When 16-year-old Australian sailor Jessica Watson arrived in Sydney Harbor last month, setting the record as the youngest to ever sail solo and unassisted around the world, she was greeted by tens of thousands of people, including the Prime Minister himself who called her a “national hero.” Her homecoming was broadcast on live TV and the country’s newspapers were filled with an uplifting story of Watson, the teenage sailing sensation.
A month later, those same Australian papers were once again covering a story of a 16-year-old-sailor, but not with the same buoyant, jubilant tone. This story was one of their search and rescue authorities in search of a young American sailor who had activated her emergency beacons in the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean.
Abby Sunderland, the youngest person to sail solo around Cape Horn, was chasing down her dream of becoming the youngest person to sail around the world when she ran up on a Southern Ocean storm that punished her and her beloved Open 40 boat Wild Eyes mercilessly. Sixty-knot waves and 20- to 30-foot seas repeatedly knocked Sunderland’s mast level with the sea as she held on as tight as she could in a cabin that was being turned and shaken violently in every direction.
In the end, the storm claimed Wild Eyes’ mast after the boat was rolled by an enormous wave, leaving Sunderland alone and disabled in an angry ocean not far from Arctic waters. Realizing that she was in a very precarious position, Sunderland activated two EPIRBs, a transmitting device that would automatically inform authorities that she was in trouble and what her position was.
Back on land, news came that Abby had activated the beacons and many feared the worst. She was truly in the middle of the ocean, directly between South Africa and Australia, thousands of miles from civilization in one of the most inhospitable areas imaginable. The prognosis was bleak. The zone was too far away and dangerous for any ordinary search and rescue boats or aircraft to enter and all communication was gone.
But the Australian government wasted no time. After assessing the circumstance, they deployed a Qantus Airbus A330, a commercial jet, to fly to the beacon’s coordinates to try and get a visual. Many doubted that an airplane of that size in that type of weather would be able to fly slow and low enough to achieve the task, but indeed they found her and made radio contact.
Sunderland was healthy inside Wild Eyes hoping for rescue — she would say later that she expected she would be out there for weeks. The following day, the teenager was rescued by French fishing boat, Ile De La Reunion.
For those glued to their computers while the saga unfolded, the relief was enormous when the news of Abby’s rescue came off the wire. But the story quickly changed from one of heroes and miracles to that of irresponsibility and child endangerment.
Watson’s story now paled in comparison to the coverage this was getting, as networks devoted some time to questioning, if not railing, against Abby’s parents, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland. While morning shows offered congratulations followed by polite questioning of parental responsibility, other program hosts harshly asserted that the parents sent Abby into the ocean in an inadequate boat for a reality show deal down the pike.
Abby, not one to let criticism go unnoticed commented, “The truth is, I was in a storm and you don’t sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. It wasn’t the time of year, it was just a Southern Ocean storm. Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world. As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?”
As for the conflicting reports about a possible reality TV show, the latest blog entry on Abby’s site written by Marianne Sunderland said:
“Laurence and I were approached by Magnetic Entertainment last year before Abby departed to shop a reality TV show based on our family. Abby’s trip was already sponsored. Their idea was to do an inspiring show about Zac and Abby’s adventures, what our family was like and what made them as strong and independent as they are.
“The show was shopped and not sold. All rights were returned to us. There is no reality TV show or documentary in the works and we will not be pursuing one. We find it ironic that the media, who are spreading gossip and sensationalizing Abby’s story for profit, have the nerve to criticize us for supposedly doing the same thing — very ironic.”
Today, Abby couldn’t be farther away from this intense media blitz. She is on the remote Kerguelen Islands, near Antarctica, on a stopover before heading, on the same fishing boat, to Reunion Island, where she will catch a plane, or two or three, and eventually make it back to her California home.
On this cold Southern Ocean outpost Sunderland can gather her thoughts for the many interviewers she will likely face. While Abby may look like a shy and reserved California teenager, the truth is she is an assertive aggressive go-getter who sailed single-handedly around Cape Horn and beyond in a boat designed for professional sailors. She was dismasted in one of the most hostile and frightening areas on the planet and came out on the other side smiling. Much can be questioned and many can be doubted about a journey that could have cost Abby her life, but no one can legitimately doubt how fearless and tenacious this person is.
“I think that a lot of people are judging me by the standards they have for their teens and other teens that they know… and thinking ‘she’s exactly like them,’” Sunderland told the Associated Press in a recent interview on the Arctic island. “They don’t understand that I’ve sailed my whole life and I do know what I’m doing out there.”
Watching how this all plays out and seeing how the media has interpreted these two young women’s pursuits, it’s interesting to pose the question — what’s the true difference between Watson and Sunderland’s respective trips? Answer: Watson made it.