The news about sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s recent rescue has everyone asking questions. Debates – mostly useless ones – about what her parents were thinking or the value of exploration and adventure will be what sailors talk about for a while. Abby will return to her home, do some interviews, maybe even hit a talk show or two and soon enough we’ll leave the Sunderland’s alone. Inquiries about her age and experience, or the decision to sail the Indian in Winter, and about the risks in general have most people who know me asking me what I think. I wanted to wait until after her rescue to weigh in because I knew what most people seemed to forget including my friends, and the media, and young Abby and certainly her relieved parents: Her heavy-weather, high-seas, ship to ship rescue would be the most dangerous part of her trip.
The now ubiquitous device that certainly saved Abby Sunderland’s life, the EPIRB, saves roughly 1,500 mariners every year (source: cospas-sarsat). As a former rescue professional I can’t help but love the things myself. Removing the “search” from search and rescue has made all the difference to imperiled sailors and rescuers alike. Less search time means increased chances for success and positive outcomes, so how could anyone not love and recommend the EPIRB? They are, to my mind, the single greatest advancement to safety at sea since John Harrison invented the marine chronometer. But – here it comes – they are also (again, to my mind) large contributors to maritime accidents – like Ms. Sunderland’s – and might be the thing that get’s some mariners into trouble to begin with. Yes, I said that. Sometimes, EPIRBS do more harm than good. Abby got lucky.
There is simply no way to imagine that the Sunderland’s decision to allow their sixteen-year-old daughter (and seventeen-year-old son before her) to venture out to sea alone was not influenced by the modern EPIRB. She was carrying two of them aboard. “Radio’s – check; SATCOM – check; Way to pinpoint your location and call for help if things go wrong? – check and check.” The electronic “Time-Out” button provides a LOT of comfort to all of us who go to sea and I’m certainly not complaining; again, I love the things. However, mariners need to address the growing and unspoken trend to rely on these devices as a replacement for an abundance of caution and judgment. Yes – I can see many of you throwing the yellow flags thinking that I don’t know what the Sunderland’s considered; and that I can’t know that they were using the EPIRB as a replacement for caution. Sorry, but I can. Does anyone truly believe that if there were no EPIRBS – the Sunderland’s would have sent their little girl out there…all alone? I don’t. What do I think? With everything I am I believe that this thought – “If anything goes wrong, she can always call for rescue” is what made it all feel o.k. to everyone involved with the decision to let her go. That thought has been at the root of more bad decisions and rolled around in the heads of those stranded at sea since the first year the devices hit the market. Abby Sunderland was just the latest case, not the first, and she definitely wont be the last.