These days it seems like any young kid with a sailboat, boat insurance, and a dream can haul anchor and set out to sea to sail around the world. After all, the earth has been circumnavigated several times by teenagers, the youngest being barely seventeen years old. Had Abby Sunderland completed her voyage without losing her mast, the age to beat would have been sixteen. And Dutch girl Laura Dekker is currently getting ready to try at the age of 14.
So what kind of parent in their right mind would allow a teenager to leave home, get on board a sailing ship and sail across the ocean? While the thought drives most of us parents crazy today, the truth is it really wasn’t so long ago when fourteen to sixteen year olds routinely left home to start their sailing careers.
Before steam ships and diesel liners sent the Age of Sail to Davey Jones’ Locker, most sailing ships had a cabin boy. This cabin boy, whose duties included running messages for the Captain and other officers, swabbing the decks, helping the ship’s cook, and even trimming the sails and manning the helm, generally started his career between the ages of fourteen and sixteen.
Often times, cabin boys were groomed for future leadership aboard sailing vessels. Who better to serve as a ship’s officer than someone who had been sailing since he was a teenager? So, from the 1500s through the mid 1800s, sending your teenager off to sea was often a good way to start him off on a promising career path. Kind of like sending him off to college early. By the time he was a young man, he knew a little bit of everything from how to steer the ship to what kind of boat insurance was needed to cover an ocean voyage.
So next time you shake your head and wonder how any parent could let their teenaged sons or daughters get on a sailboat by themselves to cross the world’s oceans, stop and think about it. As little as one hundred fifty years ago, parents might have shaken their head about how most of us could allow such an opportunity to pass us by.
Photo via ePi.Longo