Australian search and rescue finds US teenager safe but dismasted. Now for the questions...

American teen sailor Abby Sunderland has been found safe and well aboard her dismasted Open 40 Wildeyes.

A big search and rescue mission was put in motion yesterday afternoon when her EPIRB went off. Her parents, British boatbuilder Laurence Sunderland and his wife Marianne, had been talking to the teenager, who set off in January to try to break the record for the youngest to sail solo round the world.

Laurence Sunderland told reporters that the manually operated EPIRB that had gone off was one attached to her survival suit and was to have been used in the liferaft. At the time Abby was north-east of the Kerguelen Islands and around 2,000 miles west-south-west of Perth.

She had reported big seas and winds of up to 60 knots the day beforehand and had been knocked down several times. Her parents had been talking to her on the phone when they were cut off, and a short time later the Coastguard MRCC at Réunion received a relay from her EPIRB beacon.

An Australian search and rescue team flew the area over the area in a plane chartered from Qantas and made radio contact with her. An Australian Navy ship is also reported to be en route to her position.

The SAR team reported that her boat, Wildeyes, has lost its rig and is disabled, but that Abby was aboard and is safe. A French fishing vessel is around 24 hours away.

Inevitably, now come the questions about the wisdom of encouraging ever younger teenagers to break publicity-seeking records. Most people involved in sailing have deep reservations about this – so much so that the World Speed Sailing Record Council have struck off the ‘youngest’ record from their books for fear of glorifying it.

There has been a long-held view among those of us who have followed these records that the proliferation of them, a direct result of publicity, will sooner or later lead to a tragedy.

But all these young sailors deserve to considered individually. In fairness to Abby Sunderland she comes from a sailing family. She and her elder brother Zac, who briefly held the youngest title last year, grew up aboard their parents’ boat as they cruised round the world. They were taught on board and have lived most of their lives at sea.

You have to look, too, at the success rate of these bright, energetic, self-motivated teenagers. Since 1996, six teenaged sailors have had a go at it. In order: David Dicks (AUS), 18; Jesse Martin (AUS), 18; Zac Sunderland (US), 17; Mike Perham (GBR) 17; Jessica Watson (AUS), 16; and now Abby Sunderland, also 16.

Of those six none has ever got into any kind of serious trouble or needed rescue. Taken as a group, their safety record beats the professional solo sailors of the Vendée Globe.

Why should we apply different standards to teenage sailors just because they happen to be younger? You either have the skills and experience or you don’t and age is not necessarily a fair guide.

Should we then also apply the same criterion to the British sailor who had to be rescued from his cruising yacht yesterday when the steering failed? His crew were all evacuated by a ship. He is aged 75. Is that too old? Or is age, as I believe, the least relevant factor?

No doubt debate will rage on. From a sailor’s perspective, perhaps the biggest question was what exactly was Abby Sunderland doing down near the Kerguelen Islands in June? This is the Southern Ocean winter, for goodness sake, and it’s a place to stay well away from.