Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
The next time I saw Marianne Sunderland, she was on television, looking spooked. She and Laurence and the rest of their family had spent the past 20 hours waiting for news on whether Abby—who a day earlier had triggered her emergency beacons from the southern Indian Ocean—had, in fact, survived. An Australian spotter plane had finally located and made radio contact with her. A French fishing boat would soon be dispatched to pluck her from Wild Eyes, which would be left to drift. The rescue operation would reportedly cost French and Australian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and once it was determined that Abby was safe, any sense of collective worry would be overrun by a fast-building and furious scorn for her parents.
Sitting beneath a set of klieg lights outside their house in the predawn darkness, Laurence Sunderland grimly went about defending the decision to let Abby sail. "You obviously don't know Abigail...or her upbringing, or her parents," he said, speaking generally to their detractors.
The question of Abby Sunderland's competence, of whether she had any business being out alone on the seas at all, remains open to interpretation. Jean Pierre Arabonis, a South African oceanographer and meteorologist whose company, OSIS, advises the shipping industry on how to navigate safe passage around dangerous weather, tells me he was mostly admiring of Sunderland's effort. He describes the place where she'd run into trouble as "one of the nastiest pieces of ocean that you can encounter," with reported wind speeds as high as 100 knots (115 mph). Arabonis commends Sunderland on having sailed 12,000 miles before running afoul of the weather, and added that in his opinion, there was nothing she could have done to avoid having her boat's mast cracked by a rogue wave. "If she had ended up in trouble because of a bad set of decisions, then fine," he says, "but what happened is that the vessel experienced a mechanical failure. It's got nothing to do with her age."
Adrienne Cahalan, an Australian meteorologist and professional sailor, describes that part of the ocean as a "wild, frightening place," and likens sailing it alone to playing a game of Russian roulette. Adults may choose to accept the hazards, she says, but it made no sense for children. "Why risk the precious life of a 16-year-old?" Cahalan asks. She tells me that when she was 20, an eager, aspiring, only moderately experienced sailor herself, she had dreamed of making a solo circumnavigation, going so far as to seek sponsorship. Her family and friends talked her out of it. "And I'm forever grateful for that," says Cahalan, who is now 45. "I was not ready. I was too young." The decision to accrue experience slowly has paid off through a long, successful sailing career, which now includes five world speed-sailing records and three circumnavigations. Her advice to young sailors? "Enjoy the learning curve of doing something over a period of time instead of trying to get to the top in a single bound."
It is Marianne I thought about most—as Abby rode the French fishing boat to safety, as she boarded a plane back to California, as she held a numb, slightly defiant press conference ("I've crossed two oceans; I've sailed around Cape Horn... the questioning of my age should have been over weeks, if not months ago"), and as she moved back into her room with her sister, in her house in the subdivision, the ocean seeming far away. I wondered if Marianne had regrets, and if she did, whether she'd need always to keep them private, to spare her daughter and her husband further scrutiny. Had this been a failure of vision or just a bit of ill luck?
When I reached her at home one day in July, Marianne was still processing what had happened to Abby. She said she'd done a lot of crying and praying during the 20 hours they spent waiting to hear if Abby was okay. She was well aware that she and Laurence were being criticized. "There are people saying we should be prosecuted for child endangerment," she said, trailing off, sounding pained. But she thought the only variable that led to Abby's misfortune was the one that every sailor faces—the randomness of the sea. On the question of regret, she remained unclear: "I haven't asked myself whether knowing what I know, would I do it again? I'm not sure what the answer is."
The Sunderlands' eighth child—a boy—was born just one day after Abby arrived back in the United States. Marianne and Laurence named him Paul-Louis—after Paul Louis Le Moigne, the seasoned French captain who'd sailed his boat hundreds of miles out of his way, who'd himself been tossed into the frigid swells and risked drowning during the protracted effort to fetch their daughter. As for Abby, Marianne described her as "settling in." Most recently she'd been pondering the ocean from the vantage point of a more typical teen—on a beach towel, slathered in sunblock and surrounded by friends. Abby was grateful and feeling humble, she said, but also undaunted. "She's talked a bit about trying it again, but not any time soon," said Marianne. "I told her, 'Next time you go, you have to be 18.'"
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