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'My 16-Year-Old Is Sailing Around the World Solo'

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Marianne Sunderland, mom of 7 with one on the way, tells us why she lets her kids follow their dreams.

Abby Sunderland

Sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland is alone on a nonstop around-the-world trip aboard her sailboat, Wild Eyes. If she succeeds, she will be the youngest person to circumnavigate the world solo.

Her brother, Zac Sunderland, was the youngest to sail around the world alone last year, at age 17.

As we read of these teens and their incredible adventures, we were dying to talk to their mom. What an incredible person she must be to have raised two such brave and capable kids!

We talked with Marianne Sunderland, mom of seven kids whose ages range from 2 to 18, plus one on the way, to learn the secrets of her parenting success.

Momlogic: You've sent two kids out to sea. How are the experiences different with Zac and Abby?

Marianne: It's a little bit different, but a mom's a mom. The core feelings are the same. When Zac would call for his daily check-ins, I would make sure I would listen very well, and that we were really connecting. With Abby, she is a little quieter than Zac. I have to pull things out of her, like, "How does the food taste?" and "How are you sleeping?" Zac would just tell me these things ... with Abby, I have to drag them out of her a bit more.

ML: You must be very adventurous parents, to have two kids who wanted to sail the world solo.

Marianne: We are pretty adventurous people for sure. We lived on boats and traveled a lot when Zac and Abby were younger. When we only had four kids, we lived on our own sailboat for three years in the islands of Mexico.

Doing that with small kids got to be a little too stressful. We were worried that the kids would fall in the water. Being in poor countries, we were afraid they were going to get sick, or get bitten by a dog or something. That's when we decided to move back to California into a house. But my husband buys boats and fixes them up all the time as part of his business as a shipwright.

I met my husband on Venice Beach, and the first thing he said was, "G'day!" He's British, but he'd been living in Australia. I knew this was someone I could travel the world with.

We are opposites. Education was very important to my upbringing. My grandmother had a master's degree and everyone in my family was highly educated. My husband Laurence was raised in a free environment, very entrepreneurial, not very good at school. He was on his own at 16. I was more traditional, whereas he was more of a "follow your passions" type of person. But we clicked.

ML: We heard you homeschool all your kids.

Marianne: Yes. We always thought we would homeschool. We wanted to travel and wanted the freedom. When Zac, our oldest, was 4 and a half, we became Christians and started going to a church where everybody homeschools. As a Christian in the world today, you can't go to a public school and have your values upheld. You can't talk about God.

Plus, we felt we could do a better job. School is mass production -- 30 kids to a classroom. Our kids have struggled with dyslexia, and that takes a lot of care and individual attention. We give them a lot of time to pursue things they are good at so they don't get wrapped up in their inabilities.

We don't "unschool," but we like to use their passions to help them learn. Kids will learn more if they're doing something they are interested in -- as opposed to just reading a textbook every evening.

ML: Did you plan to have such a big family?

Marianne: Not really. When Laurence and I got married, my mom said, "What's your dream wedding?" and I said I didn't have one. I had never really thought much about kids or weddings!

But when it came to our kids, Laurence and I never felt like we were finished. We thought God will give us how many we're supposed to have. Now when they are born, they just slide right into the program!

ML: How do you raise kids who are so brave and adventurous?

Marianne: Laurence is probably more responsible for that than I am. He has them take on responsibility at a young age. Laurence is not afraid to try things. He has spent so much time making it on his own. He was on his own at 16 in England in a depressed economy. He started his own businesses. He was so independent, and has kind of shown them that way.

We raise our children to be self-sufficient, but give them a net to fall back on. Before his round-the-world journey, we told Zac: "If you don't like this, you can stop ... don't feel like you have to continue. We can sell the boat, and we can get back the majority of the money. It would be fine.' But Zac said, 'I like this and I want to do this.'" He had our full support.

ML: How is Abby doing?

Marianne: She's got a steep learning curve. We've had a couple of technical problems we're having to troubleshoot with the electricians. Here, this 16-year-old is working with 50-something-year-old electrical engineers, telling her how to pull wires, etc.! She's got an incredible support team. They are good with her. They know she is tired, they know she is young, and they keep encouraging her.

ML: As a mom, how do you keep yourself from going sick with worry?

: Sometimes I wake up during the night and I think about what could happen and think of her out there alone on the ocean. I start to get nervous. But I believe that God controls the wind and the waves and whatever comes to her.

I hated watching Zac be uncomfortable and go through struggles, but he learned from those and was able to use the skills he gained later when he really hit bad weather or any sort of trouble.

I keep telling Abby she's encountering any glitches or problems for a reason, and it prepares her for the next thing. I said, "When weather is rough, or you've got an autopilot glitch later on, you are going to know this boat like the back of your hand."

ML: Do you think people are more critical of Abby sailing solo than they were of Zac, simply because she's a girl?

Marianne: I think that for some, there is a bit of a gender bias. Some people are more critical because she is a girl. And her route is more dangerous. But Zac got a lot of flak, too. I don't really see that as a major issue.

ML: How is Abby dealing with the sleep deprivation?

Marianne: She is adjusting to it. They get really tired, so they start to power-nap during the day. It takes a while to get into the rhythm.

ML: What would you say to other moms who are maybe too worried or nervous to let their kids follow their dreams?

Marianne: Look at your own life. Think about your kid in the future when they are in their late 30s or early 40s and have followed someone else's plan their entire time on the planet. They went to school, got a degree, got married, got a house. Maybe they're successful, but they're not really fulfilled. In the long run, they are going to be their own person. I think you have to remember that.

Believe me, I understand protectiveness. When Abby was here, we didn't let her walk her dogs by herself! So why are we letting her go around the world by herself when we wouldn't even let her go around the block by herself? She's not stopping anywhere!

I also think every kid is different, and every parent is different. Some are more prone to trouble than others. But Abby is a good kid, and I trust her completely.

I understand that need to protect, but you've got to let go at a certain point.

To follow Abby's adventures, read her blog here.

next: Which Toddler Wore it Best?!
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Elizabeth February 27, 2010, 9:17 AM

Wow, what brave parents and children! Although I could never do that, I find what they’re doing incredibly inspiring. They must have massive,real faith. I am praying for this family. Good luck to them!

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