Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keeping The Dream Afloat

Questions are being asked about the mishap which cut short Jessica Watson’s journey from Queensland to Sydney, which was a prelude to her planned attempt to become the youngest person to ever sail single handedly around the world. Naturally there are questions about just what exactly went wrong and led to the collision between her yacht and the bulk carrier “Silver Yang” on its way to China. There are questions about whether or not the yacht is appropriately equipped. There are questions about whether the Silver Yang was in some way at fault. But by far the biggest question seems to be about Jessica herself and whether or not at 16 she is up to the task before her, or if she is simply too young to be allowed to attempt such a dangerous adventure.

While it is right and proper to place importance on the matter of safety, there is always the risk of protecting ourselves and our children from potential harm so vigorously that we and they never actually do anything. We seem to live in a world where the fear of injury, and perhaps more accurately the fear of litigation, has resulted in playgrounds without monkey bars, warning labels on everything we touch, and a generation of kids who are not allowed to play outside and so grow up in front of an xbox. The truth is that if we try to avoid all risk, we actually hinder the development of our children, and reduce our capacity to function as a society.

Of course, setting out for a solo round the world voyage in a 10 metre yacht is a little different from playing on the jungle gym at the park. But let’s look at this logically. We let our kids loose in cars from when they turn 17. Despite the obvious dangers involved, and despite the disproportionate rate of death and injury in the age group, we haven’t outlawed P – plate drivers yet, and we are not likely to. If you can afford to pay for the training you can pick up your private pilot’s licence when you are 16, and that involves flying solo in a machine which can become very dangerous if you make a mistake and it falls out of the sky. And another Australian, Jesse Martin, was 17 when he became the youngest person to sail solo around the world, and he has been much admired as a result. Why should it be different for Jessica?

Is it because we have to draw a line somewhere, and while 17 is apparently acceptable, somehow being one year younger is not? Is it because Jessica is a girl and Jesse was a boy? Or is there some other reason? Of course, in most matters, we are not considered to be fully responsible for our own actions until we reach the age of 18, but that is not a rule which we have kept hard and fast. Far from it, in a society where 15 year olds can take it upon themselves to move out of home against their parents’ wishes, and make their own decisions about where they live, who they hang out with, and what they do with their time, why should we suddenly assume responsibility for a 16 year old who is trying to achieve something outstanding?

Instead of going out and binge drinking, dealing drugs or stealing from hard working citizens, Jessica is attempting to accomplish a significant achievement. It is to be hoped that her parents have done everything that they can to ensure that she is both competent and well equipped to undertake the task. It is to be hoped that if her ambitions exceed her abilities then there is someone in her life who can tell her that. It is to be hoped that the sponsors who have supported her bid have satisfied themselves as to her qualifications. But, in the end, it is for Jessica and her family to decide if she is up to the task, and whether the risks are worth the reward.

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