Did you know about this?
At this very moment as my fingers clatter across the keyboard, there are not one but TWO separate 16 year old girls sailing solo around the world. Each are attempting to earn the title of the youngest person to sail solo and non-stop around the world.
Jessica Watson was the first to depart her home on the east coast of Australia about four months ago. She has already crossed the Pacific and is most of the way across the Atlantic on her way toward the Cape of Good Hope.
Abby Sunderland left her home in Southern California heading south a few weeks ago. That ended up being a sort of shake-down cruise because she had to pull into Cabo San Lucas for repairs. She has embarked again on her around-the-world cruise a few days ago and just crossed the equator southbound.
There's a fair amount of open-press criticism of these girls' parents for allowing them to take on such a challenge.
I have mixed feelings about it.
I've written before about how much I appreciated my parents fostering my independence and giving me a "long leash" so-to-speak. Most of my friends parents would never let them do half the stuff I did as a teenager - such as solo international travel to Canada (from San Diego - that's a long trip), Japan, Korea, and England, or driving hours to the Oregon coast to go scuba diving for the weekend. The former-proudly-independent-teenager in me thinks it's awesome that Jessica and Abby's parents trusted them to embark on such an ambitious journey.
However, my perspective has changed significantly as a naval officer and as a parent. I'm sure Jessica and Abby are both very responsible and trustworthy, but there's more to it than trust.
As an officer in the Navy, I have had Operational Risk Management (ORM) chiseled in the back of my head and traumatically reinforced in watching two shipmates lose their lives in rough seas. In layman's terms, ORM is all about cost-benefit analysis. Are the benefits of doing something worth the risks, and if so, what things can you do to reduce the likelihood and severity of the risks?
In the case of my solo travels as a teenager, I think my parents exercised good ORM. In each case, I may have been flying alone (as a passenger on a major airline), but I was staying with friends of the family at each destination and knew where and how to seek help if I needed it.
From an ORM standpoint, I don't think letting your teenager (boy or girl) sail solo around the world passes the cost-benefit analysis. In the Navy, we use justifications like "national security" as the benefits for taking such risks. What possible benefit could possibly be worth the risk of death in rough seas or a collision or a medical emergency in a civilian recreational sailing vessel? Each of these girls are sailing thousands of miles from shore and have little to no hope of rescue or assistance. What happens when one of them gets appendicitis and needs emergency surgery? On a nuclear submarine, even though our corpsman is technically qualified to remove an appendix in an emergency, we will fully employ the many thousands of shaft horsepower under the hood to hurl us toward the nearest port for a MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) of a crew-member with symptoms of appendicitis.
Backing up just a bit, I mentioned above that Abby had to pull into Cabo San Lucas for repairs. It turns out, she wasn't the only one. Jessica Watson also required a stop for repairs before she got very far from home. Between reading that article about Jessica and watching some of the interview videos on Abby's website, I have serious doubts about each of these girl's qualifications to embark on such a journey. As a submariner, we go through a lot of qualifications, and they start out with basic system knowledge - understanding the theory behind the how the equipment operates so you can then understand your equipment's limitations and operating precautions. Reading the article about the Jessica's accident and watching the interviews with Abby didn't give me a warm-fuzzy feeling about either of their technical understanding of the capabilities and limitations of their gear.
Aside: One of the first things I learned during sailing lessons in San Diego Bay with aircraft carriers and cruise ships passing by was the "BGT Rule" (Big Gray Thing), a.k.a. the law of gross tonnage. Jessica didn't really violate the BGT Rule because she was in the rack and her radar alarm didn't warn her there was a big-ass many-thousand-ton merchant (63,800 tonnes to be exact) about to turn her into road kill flotsam. Can you imagine if Jessica's collision had happened in America? If it had, there certainly would have been some wacko frivolous lawsuit filed soon thereafter blaming the radar manufacturer for the collision because the proximity alarm didn't go off.
Sorry, I digress. Back on topic now.
As a parent, I will encourage my boys to be responsible and earn the level of trust and independence so that they can go forth on their own. We all have to let our kids go out into the world on their own someday. Even when they have earned that trust though, it is still my responsibility as a parent to provide a safety net and to provide that "forceful backup" we talk about so often in the submarine force. As their ISIC (Immediate Superior in Command), it's my responsibility to evaluate their training, qualifications, equipment, and readiness to embark on adventures that will take them away from home and out of range of my ability to render assistance. Based on what I've seen and read on Jessica and Abby's blogs, if I was their father, then I would not have allowed them go to on this around-the-world cruise solo.
I'm sure if Jessica or Abby's parents and supporters read this, they will say that they did carefully evaluate the risks and implement safety measures to mitigate those risks, like having a "ditch bag" of emergency supplies in case they have to abandon ship. Personally, I think the ditch bag is probably more for easing the parents' fears than an actual, practical life-saving measure (unless she ditches like 100 yards from some tropical island). Going back to ORM - even with things like a ditch bag, there is a RISK of a small craft like these sailboats succumbing to rough seas, or the single crew member getting washed overboard, or colliding with a merchant (or, gulp, dare-I-say - a submarine?), all of which hold the possible outcome of death to that single crewmember. Again, what's the benefit of this endeavor? What's to be gained that makes it worth risking the death of your daughter? That's permanent. You can't turn back the clock to undo death. It's too late - no amount of lawsuits will bring your child back from the dead.
It just doesn't pass the ORM test.
Although I don't agree with the decision to let them go in the first place, now that they are out there on their own, I am praying for Jessica and Abby's safety. I wish Jessica and Abby all the best and sincerely hope they both make it home safe and sound.