Column: Abby Sunderland: a seeker of values

Abby Sunderland

Abby Sunderland

"I believe every human being has a finite number of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine." - Neil Armstrong, Omni Interview, 1988.

If you, like me, occasionally yearn for proof that there are still people who seek values, achievement and accomplishment, then you need look no further than Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old girl who's got more guts and glory in her pinkie finger than most people have in their entire bodies or lives.

Abby is the young lady who set sail last January in her 40-foot boat "Wild Eyes," determined to circumnavigate the globe. Nonstop. Solo.

She ran into major problems in the middle of the Indian Ocean on Thursday (June 10), however, and had her mast snapped by high storm waves and winds. She was picked up safe and sound by a French fishing vessel.

In the wake of her failure, unfortunately, many are questioning Abby's competence, her goals and her parents. As a fairly representative sample, consider this:

"If, at the age of 16, my daughter wanted to sail around the world by herself ... I'd compliment her bravery and then lock her in her room, chain her to a tree or slip sleeping pills into her oatmeal." ("Abby Sunderland: Brave girl, questionable choice," Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, June 11)

Not satisfied with domineering his child, however, Mr. Lopez believes Abby's parents should do the same: "Where will Mom and Dad draw the line on around-the-world trips? Let's hope they don't have a 10-year-old who gets the bug next."

But Abby's father, who knows better, swept such criticisms aside: "Laurence Sunderland says he'd not only let her try again to sail around the world solo, he'd 'absolutely endorse that wholeheartedly.'" (cbsnews.com, June 12)

Mr. Sunderland knows what Mr. Lopez does not: that the response to your child's dreams is to foster them and enable them to acquire the necessary knowledge and training to bring them about - not to "lock her in her room."

Way to go, Mr. Lopez! How long were you planning on leaving her chained to that tree? Forever? Or just until she's 18 and hates your guts?

Nor is Abby herself daunted by her experiences: "I'm definitely going to sail around the world again, or at least give it another try," she said, according to Australian broadcaster ABC.

Mr. Lopez, though, deadened as he is to the sheer magnitude of Abby's aspirations, can only worry about who's going to pay for her rescue: "I hope Qantas Airlines and anyone else involved in the search sends the bills to Mom and Dad in Thousand Oaks," he said.

Have we become so alienated from honest attainment, so scornful of legitimate success, so derisive of striving for our visions that the grandeur of this young lady's greatness escapes us?

Yes, it can be dangerous to walk down an unwalked road.

Since our rational faculties are not infallible, since our knowledge is not acquired automatically but through an act of mental effort, we can - and often do - make mistakes. Just because we can err in our thinking, however, is no reason to refuse to think; and just because we sometimes find ourselves temporarily at the mercy of forces beyond our control, is no reason to stop taking action.

Human existence, by its very nature, necessitates that we continue to grow, think and progress - to continue walking the unwalked road - even in the face of failure. Where would we be today if the people of the past had decided to "leave well enough alone"?

Where would we be if Peter Cooper had never built the first steam locomotive; if the Wright brothers had never flown at Kitty Hawk; if Nikolaus Otto had never constructed the internal combustion engine? We would still be huddling for warmth in our caves.

It is a very small fraction of mankind who have the courage to challenge the unknown, and the culture around them, head-on; yet is this very small fraction that makes life for the rest of us possible. When such individuals seek their values, they deserve rewards, not ridicule. Acclaim, not abuse. Encouragement, not enslavement.

To see the spirit that drives us all in the person of Abby Sunderland, 16-year-old girl, is a gift none of us have the right to expect.

So, speaking for myself, I'd like to say: thank you, Abby, for proving once again that heroes and heroines still exist; and I salute you.

Bradley Harrington is a former United States Marine and a freelance writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyo.