In July 1965, at the age of 16, Robin Lee Graham set out on a 33,000-mile, five-year circumnavigation aboard his Bill Lapworth-designed 24ft sloop Dove. National Geographic magazine famously covered the voyage, which spawned two best-selling books—Dove and Home Is The Sailor—a children’s book and a 1974 Hollywood movie, The Dove.
In recent years, another generation of teenagers has set out to establish their own records. In 2009, Zac Sunderland became the first person under age 18 to successfully complete a circumnavigation, an achievement that has since been matched by Brit Michael Perham, age 17, and Australian Jessica Watson, age 16. In June, Sunderland’s 16-year-old sister, Abby, was dismasted and rescued in the Indian Ocean while attempting a circumnavigation of her own.
Not surprisingly, the race to be the youngest has sparked its share of controversy, and the World Sailing Speed Record Council no longer recognizes these age-related records. To get some perspective on the phenomenon, who better to ask than the “teenager” who started it all, Robin Lee Graham? I contacted Robin, now 61, and his wife, Patti, at their home in Montana.
SAIL:You sailed around the world as a teen, but now you’re an adult and have two grown children and three grandchildren. Do you still think it’s a good idea for someone so young to be subjected to the dangers involved in chasing such goals?
Graham: I had a lot of experience before I set sail. I could navigate, was a competent sailor and already had a lot of bluewater experience cruising with my family. I had the strong desire to do it, and knew I was capable of doing it. It sounds like Abby Sunderland has all those same attributes. I’m sorry her voyage was not successful. But storms at sea happen. I doubt her age was the problem. If my kids had that same knowledge and desire, I’d say go ahead, realize your dreams. It’s totally individualistic. One person might be able to do it at age 16, another at 40. A lot of people are never equipped to sail solo. You have to know yourself.
SAIL: But can anyone truly know who they are at such a young age?
Graham: Good point, but who better to know whether a young person is ready for such responsibility than a parent? Sure, there are bad parents with bad judgment. But a good parent knows their child and knows whether their son or daughter can handle it.
SAIL: Yet, your own mother was against you voyaging solo. In your book you discuss how she actually hired a lawyer to try and stop you from setting sail.
Graham: As a parent myself, I have empathy. But even though we cruised extensively as a family when I was growing up, my mother was never really a sailor. Sailing was my father’s passion, and mine. Mom never really understood the whole “lure of the sea” thing. So when I wanted to sail around the world, she just didn’t understand. But once I actually was on my way, she became very supportive. I’d call her on a ham radio rig from various ports, and she was always very encouraging. But it’s a parent’s job to worry. My mom is 88 and still worries about me.
SAIL: So, what do you say to those who might claim it is bad parenting to allow a son or daughter to pursue their passion when that passion leads them into dangerous situations?
RLG: It’s just not cut and dried. Each child is different. Being a good parent means understanding your child, understanding whether they have a strong enough desire to overcome adversity and whether they have the skills, knowledge and maturity to accomplish their goals.