Right now, there are two 16-year-old girls half a world apart attempting to something extraordinary — sail alone around the world non-stop and without assistance from anyone. Other people have done that before, but these two young ladies are both aiming to become the youngest to ever accomplish the feat.
At first glance, this might not sound like something that belongs in a blog about wilderness and urban survival, but I assure you that it goes to the very core of this subject. Stick with me and I'll explain. I'm going to tell the story of these two girls and then make a prediction that is directly related to the main topic of survival.
Jessica Watson was the first to leave on her record-breaking attempt. She's sailing a Sparkman and Stephens 34, a classic design that was literally torn apart and put back together to prepare it for the rigors of a 23,000-mile trip around the world. Onboard, Jessica has everything she needs to last her for the estimated 8-month voyage, because she is not permitted to stop to resupply, nor to accept the assistance of anyone. She sailed out of Sydney, Australia on October 19, 2009 and set her course northeast to cross the equator over and back (one of the rules is that she must cross the equator twice) and then she headed southeast to Cape Horn. She made the monumental passage around the cape on January 13, 2010. Alone on a 34-foot boat, having not seen another human being for 3 months, she sail around the most notorious place on earth. It wasn't until 3 days later that she commented on this huge event in her blog. She was excited, of course, but in a reserved sort of way that is not common to 16-year-olds. On January 24, 2010 the boat was pummeled by a storm and waves that knocked her completely over. As a sailor myself, and having been in some frightening storms that nearly put my mast in the water, I can imagine how terrifying these knockdowns (there were 3) were for her, alone in the middle of the south Atlantic, thousands of miles from help. What did she say about it in her blog? "…I have been having a very interesting time out here." Then she went on to describe the drama that unfolded as her boat was knocked completely upside-down, damaging some equipment and scattering everything inside the boat. All she could do was hang on for the ride and let the boat come back upright. "It was certainly one of those times when you start questioning exactly why you're doing this, but at no point could I not answer my own question with a long list of reasons why the tough times like that aren't totally worth it!" During the knockdowns, the EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) that is automatically activated when it goes underwater sent a signal to rescue agencies, and they in turn contacted Jessica's mom and dad back in Australia with the bad news. "Luckily I called in only a few minutes later before anyone could really start to panic. I was pretty annoyed at the stupid thing for going off and giving everyone such a scare!" Right now, she's on approach to her rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, and from there it will be a shot across the southern Indian Ocean back to her starting point in Sydney.
Will she make it? I've been following her adventure since day-one, and have been blown away by her competence as a sailor, the readiness of her vessel, but more than anything by her level of maturity. It shows up in the thing she shares on her blog, the way she handles problems, the way she analyzes conditions, the way she plans for the next several steps in the voyage based on forecast conditions. She is on top of her game, and is handling it like a champ. More than anything, she is handling the isolation and the psychological challenge of being totally alone and out of reach of anyone who can lend her a hand. She knows (and knew going into this) that if something goes wrong, she's on her own to survive it, to repair it, to do without — whatever.
Now for the second young lady sailor. Her name is Abby Sunderland. She is from southern California, and just last year her brother Zac set the record for being the youngest solo circumnavigator in a sailboat he and his dad tore down and rebuilt. Zac was 17 at the time; Abby is 16, so she's out to break her brother's record (although it was actually broken a month after it was set, by a Brit who was also 17 but a few months younger than Zac). Abby is attempting to do the same thing Jessica is, sail alone around the world, non-stop and unassisted. That's different from what the guys did last year, because they both stopped to make repairs and received assistance from outside sources. So Abby's and Jessica's record attempts are harder than what the boys did. And here's the deal; Abby is a few months younger than Jessica, so if Jessica captures the record, she might hold it only long enough for Abby to come along behind and break it. But the big question is: Will Abby make it? I have to admit that, although I am cheering her on, I am starting to be skeptical about her chances for success, and here's why. Even though Abby has a lifetime of sailing experience, and her boat is we'll prepared, I'm starting to see chinks in her psychological armor. Unlike Jessica who has been out for nearly 4 months, Abby has been out for only 21 days, and already she had to abandon the voyage once and do a re-start. Eight days out, she decided she was having problems with the solar/battery electrical system on the boat and was having to run the engine to charge the batteries. She can't carry enough fuel to do that all the way around the world, so she opted to pull in at Cabo San Lucas and have her dad fly down with a team to make some changes to the boat. That doesn't kill her chances at the record though because she hadn't crossed the equator yet. All it did was move the start/finish line from southern California to Cabo San Lucas. If she circles the globe and ends up back at Cabo, she succeeds. But here's the catch, and Latitude 38 (a San Francisco-based sailing magazine) commented on this same concern — what the heck is consuming so much electricity on that boat that a bunch of solar panel and 2 wind generators can't keep up? Is she watching TV and playing the stereo and running a blow drier and keeping all the lights on all the time? What the heck is going on? Well, I gave her the benefit of the doubt before her repair stopover in Cabo because I figured maybe something had gone wrong with the system and it wasn't her fault. But then came her report today. She's only a week out of Cabo and already it's back to the same old story. "The sun came out today and it was a very nice change from all the clouds. It was nice to have my solar panels charging rather than running my engine." It's stuff like this that makes me think Abby is not going to make it all the way around the world. Obviously she is burning up the electricity faster than the panels and 2 wind generators can produce it. That leaves me to conclude that either there is something still wrong with the boat's charging systems, or she is not willing to make some comfort sacrifices.
As an outside observer, not knowing exactly what is happening on Abby's boat, I am concerned. Although I am cheering her on, not only for her own sake but because this is an awesome undertaking and I love to see people succeed with their goals. I don't want to sound like I'm being critical of Abby, but there is something nagging at the back of my mind that says this isn't about electricity — it's about maturity. Do I hope she makes it? Yeah. Do I think she will? If I had to bet on the outcome today, I wouldn't gamble on it.
So what does all this have to do with you and your chances for survival in a wilderness or urban crisis? It isn't about age, physical size or strength, or academic learning. Yes, there is the physical elements of being able to build a fire, erect shelter, and all that stuff. But way more important than that is the mental game. I don't mean the academic mental game, I mean the psychological mental game. It's all about maturity. Survival living is not like being back home with all the comforts and conveniences. You can't expect to sit down and watch TV or use a hair drier or microwave oven when you're in a survival situation. Anyone not mature enough to realize that, and live with it, probably won't make it.