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One long wave and one short mast

June 18, 2010

“The long and short of it is, well, one long wave and one short mast.” - Abby Sunderland
Mysteriously, the story of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempt to sail around the world has divided people along partisan lines. It’s weird. What does sailing have to do with politics?

The difference of opinion reveals a fundamental contrast between conservative and liberal viewpoints and philosophies.

People who lean conservative are voicing almost unanimous support for Abby, her goals, her parents, and the idea that individual achievement is worth a certain amount of risk. Liberals, on the other hand, are wringing their hands, gnashing their teeth, and wailing about danger, lost childhood, and derelict parenting.

God forbid that she miss her allotted days at the mall, or skip the health education class where they show kids how to put condoms on cucumbers.

Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times called Abby’s parents, Marianne and Laurence, “irresponsible,” accused them of “reckless endangerment,” and expressed the hope that everybody involved in her rescue would send a bill to the Sunderland house in Thousand Oaks, California. He actually sounded bitter that Qantas Airways sent a jetliner to look for her.

“And what’s with Qantas?” ranted Lopez. “I often can’t get an airliner to give me a seat assignment six months out from a flight, and these guys drop everything and send up a posse to look for a kid with irresponsible parents?”

Talk about a self-righteous wet blanket bitter-body. No wonder airlines won’t give him a seat.

“Look,” he continued, “I’m all for letting kids take smart risks, but this was a stupid one.”

There’s a boatload of ignorance behind that statement. If one thing is clear after Abby’s adventures and misadventures, it’s that Abby was adequately prepared, knowledgeable, skilled, and equipped for the journey, so there’s nothing “stupid” about this. The first time she ran into a problem she couldn’t fix – the autopilot stopped working about four months into the trip – she immediately put into a South African port for repairs, which ended her chance for a solo-circumnavigation-without-stopping record. That showed maturity, judgment, and correct priorities.

The second time she had trouble, this time in the vicious Southern Ocean when her mast was broken, she remained calm, told rescuers that she was fine and could easily wait 40 hours for the fishing vessel coming to rescue her, and as soon as they picked her up she logged on to the Internet and matter-of-factly explained what happened by posting the “long wave, short mast” comment on her blog.

I’m so proud of that sentence I used part of it as the title for this column, quoted the whole thing at the beginning of the column, and have it posted on the wall over my desk. I think it ranks right up there with other famous naval quotes, like “…no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy,” by Admiral Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars, “I have not yet begun to fight!” by Captain John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War (when a British captain asked him if he had surrendered), “Our country right or wrong,” by Stephen Decatur in the War of 1812, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" by Admiral Farragut during the Civil War, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!" by Lieutenant Howell Maurice Forgy (during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), “Sighted Sub, Sank Same,” by enlisted pilot Donald Francis Mason after sinking a German U-Boat off Newfoundland, and “Oh shit, we’re sinking,” by J.P. Travis, during a barbecue on board my first sailboat, when I stepped down into the cabin, beer in hand, and found myself standing in water up to my knees.

Admittedly, mine doesn’t quite measure up to the others, but hey, I did manage to avoid sinking.

When Lopez says he’s all for letting kids take smart risks, he means politically correct risks that he and the rest of the liberal zeitgeist have decided are appropriate. Risk of infertility from a teenage abortion? Well, that’s okay. Risk of contracting AIDS from promiscuous sex? That’s okay, too. Risk of death while participating in some kind of stupid anti-war protest in Gaza? That’s honorable and makes you a martyr. Risk of spiritual death because you’ve turned your back on God? Smart choice, kid, you’ll go far.

For people like Lopez, stuff like that is considered acceptable – testing your sailing skills and building character in the Southern Ocean, not so much. It’s like liberals come from the Bizarro World.

I identify with the Sunderlands partly because I’m a sailor, and partly because I raised my two daughters with a similar philosophy. Anybody who thinks Laurence Sunderland was irresponsible to let his daughter take this trip would probably have found me equally irresponsible on various occasions. My older daughter, Casey, loves to tell people about the time I made her swim to shore from a sailboard in the middle of a lake. She was six years old, her sister was three, and the three of us had paddled out into the lake during a summer camping trip to talk and enjoy the water.

Shortly after we got out there, Casey decided she wanted to go back to shore, and I said, “Go ahead.”

“Dad, that’s too far! I can’t swim in from here!”

“It’s not too far, just remember what I’ve taught you.”

I taught my girls that water can never hurt you unless you panic. “Stay calm,” I constantly told them, “and you will never drown. It’s all about one simple rule: don’t breathe the water.”

They usually laughed or rolled their eyes when I said that, but the rule works. I should have copyrighted it.

Casey started for shore (after a couple of dirty looks directed at me), and it was a long swim, a much greater distance than she had ever attempted. I watched as her arms grew tired and she stopped to tread water and look ahead. I could tell she was fighting flashes of panic as the distance never seemed to diminish. I watched her stop twice to float on her back when she needed rest, but never once saw her look back at me for help. My heart was so swollen with pride by the time she reached shallow water I thought my chest would burst.

Laurence Sunderland and I are not monsters running Marine boot camps under the guise of fatherhood. We’re men who love our daughters and understand that part of the parenting job is encouraging strength, self-reliance, and confidence. And letting them fail once in a while so they learn it’s not the end of the world. Mr. Sunderland is a sailor who delivers sailboats for a living and consequently has had the whole 16 years of Abby’s lifetime to turn her into a better sailor than 99.99% of the idiots (like me) who call themselves sailors… but he still made sure she departed with every safety feature and emergency communication device known to man. Abby’s boat even has a device that automatically turns itself on and communicates distress when it gets fifteen feet underwater.

And twenty years ago when Casey made her swim, she didn’t know that her sister and I were ghosting along on the board just a few feet behind her the whole way. Like Mr. Sunderland, I wanted my daughter to reach out, to measure herself, to face consequences, and to succeed on her own… but also like Mr. Sunderland, I love my daughter too much to take unnecessary chances.

I have a sneaky suspicion that Abby Sunderland and my daughters would like each other. If nothing else, they could trade Crazy Dad stories.

From Reno, Nevada, USA

June 18, 2010 - Knowing you as I do and remembering the sailing ship you once had, I feel certain that you would have loved to try what the girl did. - Howard P., Ann Arbor
J.P. replies: It's still in my bucket list. I haven't given up on the idea yet.

June 18, 2010 - What is a parents job? On the most basic level, it's to prepare our children for adulthood. To teach them what it takes to succeed and to make a positive difference in the world. Being an adult means facing hurt, disappointment, and knowing how to survive in this world. As parents we love and protect our children by preparing them, not by sheltering them from possible risks. Those who disagree with the Sunderlands parenting decisions need to reconsider what it means to be a "good" parent. - Samantha, Michigan
J.P. replies: Wouldn't it be interesting to put Abby Sunderland in a room with a bunch of regular American 16-year-old girls and compare?

June 18, 2010 - Your articles are a hoot. Love reading them. Great minds think alike. Greater minds put them in print for others to enjoy! Take care. - Tim G., Michigan
J.P. replies: That makes two people who think I have a great mind. You and my mom.

June 18, 2010 - Coincidentally a great tribute to authentic fatherhood in time for Father's Day. Happy Father's Day, JP. Enjoy your beer and BBQ. - Katherine B., Reno

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