Saturday, June 12, 2010

Of yachts and fundraisers

Like everyone else I was quite relieved to hear that 16 year-old sailer Abby Sunderland had been rescued in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless it raised an disturbing issue.

Two nights ago I attended a musical fund-raiser for Partners In Health -- a leading provider of medical aid to Haiti. Two bands and a chorus donated their talents, while a church contributed the venue and others provided printing, publicity, and sound mixing. The event produced about $10,000 in much-needed support.

At the same time, the Australian military provided several search planes to look for Ms. Sunderland. At tremendous cost these planes flew thousands of miles; other volunteers donated their time, and there was a commercial chartered airplane as well. This was all in support of a teenager who engaged in the challenge of being the youngest person to sail solo around the world -- a challenge so low in priority and importance that it would be invisible if not for Guiness Book of Records hype.

There's no doubt that sailing solo around the world involves considerable nautical skill. However, in the case of recent attempts by teeners, it also involves having a yacht at your disposal. We're not talking open rowboats here, but 40 foot, very expensive vessels, outfitted with the latest electronic equipment, and specially designed for a crew of one. And, if something goes wrong, who can deny emergency aid, at any cost, to the young skipper? The cost of such aid dwarfs by many orders of magnitude the amount of money raised for relief of the earthquake victims in Haiti.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have recreation and hobbies, but most of the diversions we engage in we pay for up front. Things like sporting events are enjoyed by millions on a voluntary basis. Yet around-the-world sails in quest of an artificial record have little to offer anyone except those wealthy enough to participate, and when something goes wrong, the rescue efforts are essentially coercive: you have to save the kid, after all.

Seems to me that anyone engaged in this kind of egotistic endeavor should be required to post a several million dollar bond to defray costs of rescue. This kind of up-front payment is already required in some parks where people engage in risky adventures like winter mountaineering. If folks want to compete for Guiness Glory they should be forced to pay for it themselves; the rest of us should be allowed to contribute to the rescue efforts of our choice.

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