Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
A wispy 14-year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker spent much of the past year in front of various judges in the Netherlands, petitioning for permission to set off on her own round-the-world solo sail. Dekker, who was literally born on a sailboat, had announced back when she was 13 that she'd acquired her own boat and was planning to undertake the voyage. She had her sights set on beating both Watson and Sunderland as the youngest solo circumnavigator, but by last fall, Dutch child-welfare officials intervened, and a court placed her under state supervision until she and her parents could demonstrate that she was mentally up to the voyage and could make it safely. In an apparent snit, Dekker ran away from home in December, surfacing days later on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, requiring a police escort back to the Netherlands and yet another appearance before the judge. But her court-ordered psychological evaluation reads, in some respects, like a parent's dream come true. It notes the girl's good grades and her independence, deeming her "a hard worker, disciplined, serious, and showing perseverance."
Still, the report does not recommend a solitary, potentially perilous sea voyage. An appeals court in May reprimanded Dick Dekker, Laura's father, for having a "limited appreciation of the risks involved," claiming that he "overestimates" what she can do. Yet Dekker scored a victory in late July when a district court judge lifted her state supervision, clearing her to set sail. In what seemed more like a helpless shrug than an endorsement of the girl's dream, the judge wrote, a touch ominously, "With this decision, the responsibility for Laura lies with her parents."
As Laurence and Marianne Sunderland see it, there is more harm in underestimating a teenager than in overestimating her. Sitting in their living room with Abby before her departure, they ticked off a list of essential things they considered missing from many children's lives that were present, in spades, on a solo sailing voyage. There was mystery; there was challenge; there was risk. In their view, these were antidotes to the kind of malaise and complacency that plagued so many other kids questing for maturity.
Laurence, a native of Britain with a frank, brassy manner of speaking, talked of the "low expectations" placed on teenagers. He spoke about kids these days having "no life in their eyes" and how putting Abby—"Abigail," he called her—in charge of a boat immediately put her in charge of her own life. "It's not like, 'Clean your room and if you don't, you'll lose your phone for two days,'" he said drily. Abby's mother cited the number of otherwise bored and hovered-over teens who die in car accidents or get mixed up with drugs or simply never attain real independence from their parents.
"A lot of people won't let their kids out of the house," Abby chimed in.
"Or even out of their sight," added Laurence, emphatically.
Behind the house, a lone turkey was pecking its way around the perimeter of the yard—the last living remnant of Abby's many years as an apparently zealous and entrepreneurial member of her local 4-H club. According to Marianne, beginning when she was 9 and with little guidance from her parents, Abby expertly bred and raised rabbits, chickens, and turkeys, winning prizes for them and selling them for a profit at auction.
Marianne has warm brown eyes, a girlish, expressive voice, and the overall upbeat demeanor of a grown-up Gidget. With her husband and two eldest children hanging around the marina and obsessing over the lure of the ocean all the time, Marianne serves as the family's dry-land pragmatist. She drives a white Ford Excursion capable of holding all her children and can often be found shuttling them to and from soccer practice. She claims not to be adventurous herself. Instead, she homeschools her kids at the dining room table, takes them to church every weekend, and instills order by enforcing a chain of command based loosely upon birth order. ("Jessica, I need your help with Ben. He keeps jumping on Katherine.")
Both Laurence and Marianne mentioned several times that despite what people tended to believe about them, the decision to let both Abby and Zac go had not been made lightly. They had weighed the risks.
"What do I think of the ocean?" Laurence said. "The ocean scares me, and that's a healthy sort of fear." He added that the rewards, in their eyes, trumped the risks. "Frankly, life is unsafe," he said. "Life has a 100 percent mortality rate. We're all going to die, you know? I think the saddest thing about living, one of the saddest things about living, is getting to a ripe old age and never having fulfilled a dream in your life."
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