How young is too young to sail alone around the world?

I first sailed to Bermuda when I was 14 years old.  It was a pretty significant milestone in my life.  From what I can remember of it today, more three decades later, it was also a significant accomplishment, psychologically, emotionally and physically. Of course, I was on a 128′ tall ship with 20 other adolescents and there was also this other little factor that the ship was under the command of a master mariner.

This morning, Mike Perham, a 17 year old Briton, became the youngest person to solo circumnavigate the globe.  Mike’s prior experience included crossing the Atlantic at the age of 14. Here’s a BBC video/audio report upon Mike’s arrival this morning.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times,  Pete Thomas wrote an interesting article titled More Teens Choose High-Seas Journeys.  A more accurate title for the article might have been Younger Teens Choose High-Seas Journeys as the race today is less about who will be the fastest around the globe but rather who will be the youngest.

While I find it difficult to make a definitive statement with an absolute age on this controversy, it does seem to be getting a little ridiculous. I guess there will always be 2 schools of thought about these types of things with freedom of choice on one side and youth competency and parental responsibility on the other. Mankind has always been designed to push the limits, whatever they might be.

There’s an interesting conversation over at the Free Range Kids blog that you should check out if you are at all interested in this controversy. And from a slightly different perspective, check out the comments on BoingBoing.

Here are the websites of the youth sailors so you can read their own words about their adventures.

Published by

Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

7 thoughts on “How young is too young to sail alone around the world?”

  1. These are not new issues.

    In July 1996, 14-year-old Subaru Takahashi set out to cross the Pacific solo from Tokyo to San Francisco. The initial press coverage focused almost exclusively on the young boy’s potential achievement as the youngest to cross the Pacific alone. There was little discussion in the media of the boy’s capability to pursue such a voyage or the appropriateness of sending such a young person offshore alone. Soon after departure, his engine failed. Incapable of repairing it, he lost power to his electronic navigation and all communication equipment. He was out of touch for five weeks and widely presumed lost. Only then did the media begin a typical hindsight tirade against the boy’s father for having let him go. Young Takahashi miraculously made it to San Francisco unharmed, but his boat was a disheveled mess. Despite his having survived, I think few people considered it any kind of vindication of the appropriateness of letting him go.

    That same summer two other teens, Brian Caldwell and David Dicks, were competing to become the youngest solo circumnavigators. I don’t recall the results, because I didn’t really care who won. Their entire motivation was simply to be the youngest. There was no greater goal or purpose to their pursuit.

    I do, however, recall the tale of Robin Lee Graham, the teen who spent five years sailing around the world in the 1960s. I believe he was the youngest solo circumnavigator at the time, which was likely the focus of the media coverage then as well. But his exploits and writing along the way suggest that earning that moniker was the least of his ambitions. He wanted to see the world, but when he was ready to quit, he was pushed hard by his father to complete the trip. When he finally did, he immediately quit sailing and moved to the mountains where he still lives today.

    One hopes that the decision to let a child sail offshore results from a complex assessment of the would-be sailor’s capability, maturity and intent. But the motivations of everyone else involved probably warrant some scrutiny as well.

    1. Interesting but how low do you go? Can or should a line be drawn? Also, much of this today seems to be driven/funded by big corporate sponsorship. Not sure that was as much the case in the adventures you cited.

      1. Every kid is different, so I don’t know if you can draw a hard line. If pressed, however, I would draw it at around 16. In my experience, that’s usually the youngest age at which kids are likely to develop the risk management skills and competent self assessment ability to pursue any venture like we’re discussing.

        I do agree with you about the corporate sponsorship. I think it’s encouraging reckless behavior.

  2. One more thing. Is this really about the need to sail or is it maybe just big business? One look at Perham’s boat might help answer this question.

    Funding a circumnavigation is as challenging as actually doing it and I’ve yet to meet a 13 or even 17 year old that is ready to negotiate a bigtime sponsorship deal. In the end, these adventures are possible because companies (including the media) are willing to support them. If there weren’t records and media involved, would there be money? I doubt very much that many of these parents would send their kids to sea in a stock boat and undertake a maritime adventure the way Joshua Slocum did 114 years ago. Of course, he was an old experienced professional mariner too.

  3. It’s a very difficult question which does not have a definite answer. It doesn’t come down to age so much as experience, but still 13 years old seems dangerously too young on the surface of it.

    Really, what’s the rush?

  4. If parents think their kid can sail around the world alone and the kid really wants to do it then let them have a go. The problem is that it has turned into a competition to be the youngest. Sooner or later some kid who isn’t experienced enough will try it and die.

    1. Having a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer as a friend who’s risked his life many a time in order to save others has influenced my thinking a little on these types of adventures. Man will always push the limits but when does it become too much and can we ever figure out where that line needs to be drawn?

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