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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Risk not necessarily a bad thing

Recently 16-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempt to solo sail around the world cake to it’s final end as she was picked up in the Indian Ocean by a French vessel after a storm carried away her mast and left her boat disabled.

Her father, a shipwright and sailing instructor from Los Angeles has come under heavy criticism for allowing her to attempt the voyage and both have been criticized for poor planning. This is winter in the Indian Ocean and apparently it’s a bad place to be this time of year.

Additionally, her father Laurence Sunderland has signed a contract to do a reality show about his family.

This was, obviously, a dangerous voyage, especially for a 16-year-old. However, her older brother briefly held the world record for the youngest solo sail around the world before an Australian girl, also 16, took the record earlier this year.

One can debate whether or not this was a good idea for a girl this young, or the wisdom of the route she chose or even if this was a publicity stunt or not.

However, it does point up a question worth reflecting on.

When, as a society did we become so risk averse?

More importantly, what does it say about us?

We are a nation which historically has been the haunt of bold adventurers. We sent pioneers across the continent when roughly 10 percent died on the way to Oregon. Lewis and Clark set out to explore the interior knowing there was a good chance they would never return.

In the 1960s astronauts strapped themselves atop missiles filled with high-explosives and built by the lowest bidder and blasted into space mostly because they could. Some of them didn’t come back.


The Space Shuttle, just as an example, has a remarkable safety record. There have been exactly two fatal accidents in over 100 flights. And yet in both instances we have shut the fleet down for years — and now there is no replacement on the horizon.

We took hundreds of thousands of casualties in World War II, but in Somalia the death of just a few soldiers forced us out — soldiers who knew and accepted the risks when they signed up.

We pass restrictive regulation after restrictive regulation, all in the name of safety.

“If it saves only one life,” the refrain goes.

The problem with this is two fold.

First, of course, is the restrictions to our freedom from seatbelt laws to helmet laws which take away the right of people to asses the risks and make informed decisions of their own what risks they’re willing to accept.

Second, is a society which is increasingly afraid of it’s own shadow.

No one wore bicycle helmets when I was a kid. Most of us, like 99.9 percent or more, did just fine thank you, no major injuries. Not one of us died, or suffered brain damage.

At 15 I learned to ride a motorcycle. My mother was worried, but said so long as I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCourse to learn how to ride as safely as possible she’d back me.

About a year later, at 16, I was on my way to work when a car turned left in front of me and I went over it’s hood.

I broke my wrist, and as soon as it healed up I was back on a motorcycle.

Life is risk. You can die getting out of the shower. Statistically, your house is the most dangerous place you are all day.

We must stop trying to eliminate all risk from the world. We do ourselves and our children no favors by trying to keep them safe at all costs.

Some things are worth fighting and aye, dying for.

Some things cannot be achieved without putting it all on the line.

In 1988 I read an essay in Cycle World Magazine titled “A Sense of Drama.”

Near the end of the essay the author said it far better than I ever could, and more than 20 years later the words still ring in my head.

“A motorcyclist, or a mountain climber or a sky diver holds his life in his hands, and in that sweet grasp he learns to love who he is, and even the limits which define him.”


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