Giving Family Voyaging (And Adventure) New Meaning

James Berwick plans to cross the North Atlantic with his nine-month-old baby in tow. So how young is too young, now?

I'm struggling with this one. On the one hand, I love the idea of family sailing, and I love the idea of getting young kids outside the protective bubble of our climate-controlled, over-protective, soul-sapping culture and introducing them to the grand thrill of adventure. On the other hand, I have enormous respect for the power and unpredictability of the North Atlantic, and the violence that can befall small sailboats trying to cross its vast reaches. So when I think about James Berwick, currently on his way from Maine to France aboard his Open 40 Anasazi Girl, I'm conflicted. Berwick is an enormously experienced solo sailor, and clearly an excellent and careful seaman. But this voyage is a family voyage. And in this case, "family" means it includes two young children, ages 3 years and (gulp) 9 months.



The ostensible reason for Berwick's latest adventure is to set an "unofficial" crewed record, from Portland, Maine, to the Port of Caen in Normandy, France. But my guess is that the voyage is not really about a record (that's just to give it some sizzle), but instead is about family, voyaging, and the rejection of modern constraints on the nature of adventure. That puts it straight into the realm of Abby Sunderland, Jessica Watson, and every other sub-adult that has gone to sea. It raises the ageless question: how young is too young? But it does it in a different, and perhaps even more important, way.

While Abby, Jessica, and even Tania Aebi sparked debate about parental involvement and pressure, most teenagers, as any parent of one will tell you, have a will of their own. They make choices, and they can say no (and do, frequently). Berwick's voyage also raises a question of parental judgement, but it involves children who are so young the full responsibility of the decision-making falls on their parents (also aboard is Somira Sao(below)).

Now I don't know what the modern record is for the youngest child to sail across the Atlantic. Probably very young. But most seriously young kiddie cruising has no doubt taken place in gentler climes than the North Atlantic. And if I was thinking about taking two rugrats across an ocean known for gales, ice, and rough weather, I would think long and hard, as I am sure Berwick and Sao did. Here, for example, is the seabed that has been set up for little Raivo:

But this video shows what the high-performance Anasazi Girl looks like in gale-force weather. No doubt Berwick plans to use Anasazi Girl's speed to avoid any gales, but one thing that's always true about ocean voyaging is that you can never guarantee your weather. So it's easy to imagine situations where Berwick and perhaps Sao will need to tend to the boat. And that makes me wonder what the kids will be doing, and how they will be secured. And you can imagine a million other questions (When will they be allowed on deck? How will they be secured? What if they get seriously seasick?) that need to be thought through.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is Berwick's and Sao's confidence in themselves, their boat, and what sort of risk they are willing to take with their kids to deliver an experience that could be life-forming. While most of us might have doubts about the wisdom of such a voyage with very small children, I respect Berwick's and Sao's right to make their own choices for their family. And I even admire their ambition, and their determination to raise their children in a world in which adventure is the founding narrative, and good judgement and self-reliance are core values. So I wish them an excellent voyage, and pray that nothing unexpected or regrettable mars the experience. Because the consequences if anything goes wrong—in a culture of cable-news, snap judgements, and tabloid terrorizing—will be unbearable.

You can follow along (though there doesn't seem to be a lot of updating going on) on the Anasazi Girl blog.