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abby who?

abby who?

Part two of our Abby Sunderland break down.
Part 1

The Boat – Wild Eyes. After looking around at various options last summer, the Sunderlands decided to make an offer on a Open 40 sloop rigged boat named Wild Eyes on the East Coast.  For unspecified reasons the deal kept getting delayed.  Months after the original offer had been tendered a deal was closed, and the Sunderlands owned a used boat.  

The Sponsors. It is my understanding that Shoe City came on board to support Abby through a personal relationship formed at the Sunderland’s church between themselves and the Owner of Shoe City. Sponsorship played a critical role in making the voyage even possible for Abby. Even with the reported $250,000-400,000 in sponsorship dollars, the Sunderlands were said to be “broke” and unable to reimburse the Australian government for the rescue of their daughter should they be asked to do so. The Australian government has since stated that they would not be seeking any money from the Sunderlands for the rescue effort.

The Motivation. The motivation for Abby’s trip has been the subject of a lot of speculation in the media.  Many of the sailors around the world flocked to the forum for discussion in Sailing Anarchy, the worlds largest website for sailing.  No one but the Sunderlands will ever know the real answer as to why this adventure ever came about in the first place. Laurence Sunderland has maintained that the trip had long been a dream of Abby’s and that he was simply enabling her to fulfill her dream. Admirable to be sure if in fact that is the case but others have speculated that Laurence got a taste of fame when his son Zac circumnavigated the Globe last year and Laurence liked the attention.  The media company that was filming the documentary noted that Abby did not really appear to have any interest in making the film but that Laurence jumped at the opportunity to get face time with the camera whenever possible.

The timing of the trip too has been suspect ever since Abby was rushed out to sea in what evolved to become a nonstop circumnavigation of the planet by the youngest sailor ever to accomplish the feat.  Australian Jessica Watson completed her trip around the planet at the tender age of 16 and if Abby was going to break her record she would need to get moving and fast. Things did not go as planned almost right from the start with Abby’s trip.  She had to make an unplanned stop almost right away – about 1000 miles from her start –  in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico where a variety of problems had to be sorted out.  “Team Abby,” as they came to be known, flew down and as quickly as possible readied the boat for departure again. Abby started out anew, successfully rounded Cape Horn, but then needed to stop again in Cape Town, South Africa for more repairs to the boat.  It was now May and the chances of setting a record were fading fast. The media company shooting the documentary pulled the plug on the deal after citing “Concerns about the preparation and safety” of the boat and the voyage as a whole.

So now we are in the waning weeks of Fall in the Southern Hemisphere. Winter is right around the corner and the Southern Indian Ocean storms loom large. The boat could be left in South Africa for the Winter and the team could return in November to continue the trip during what is widely considered the only safe time of the year to make the trip…but then the record as the youngest to circumnavigate the planet would be gone.  So here is when I have to ask the question that has been bothering me since that fateful day when Abby pulled the EPIRB cord on June 10th, 2010: Was it Abby’s dream to “sail around the planet” as her father claims, or was there a more sinister force at work here? If her dream was to sail around the planet, then there is no time limit for that as she had already stopped a couple of times on a planned non-stop trip. Yet, something caused her routing team to press the “launch” button despite the fact that June and July are arguably the most dangerous months to venture into that part of the world.

Weather Routing. One of the most important parts of any ocean voyage is the weather routing and then how you manage that data. For experienced and sophisticated navigators with unlimited bandwidth (read money) there is a fair amount of information available from the Internet and today’s routing programs do a pretty good job with the big picture information. But the satellite signals are not always perfect, satellite phones can go down from time to time, and Abby isn’t a meteorologist or a navigator as I understand it.  Abby’s “Team” consulted with Commander’s Weather (A very professional weather routing group out of New Hampshire) and then took the Commander’s weather briefings and planned her route for her.

In defense of Commander’s Weather (and I am purely speculating here) I think that over the previous months Ken and the rest of the fine folks at Commanders came to know Abby.  Being the likeable girl she is, the folks at Commanders formed a relationship with her. They cared about what happened to her and when the decision was made to “Go for it” in the Southern Indian Ocean, they felt compelled to not abandon her, but rather to provide her team with the best information available.  They made their best effort to keep her from almost certain peril if “Team Abby” were left to do the routing on their own.

The course that Team Abby selected was in my estimation too far south for a safe transit. Historically she was right in the storm belt and at 40 degrees south latitude; it isn’t an “IF,” it is a “WHEN” and “HOW OFTEN” you get pounded. In Commanders defense, as the storm wound up and closed in on Abby they were definitely trying to wind her North but it was simply too little too late. This was completely predictable given the time of year and the course Team Abby had selected for her.

Why so far South? The official statement on the AbbySunderland.com web site spoke about not wanting to run into headwinds. It is true, a boat too far north in the Southern ocean will be faced with some headwinds from time to time , but unless there is a record at stake, what’s the rush? Headwinds are no big deal and not particularly ferocious when they do come up.  This leads us back to The Motivation.  

There was some discussion about Somali Pirates or some such non-sense but that was quickly sidelined in favor of the “headwinds” idea.  

Timing is everything. There are few people in this world that I would travel into the far reaches of the Southern Oceans with.  If you did have to select someone to go there with it would likely be world-class navigator Stan Honey. Stan has been in the Southern Ocean breaking records and capturing the round the world race championships for two decades. I chatted with Stan this last week just to get his take on the situation with Abby. He concurred that the timing for Abby’s trip was not ideal and that she was sailing too far South to avoid serious weather. He went on to note that “the Winter storms are not necessarily all that much more violent but they are very cold and they are more frequent this time of year.”  This adds another level of danger to an already potentially life threatening situation.

Training Day. Abby did not get the years of training most sailors who seek to challenge the Southern Oceans would generally seek out. Her father Laurence has described Abby as a girl that grew up on the water but in this writer’s opinion Abby’s most useful training on a high performance boat came “On the Job” as she wound her way South toward Cape Horn. Those who spent time with Abby alone have reported that she was a completely different girl when out of the earshot of her Dad. Engaged and interested in learning what she could, the days before her February departure were spent trying to understand all of the systems on her boat and how to manage what may have been the highest performance boat she had ever sailed on.  Abby took the sailing lessons seriously and gleaned as much as possible in the minimally challenging conditions off of Southern California’s coastline. No one I spoke to was aware of Abby ever getting any “Real weather” experience prior to her departure sans a small bout of wind and rain on the delivery from the Northeast to Miami where the boat was then cradled and freighted to the West Coast.

One of the questions I had for Mr. Sunderland prior to them asking the public for “Privacy” was whether or not he had a log for the days Abby trained on the boat in advance of the attempt to ail around the world.  As a reminder, he had “no comment” for me on anything.  Just doing the simple math though it is difficult to envision that Abby was able to get much training in between her home schooling and the short period of time available between the boat arriving in California and Abby’s departure in February.

In God we trust. Certainly faith can provide one with strength and conviction, but not training, preparation, planning and wisdom.  As a parent, a navigator by trade, and a sailor, I think it was a serious error on the Sunderland’s part to send their child into near certain calamity given the route that was selected and the amount of experience available to deal with the situation.

I am all for those who cheer Abby’s effort. I too congratulate her on what she did accomplish on her trip to Cape Town. I cannot, however, stand with those who applaud the parents for enabling their children to attempt to  “live their dreams.”  Gaining sponsorship and fame isn’t enough. You must bring sound intelligent judgment to bear on the decisions you make with regard to preparation and routing.  Leaving Cape Town in May is questionable; sending her on a route well south of 40 degrees south is in my mind unthinkable.

From what I understand Abby did indeed keep the faith during the peak of the storm. To her credit, she realized that panicking leads to bad decisions and that while you may be scared virtually senseless, senseless is what you cannot afford to become or you may very well perish. Those who have been through this sort of experience and quash the fear for the moment often receive a revelation days later when they come to grips with how close to death they really came. I suspect Abby may have gone through this process in the days after rescue on her way to Kerguenlen Island.  This is not something I would want my daughter to have experienced at 16 years of age.

I am happy that this story had a happy ending. Abby is safe and making her way back to California via La Reunion Island. Hollywood could hardly have scripted the story any better. Which once again leads us back to “The Motivation.” Please tell me again why Abby was so far South in the middle of the storm season if there was no interest in setting a record. I am pretty sure “Abby’s Dream” of sailing around the world did not end this way in her vision. This adventure was supposed to be about enabling the dreams of a little girl. I doubt she could have ever envisioned the true nightmare that became her reality last week at the hands of a storm, a boat, and a monster. 

Mark Michaelsen