Saturday, June 12, 2010

Still Sailing to Byzantium

I feel quite wrung out this week. I followed with horror the story of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year old American sailor who attempted to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe but ran into a storm in the Indian Ocean which destroyed her mast. I sat at my computer hours past my usual bedtime, seeking news of her plight as she drifted 2,000 miles from land on any side.

It brought back memories of my family's 32 foot cabin cruiser exploding in the ocean when I was seven.

One perfect August day, we left our boat slip on Long Island, New York and headed out to sea. Our destination was Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast. My older brother and I were sitting in the fore cockpit with our Irish Terrier, Patty, enjoying the sunshine and salt spray.

My father, who was an excellent swimmer, had taught my brother to swim, but my mother did not know how, nor did I. I owned a child-size life jacket but was not wearing it that day. It was stowed in a cupboard in the cabin, and there was no access to the cabin from our perch in the bow of the boat. To get there required inching around the catwalk holding onto a rail along the edge of the upper deck, above my reach.

The sun sparkled on the waves as we plowed through them, and soon there was no land visible in any direction. We cruised for hours until suddenly, my brother and I heard a loud explosion. Turning, we saw the cabin engulfed in flames and felt the searing heat.

My brother grabbed our dog, threw her into the ocean and jumped after her. I was afraid she would drown but didn't know what to do about it. I didn't know what to do at all, so I waited. The flames leaped higher into the blue sky. The heat was intense and the air looked wavy. It would have been beautiful if I weren't so scared.

After several minutes, my father eased his way around the catwalk holding an adult life jacket. He had been unable to get to mine because the hardware on the locked cupboard had melted. He tried to drape the adult one around me, but his hands were burned and it fell on his new Sperry Topsiders and ricocheted into the water.

"Should I jump?" I asked.

"I'm afraid you'll have to," he said. He seemed apologetic, which I noted because I had never known my father to evince any kind of remorse before.

I held his pinky for a second, then jumped into the icy water. The fire raged toward me because I had jumped off the leeward side of the bow. The orange life jacket had already disappeared, so I paddled as fast as I could to get away from the flames leaping off the boat as it burned down to the waterline. Within minutes, there was nothing left of it but smoke and the charred black wooden hull that got smaller so fast it looked as if something were eating it. The water was bitter cold and dark.

About an hour later, just before sundown, three men in an open fishing boat who had seen the flames from afar approached and found me struggling to stay afloat in the water. They held out a long pole with a hook on the end for me to grab, pulled me into their boat and wrapped me in a rough gray blanket. I was shaking violently and burst into tears.

"Why are you crying now?" one of the men chided me. "You're safe now."

I stopped crying immediately, ashamed that I had forgotten I was not allowed to cry. The fishermen took me into port, several hours away, and handed me off to a policeman on the dock. I didn’t see my family anywhere.

The next thing I remember is visiting my mother in the hospital where she was being treated for third-degree burns on both legs. She had been standing above the hatch when the engine blew up. Her legs were slathered in Vaseline and covered with white gauze bandages. My father had kept her afloat until help arrived.

She noticed that I had been washing only the part of my face I could see, leaving the back of my neck gray and grungy. She asked a nurse for a washcloth and rubbed my neck hard until it was pink and sore as the water dripped down my back.

I am older now than my father was when he died. But even from an adult’s perspective, I don’t understand why he couldn’t save me and my mother, too, instead of consigning a seven-year-old child to the deep, to literally sink or swim. I swam.

The next year, he bought another boat. It was a 34-foot ACF, one of very few pleasure boats made by the railroad car and locomotive manufacturing company, American Car and Foundry. Some of the new boat’s appeal was unquestionably its exclusivity.

My parents never mentioned the boat accident or my ordeal again, as if it never happened. I don't dwell on this memory consciously, but as I followed Abby Sunderland's story, hardly daring to breathe or even sleep, I felt like a terrified seven year old in a cold, dark ocean again. I even dreamed of drowning, and yesterday I took a book out of the library about the drowning death of Natalie Wood although I normally eschew celebrity books.

I cannot imagine taking a small child out on the ocean without a life jacket. I also cannot imagine allowing a sixteen-year old to attempt a solo sail around the world. Perhaps most bizarre of all is the fact that this same week, a rare photograph emerged from history's attic of two slave children which was probably taken by Matthew Brady, the famous 19th century photographer of President Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee. The same North Carolina attic yielded a document detailing the sale of one of the children, John, for $1,150 in 1854. Both children are ragged and barefoot, their faces hopeless as they contemplate the short, brutal lives awaiting them.

There are still many children like John and his unnamed companion in the world today. In fact, there are many more such children than those who possess 40-foot yachts to sail around the world in pursuit of a record. Rescue missions from several nations went to enormous trouble and expense and even put themselves in danger to save Abby Sunderland, and while I am glad they did, it makes me wonder why such effort is not mobilized to save other children from slavery, starvation and disease. And it makes me ashamed.


Amy said...

It's hard to imagine anything more traumatic than your incident at sea. I think it struck me because when traumatic events took place in my family, there was never any talk of it after the fact. It was as if nothing ever happened. And I agree with you that it's lunacy to allow a minor to undertake an adventure like that. I was taught to respect the water and always, always be prepared.

And how sad for those two young ones with helplessness etched on their faces.

Cloudia said...

what an experience!

Your final question haunts me too...

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Molly said...

What a gutsy little kid you were, Heart! The mind boggles that your father left you there, floundering!

Jo said...

Omigod, Susan, what an ordeal you went through. I'm glad you were saved.

And what a fabulous spin you have put on this story. On Abby's blog, thousands of people are calling her a hero. She is not a hero. And I agree completely, the people and expense used to save her could be used to save other children from slavery, starvation and disease.

Omigoodness, the whole world should read this blog post...! Omigoodness...!

Warty Mammal said...

What an unbelievably horrific experience, everything from the explosion itself to your not being supposed to cry and the event never being discussed. And what in the hell were your folks thinking, buying another boat? Did it never dawn on them that perhaps you'd prefer to avoid boats for at least awhile? So much baggage to place on a child.

Abby Sunderland ... I think her parents are irresponsible nuts at a very minimum. You make excellent points about the imbalance of it all. So much effort and money spent on a situation which could have been avoided, and not enough resources on people who are desperate and have few options.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I suspect that my parents thought if the incident wasn't given any importance, I would forget about it. But what I learned was that I had no importance, and I never felt safe again.


It does seem that no expense is spared to save a privileged haole girl while other children just as valuable endure dangers not of their own making.


He could have done better. I was an undersized 7-year old who could easily have been placed on his back while he also kept my mother afloat. I'm not even sure anyone mentioned that I was still out there - the fishing boat men were surprised to find a child in the water.


I'm glad Abby was saved, but I would prefer to see a bit of gratitude and humility from her and her family. It's really amazing that such a rescue could have been mobilized while less fortunate children are left in horrendous circumstances all over the world.


You know, it has never occurred to me before that my feelings should have been considered. And I'm quite sure it never crossed their minds either.

Abby Sunderland's parents are fame-mongering jackasses, in my opinion. I have not yet heard a single word of gratitude toward the many people and governments that rescued their daughter, only that she will try again because "it's in her blood."

nick said...

Your experience sounds really traumatic, from being casually left in the water right through to the drama never being mentioned again. I had a similar experience when I was young, of falling into some deep water when my parents weren't present and I couldn't swim. Like you I somehow figured out how to swim and got back to dry land safely.

The Abby Sunderland thing is tricky. Yes, the rescue operation was expensive, but that applies to all sorts of leisure activities where people get into unexpected trouble. Should they all be banned from risky activities? I don't think so. Okay, she was only 16 but she probably had more expertise than some people twice her age.

But I do agree that not enough is done for the millions of children still suffering poverty, disease and desperate circumstances of all kinds.

Snoskred said...

Now they are asking people to donate so that Abby can get her boat back. Sheesh!

I completely agree with you on the fame mongering.

BTW - *we* - Australians - paid for this rescue.

Whitney Lee said...

As a parent I am appalled by this on so many levels. I cannot imagine your family's lack of concern, both during and after that ordeal. That is heart wrenching for the child you were.

I am, quite frankly, not surprised that there are parents out there who are willing to let their minor children embark on adventures that are beyond dangerous. It does make me sad. As you point out though, these dangers are of their own choice while millions are in danger of so much more simply by virtue of their birthplace. That, to me, is worse. And worst of all is our acceptance of that as fact.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


May I suggest that since your parents were not present when you fell into deep water, you could easily imagine that had they been there, they would have saved you?

Of course risky activities should not be banned, but parents need to take responsibility, no matter how experienced their children are.

The Australian government, which sent a search plane to the limit of its fuel capabilities, is not seeking compensation. Perhaps they are taking the most generous position that it could as easily have been their own Jessica Watson, who won the record sought by Abby Sunderland, in May.


I saw that on her blog. Can you imagine towing it over 2,000 miles through stormy seas?

As far as I know, Abby and her family have not yet publicly thanked Australia for sending the search plane or France for diverting the fishing boat that picked her up.


Incidents like the rescue of Abby Sunderland demonstrate that it is possible to save children from the farthest corners of the earth. It makes you wonder how much could be accomplished for children everywhere if nations joined forces and determined to do so.

As a parent, so much appalls me, including the thought that if I had not survived being abandoned to the ocean, my own children would not be in the world today.

Anonymous said...

Your story is horrific. What an experience, and in following Abby's story (as did I) I can imagine that it evoked some traumatizing memories. As for Abby, I sincerely believe her parents should be up on charges, and also should be covering the cost of the rescue.I hate this kind of grandstanding when, as you say, there are 'real' horrors in the world that go unaddressed.

nick said...

Heart, if she had been 36 and not 16, would people have made such a fuss? I doubt it. Her brother Zac briefly held the same round-the-world record at age 17 and clearly was a proficient sailor.

Her father Laurence Sunderland, a boat builder who teaches sailing, says his daughter had thousands of miles of solo sailing experience before she set out and he had scrutinised her skills.

He said: "This was not a flippant decision. Abigail's been raised on the ocean all her life. She's lived over half her life on yachts. This is like second nature to her."

Older sailors who attempt round the world records are applauded for it. I don't quite see why Abby is being condemned.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I also think that her parents should be paying for her rescue. The Australian government has been more than generous, but plucking someone from the middle of the ocean is an expensive proposition. I don't know if the French are seeking compensation for their part in the rescue, but it should be offered.


I am not condemning Abby, and I have no doubt that she is an excellent sailor. And please don't take this as a low blow, but if you had children you might feel differently about allowing them to attempt such a dangerous feat.

There is perhaps a fine line between believing in ones children and encouraging them, and putting them at extreme risk. It's possible that my childhood experience is coloring my views, but if I condemn anyone, it is her parents.

Several months ago, a 13-year old Dutch girl wanted to attempt this record with the approval of her parents, but her government stepped in and prevented it. While I don't know enough about their system of government to know whether they overstepped their bounds or not, I think that parents are not always wise enough to say no to their children, with sometimes disastrous results. And Abby's family culture seems like a difficult one in which to express fear or uncertainty in the face of parental expectations.

nick said...

Not a low blow at all. As you say, if I had children I might feel very differently. It's certainly a controversial issue and opposing views are understandable.

I remember the case of the 13 year old Dutch girl. I guess a line has to be drawn somewhere and the authorities decided in that case it was too great a risk.

meno said...

What an experience for you. I am astounded by the indifference of your parents never even bringing it up after the fact, not teaching you how to swim and not insisting you wear a life jacket. How selfish!

I wonder who will pay for the rescue of Abby.

the only daughter said...

Horrific tale. Your adventure sent chills down my spine, as does the connection.

English Rider said...

My daughter and I discussed your post today. We both agree that even an unknown child should take precedence over an adult in a life-threatening situation, let alone a daughter of his own. My Father never learned to swim but I am sure in a like situation he would have found a way to save me. That is the kind of reassurance that a child should feel without question.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


As you may imagine, I believe the Dutch authorities were right to nix that particular voyage.


Hard to say who pays what. Her ordeal exacted several nights' sleep from me and maybe even added a few worry lines. I'm sure many people paid in that way.


Sorry about the chills, but thank you for reading it.


I would have preferred that he not sacrifice either of us. But it's impossible to know his reasoning because now that I could and would ask him, he's gone and I can't.

Thank you for your visit.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


At the risk of offending you, I am horrified at your parents inaction. I absolutely cannot fathom disregarding any child especially when safety and well being is at stake. In my heart, it is utterly unforgiveable and incomprehensible.

I think Abby's parents are insane idiots. If she were a legal adult, it would be another matter entirely; she is a child. See above missive in regards to that.

As always, I echo your beliefs. There is a serious lack of judgment when it comes to ignoring those who desperately need saving, in the face of moving mountains to save what is popular and essentially media induced heroism.

I am disgusted.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'm not offended, but appreciate your sensitivity to that possibility. I think children are the best "thing" that ever happens to anyone, and should be treasured as well as protected.

Your term "media induced heroism" is a perfect description for the whole Abby Sunderland adventure. The true heroes are the many children who manage to stay alive against overwhelming odds in every country of the world.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

There was so much to think about in this post. First though, I am so glad you survived your ocean mishap. I hope you also survived your dad's actions or inaction.

I agree that people like Abby and her family should understand that they have been very fortunate and that other people are not there just to bail them out while they take unnecessary risks.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Sadly, people who feel privileged usually don't realize that other, "lesser" people do not exist merely to bail them out when they take unnecessary risks.

Meggie said...

I have no words, to express my disgust, and horror.
I send you hugs and love.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you!

Jocelyn said...

Your personal story here is the best thing I've read from you--and this, in years of reading your tremendous writing. I am angry at your father for you; I am angry at the fishermen who denied you your right to cry.

I am not angry, tough, at Abby's family. We part opinions on this point, as I respect that they respected their daughter enough to allow her independence and adventure. I just can't condemn their faith in her training and ability.

That said, I am back with you in the last paragraphs here--in agreeing that the money for such an undertaking is absolutely better spent on providing basic life essentials for those in need. Then again, that's a slippery slope, as we all could be selling our cars, not consuming so much, etc. and sending more, so much more, to help.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


To set the record straight, the fishermen were just trying to stop the waterworks because they had no idea what to do with a crying child. They had not made the rules I was required to live by.

As for my parents, I just can't imagine...

Anonymous said...

I am speechless, breathless.

Your stories, your writing, this particular story.

Oh my.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It's so nice to see you back! And knowing you, you won't be speechless for long.

Val said...

What a horrifying story, Heart...
My son just turned 12, & I could not imagine letting him take such a risk as Abby's parents have done - at age 16, 18, & probably not even @ age 26!
& I'm afraid I have to scroll rapidly past the heartrending photo of those two slave children; bcz if I dwell too long on the miseries of this world, I'd never be able to carry on...

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I agree. It isn't just a matter of having complete confidence in ones child - it's knowing that circumstances beyond his/her control can occur and take that precious life before anyone can help. Taking such unnecessary risks for the sake of a record seems very foolhardy to me.