Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Teenage Independence and ORM

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.


reddog said...

What you have here are a couple of very young girls who are essentially emancipated minors, out on their own living high risk lifestyles. There is nothing in the World that can bring you more grief than that.

There's always a back story in situations like this and even the best and most caring parents often don't have any of what would be considered acceptable choices.

I doubt either set of parents want their girls out doing this, do you?

Tabor said...

This whole thing would terrify me. I get sea sick and while my husband loves to sail and boat, I am the one who is very uncomfortable if we loose sight of land. Having a daughter or son who wanted to do this would put me in a sanitarium. (Although I have to admit for some strange reason I have seen every submarine movie every made and really like watching them!)

Loping Squid said...

This is seriously crazy. I have a hard time believing a 16 year old--regardless of experience--has the frame of reference to make hard decisions. Like: it's time to turn back.
Especially in light of recent research that indicates that part of the brain isn't really mature until the 20s.
The girls might make it. But it's as likely to be by luck as by skill.

Hilary said...

As Loping Squid (lol at that nickname) said, teens, no matter how intelligent and seemingly mature, lack the ability to think things out fully. To predict consequences - at least those which they've not experienced before. That's just a biological reality. They also lack life's experience. And emotional maturity. And there is no way in hell my minor child would do anything like this. I'd be joining Tabor in a padded room.

Ret ANAV said...

Do I agree with their parents? Well, I don't necessarily DISagree with them...time will tell.
As a trans-oceanic sailor with many (MANY) years experience, I can honestly say that the occasions where I had to spend an extended period of time "thinking things through" were few and far-between. When you reach that level of experience, things are typically done by muscle-memory - automatically, and as naturally as breathing. Do I have confidence that Miss Watson and Miss Sunderland posses that level of experience? Yes, I do and who better to asses that level of experience than those who trained them - Their parents and other adults with whom they have sailed. Maturity notwithstanding, they are clearly capable doing what needs to be done when it needs doing, though the Southern Ocean is soon to be their toughest test.

Paulita said...

If/when the girls finish their trips, whether they are successful or not, they will have learned a huge amount. I agree that doesn't make it worth the ORM. I have three teenagers and just this morning I found myself wondering whether the oldest had scraped the windshield before she drove to school. I can't imagine her sailing around the world. If it works out well for the girls then it was a good decision. If it doesn't then the family will have to live with the regrets. They must be much more mature than my teenagers.

blunoz said...

Somewhat interesting article here:

They claim to be interviews from one mom for (Abby's mom) and one mom against, but the mom "against" letting teenagers do this acquiesces in the end and says she would let her daughter go.

I find it interesting that Abby's mom says they wouldn't let her walk the dog around the neighborhood by herself. ...but they're letting her sail around the world solo??? Where's the logic there?

Mark said...

"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?"

The ORM calculus doesn't change if they were two years or thirty two years older. It doesn't "make sense" from a risk/benefit standpoint for an adult to do this, or ski to the Pole, or ride a motorcycle on the Capital Beltway. But would you ban people from doing so if you could? Because that's the only criterion here for banning the girls, is that since they're minors you can.

There's something to be said for living life vs. hunkering in the bunker for seventy years, and you can't do that without risk. I'm not for taking stupid chances; but people have different concepts of what the "benefit" is of doing a particular risky activity. I'll trust the parents of the specific girls on this one.

blunoz said...

Thank you all for stopping by and sharing your opinions on this.

reddog: You're right, neither set of parents WANTED to let their kid go on this journey, but they let them anyway.

Mark: You wrote, "The ORM calculus doesn't change if they were two years or thirty two years older." On one hand, yes, the benefit side of the equation is probably the same regardless if they were 16 or 18 or 50 years old. On the other hand, the risk side of the equation is very different. When you conduct a risk assessment, you look at both the probability of a bad event happening as well as the severity of the outcome. As Loping Squid and Hilary pointed out in previous comments, these 16 year-old kids lack the maturity that comes through life-experience. Did my parents let me do things in spite of my lack of maturity as a teenager? Sure they did. The next part of ORM is instituting risk-mitigation strategies: things that will reduce the severity of the consequences if a problem occurs. In my case as a teenager traveling overseas, I stayed with friends of the family and I had help readily available. In the case of these two kids sailing around the world (solo), there is zero ability to render them assistance thousands of miles from land in the southern hemisphere. Their age might not change the probability of critical equipment malfunctions or of catastrophic environmental conditions, but their lack of experience raises both the probability of an adverse outcome as well as the potential severity of the consequences.

When an adult chooses to engage in extreme sports or thrill-seeking and something goes wrong, then it's their own fault. Put their name on the list of Darwin-award winners.

When a minor wants to engage in such activity and something goes wrong, then the parents share the blame for allowing them to go.