Liberty is being free from the things we don't like in order to be slaves of the things we do like.--Ernest Benn

Friday, June 11, 2010

Abby Sunderland

The lure of single-handing one's yacht definitely pulls me. I understand the joys of solo-racing. It feeds the ego, rewarding it with the satisfaction of being able to do everything on one's boat in terms of boat handling, sail trimming, and tactical steerage. Win or lose, one's accountability is clear. Plus, you have that feeling of solidarity and solitary intimacy with your boat. When I was younger and tended to have smaller boats I much enjoyed solo-sailing.

However, the negatives surpass the positives as one contemplates larger boats and longer races or voyages. Derek Lundy addresses this parameter in his Godforsaken Sea, a discussion of round-the-world solo racing:

The inescapable problem of solo sailing, now or in Slocum's time, is that it is fundamentally unseamanlike, in both the traditional and legislative sense of the word. Traditionally, the ideal sailor has been the "prudent mariner" methodically and carefully working his way across the sea, taking what comes, avoiding risk as much as possible, getting his vessel and his crew where they are supposed to go with minimum fuss …. Contemporary cruising sailors by and large aspire to the same model: get across the seas as fast as you can with a minimum of trauma to boat or crew.
That's where you can start to count me out: when, whilst afloat, I'm called upon to fix any broken part of my rig, sails or hull! Count me out of any event where I can't come in off the water and dial up my rigger or sail maker on the spot!

Lundy continues:

The essential elements of a modern mariner's prudence include having a skilled hand on the helm when necessary to avoid knockdown or capsize in heavy weather. A vessel also needs a strong crew to handle the boat's sails and gear in all conditions without undue fatigue and to keep a lookout - for large vessels that might run down small sailboat and for ice or flotsam which might rip or slash open hull or tear off a keel or rudder.

Most of the time, the single-hander can do none of these things. That is why single-handed sailing is unseamanlike.

It also violates the international rules of the road, adopted at various conventions by the world's maritime nations. According to the Preliminary Statement to the Steering and Sailing rules, sailors must manage their boats "with regard to good seamanship." Good seamanship includes taking all precautions by the ordinary practice of seamen or the particular circumstances in which a vessel finds itself.

Often the collisions, knockdowns or dismastings suffered by the Vendee Globe single-handers occur when skippers are below - sleeping or resting, cooking … analyzing weatherfax charts … Or they were down below in their cabins because it was just too unnerving or dangerous on deck.
Of course, the need to take cover is understandable in certain marginal or extreme conditions.
There's the psychological toll of breakneck speed and terrible noise of wind and sea; the intense discomfort of seas constantly sweeping over the boat, soaking sailors in freezing water; the danger of being swept overboard by a breaking wave or being on deck during a knockdown; the virtual death sentence of being outside during a capsize.
….The image of sailors napping in their bunks as they barrel down thirty-foot waves at 20 knots under the autopilot doesn't exactly suggest good seamanship. They're not keeping a lookout; there's no hand on the helm. Indeed the race itself, the fact that the sailors are alone in the Southern Ocean, is outside "the ordinary practice of seamen" contemplated by the rule. None of the legalistic caviling matters to the racers, of course. In fact the marginality of the enterprise is part of its appeal. One of the reasons skippers go to sea is to get away from the excessive coddling and coercion or rules and regulations.

In round-the-world races, the intense competition and the boats' speed multiply the burdens and dangers of single-handed sailing. Both these factors encourage - or demand - behavior that increases rather than minimizes the usual risks of sailing alone …..
Lundy did not say anything about the unnecessary and extraordinary risks undertaken by 3rd party rescuers, drawn into the occasional misfortune of the self-willed risk-taking by the reckless solo racers of the Vendee.

I concede that solo distance sailors are good sailors. But they and Vendee skippers are not so much distinguished from Volvo Ocean Racers crews by their sailing: the Vendee distinguish themselves by their adventurism, escapism, fool-hardiness, risky stuntsmanship, and reckless endangering of others. OTOH, as far as superior performance sailing is concerned, that quality is to be found among the Volvo Ocean Racing crews. Solo sailing is not performance sailing. Unless you're in a Laser or the like.

Abby Sunderland? I'm glad she is going to be plucked from her disabled yacht. Who would not be glad?


  1. Solo sailing can be a difficult and lonely affair for which only a few are cut out. Usually you have to be compulsive about wearing a harness or tether, especially when leaving the cockpit. At all times the unexpected rogue wave is your mortal enemy. Even so, pulling yourself aboard a moving sail boat can be extremely difficult. A decent speed of a sailboat definitely exceeds the speed of a strong swimmer. Even with a permanently installed ladder on the back transom, a solo MOB has a good chance of being dragged to death.

    OTOH, going to sea you have better equipment, navigation, electronics and the boats are stronger than they were when Slocum circumnavigated solo more than 100 years ago.

    It's a judgment thing whether it's smart or not. I think you should look at Abby S. the same way you would if she were to try climbing the Matterhorn by herself. The most important question to ask her is not how she did it but why?

  2. Abby: Go back to school and get all of the homework you missed and get busy. Dreamtime
    is over. If you had made it, you would have been the newest hero. Now, it's time to get back to reality. I'm sure her father would have liked to have another feather in his cap, but he's gonna have to wait. A sixteen year old solo- circumnavigating today, with all the technology and chase boats is not anything nearly impressive as someone doing this 100 years ago. With a sextant and a tea kettle.
    And papyrus to wipe their butts.

  3. The man who built Wild Eyes said that Abby was not up to the trip - that she was not physically strong enough for either the boat or the trip.

  4. But, by something akin to the logic that would call sailing in the Southern Ocean unseamanlike, it seems that critics could say that sailboat racing is inherently unseamanlike.

    After all, the Colregs don't envision people deliberately maneuvering boats in close proximity and sometimes at high speeds. And certainly the Racing Rules of Sailing remove "early and prompt action to avoid collision" and replace it with specialized rules that allow boats to congregate on the race course.

    And of course, sometimes even crewed boats don't have someone on the helm at all times; the wind vane or auto pilot may do just fine if the boat trim and weather allow, or conditions can be too brutal no matter how many experienced sailors are on board.

    As for Abby Sunderland's motivations and thinking, we may not know the whole story until several years from now when she is an emancipated adult and away from the influence of her family.

  5. Pat, thanks for engaging. I suppose my post is open to a number of interpretations.

    I am taking a position in favor of competitive sports vs. stunt activities. People engage in stunts for a variety of reasons and in a variety of milieus. Motivations are not my concerns; milieus are.

    I am questioning Evel Knievel type activities such as solo mountain climbing and solo circumnavigating. These spheres are not conducive to provisioning escorts or monitors who could offer any safety nets. In cases where the soloists are mature athletes with the best equipment, the risk that outside first responders are called for rescue into marginal conditions offered by southern ocean - to take one example - are minimized.

    In the Sunderland case, the equipment - Wild Eyes - was optimal for an experienced adult. But her builder, Queenslander Jon Sayer, felt Sunderland was not up to solo sailing his boat in extreme conditions which inevitably occur in circumnavigating:

    "This boat is bigger and faster than Jessica Watson’s boat. In Abby’s case she wasn’t physically or mentally strong enough to handle a 40-ft boat in those winter storm conditions."

    In making my point, Abby Sunderland merely becomes my 'poster-boy'.

    Derek Lundy makes my larger point that solo circumnavigating races are more stunt than sport. That's why I am more of a fan of the Volvo Ocean Race and before it, the Whitbread Round the World Race. The Vendée Globe? - not so much.

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Here here. I'm glad I'm not the only one that loved the VOR. I can't wait for the next one.