Sunday, June 13, 2010

Abby's Code

Photo by Richard Hartog/AP

Three weeks ago I speculated on how differently things might have turned out had our newest Australian youth icon Jessica Watson met the wrong wave. And now we know. A simple act of climatic caprice has produced the converse of Jessica's triumph for Abby Sunderland who had to be rescued from the Southern Indian Ocean yesterday.

The flag waving has flipped into hanky wringing faster than you can say oops, there goes the parrot. The elements are nearly all the same. A sixteen-year-old girl with 'a dream', go-getting parents, an arch, shekel-trousering, middle-aged misogynist who probably fancies her trotting out non sequiturial I-told-you-sos and a global Colosseum of spectators, thumbs eagerly extended for the moment fate decides to stick or twist. The element that really matters is always the one great unknown - the weather.

Abby Sunderland met that wave that couldn't be tamed. By all accounts apart from that, it went well. Wild Eyes, the vessel that back-stabbing boat builder Jon Sayer said would not sink did not, in fact, sink. The young sailor managed not only to stay on the boat and instigate emergency procedures, but remain calm for two days in extreme weather conditions until rescuers could get there. I would say that, in the circumstances, that's about as good as it gets. So, I for one am at a loss to fathom Sayer's assertion that,

"She wasn't physically or mentally strong enough to handle a 40-foot boat in those winter storm conditions."

Is he perhaps suggesting that a big strong man is capable of preventing a mast from snapping, or perhaps ordering a storm to abate?

And another expert, Ian Kiernan, slinks from the primordial slime and slates the poor girl for failing to 'respect the sea'. What should she have done, sacrificed her My Little Pony to Poseidon before setting off?

"We need adventurers but not adventurers who do foolhardy things and put their rescuers at risk, it should not be allowed," he opined helpfully.

This is one of those situations where relativism is the enemy of logic. The steady stream of unconscious thought that has vomited from the international media would appear to be advising young people simply to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time if they do not want to incur the vengeful wrath of we adults who like our pubescent heroism risk-free.

What does he suppose should not be allowed? Sailing? Solo sailing? Girls? What? And who is going to oversee this proposed disallowing?

A few years ago six sailors were killed and five yachts sank in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. They were all grown men sailing not very far in the middle of summer who happened upon some very big waves, much bigger than they could handle. In all 55 sailors were airlifted by helicopter during that race which involved 35 military and civilian aircraft and 27 Royal Australian Navy vessels. It was the largest peacetime sea rescue ever undertaken by this country and it was under treacherous conditions. Was there ever any serious talk of discontinuing that race? What do you think?

As in the case of Jessica Watson, on whom we had to rely to reset our moderation meter after nearly capsizing on our own wave of hysterical nationalism, it falls to Abby Sunderland to reintroduce a little perspective into the post-mortem. Here's what she has to say on her blog.

'Within a few minutes of being on board the fishing boat, I was already getting calls from the press. I don't know how they got the number but it seems everybody is eager to pounce on my story now that something bad has happened.

There are plenty of things people can think of to blame for my situation; my age, the time of year and many more. The truth is, I was in a storm and you don't sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. It wasn't the time of year it was just a Southern Ocean storm. Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world.

As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?'


The logic bypass has also infected the Australian media as we tangle ourselves up in the perennial argument over the costs and risks of sea rescue yet again. Since we are one of the few land masses in these parts, we get to do rather a lot of it. You'd think we would have hit upon a standard ethical position on the subject by now. Not a bit of it. Every new case seems to raise a complex equation of 'deservedness' factors that would have pole-axed Pythagoras.

It was rather ironic to hear a government spokesperson claim that no expense or effort would be spared in carrying out our maritime duty to locate and rescue Abby Sunderland knowing that distress signals from asylum seeker boats carrying hundreds of people, many of them children, have gone ignored in the past with tragic consequences. It would be so much easier for everyone if all imperilled human life was thought to be of equal value.

I'm glad she's safe. I hope she tries again. I applaud her courage and her ability to think clearly and coherently and with a maturity and sense of purpose that infantilises her critics.