it is not Zac’s bent nor his passion. Maybe by watching or learning of Zac attempting this and overcoming the obstacles that he has encountered, the person to whom God gave that particular passion will feel empowered somehow to achieve greatness in his or her own life.”
I can remember watching Michael Jordan rise to the pinnacle of world recognition in the ’90s and suddenly skeptics were questioning his integrity as a black man because he wasn’t, in their opinion, utilizing his fame like they thought he should. It seemed to me they forgot he was an athlete, not an advocate of any kind.
And it’s the same for this young man — he is a sailor and an adventurer. The power and draw of Zac’s story is that 16-year-old kids don’t ordinarily hop in small boats and sail around the world alone.
But is it less an accomplishment because Zac has sponsorship? How much assistance from satellite and navigational companies would settle an angry Indian Ocean? Did his brand-new UK sails (that were discounted, not supplied) keep his boom from breaking and his forestay, that’s largely responsible for holding up the mast, from coming loose from its chain-plate, as it did in a violent storm?
Are these sponsorships and so-called “assistance” minimizing Zac’s stature as an example to other young people? Is the fact that he is a “media commodity” who might sell his story later make these accomplishments less relevant? I don’t believe so. If we were to discount the heroes among us based on their relationship with this type of criteria, we would be constantly disappointed.
“The bottom line is that this is a huge and expensive endeavor,” said Marianne. “The people who have supported Zac financially are wanting to be a part of history. They are inspired by his trip.ÝIf you don’t want to give, don’t.
“As far as physical help with boat repairs, I can’t even begin to defend such a thing.ÝZac has set himself this challenge. He is not doing it to impress anybody. We, his parents, are 100 percent supportive and will help him with advice, encouragement, money and boat repairs because that is our choice and privilege.
“Also, when Zac came up with the idea to do this trip, it was in the footsteps of Robin Lee Graham. He wanted to see the world and have an adventure. What 16-year-old doesn’t want that?
“The difference with Zac is that he actually has the skills to do such a thing. He has these due to his uniquely nautical upbringing. We talked about what he would need to do for such a trip and realized that it would be hugely expensive.ÝThen Zac did the math and figured that he could be the youngest person to do so. This inspired him to write over 100 letters to various companies seeking sponsorship.ÝHe got 95 percent rejections, but kept going nonetheless.
“He plans to write a book and make a documentary with his footage to sell and pay his parents back their loan. This is called responsibility. When he is successful with this trip, what may he feel empowered to do next? Zac has already donated over $4,000 to an underprivileged youth sailing program at the Westlake Yacht Club and has spoken along the way to every youth sailing club that he has had contact with.”
Zac is currently docked for a short stop in East London, South Africa, on his way towards Cape Town.
He still has many miles to go, but he is on his way back home to Marina del Rey.
To follow Zac’s, journey go to www.zacsunderland.com./