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Robin Lee Graham on the Latest Teen Circumnavs

By Michael E. Petrie August 2010 SAIL Magazine

In July 1965, at the tender age of 16, Robin Lee Graham set out on a 33,000 mile, five year circumnavigation as the youngest solo sailor in the smallest boat: a Bill Lapworth designed 24 foot sloop named Dove. His voyage was famously covered by National Geographic Magazine, spawned two best selling books – Dove and Home Is The Sailor – a children’s book, The Boy Who Sailed Around The World Alone and a 1974 major Hollywood movie, The Dove, which won a Golden Globe Award.

There now appears to be another generation of teenagers trying to set their own records and garner whatever fame may accompany such feats. In 2009, Zac Sunderland became the first person under age 18 to successfully complete a circumnavigation, an achievement that has since been matched by Brit Michael Perham, age 17 and Australian Jessica Watson, age 16. Not to mention, Jordan Romero, at age 13, became the youngest climber to conquer Mt. Everest. But it was the failed attempt to sail the globe by 16 year old Abby Sunderland, Zac Sunderland’s sister, her dismasting in the Indian Ocean in June 2010, and her subsequent rescue by a French fishing boat that seems to be raising considerable controversy: Should parents be allowing their teenage children to tackle such dangerous challenges?

Robin Lee Graham

Not surprisingly, the race to be the youngest has sparked enough controversy that the World Sailing Speed Record Council no longer recognizes these age-related records. To get some perspective on the phenomenon, who better to ask than the “teenager” who started it all, Robin Lee Graham? So, I contacted the now 61 year old Robin and his wife, Patti, at their home in Montana.

SAIL: What are your thoughts about this trend of teens climbing mountains and sailing solo around the world?

Graham: In general? How can this be a bad thing? The American spirit of adventure is apparently alive and well. America is a place where anyone of any age can try to capture whatever goal they set for themselves.

SAIL: You sailed around the world as a teen, but now that you’re an adult and have two grown children of your own, and even three grandchildren, do you still think it’s a good idea for someone so young to be subjected to the dangers involved in chasing such goals? Take, for instance, Abby Sunderland who was dismasted in the Indian Ocean and had to be rescued.

Graham: I had a lot of knowledge and experience before I set sail alone around the world. I could navigate, was a competent sailor, and already had a lot of blue water experience cruising with my family. I had the strong desire to do it, and knew I was capable of doing it. From what I’ve read, it sounds like Abby Sunderland has all those same attributes. I’m sorry her voyage was not successful. But storms at sea happen. I doubt her age was the problem. If my kids had that same knowledge and desire, I’d say go ahead, realize your dreams. It’s totally individualistic. One person might be able to do it at age 16, another at 40. A lot of people are never equipped to solo sail. You have to know yourself.

Abby SunderlandSAIL: But does anyone truly know themself at such a young age?

Graham: Good point, but a parent knows. A parent, a good parent, knows their child better than the child knows themself. Who better to know whether a young person is ready for such responsibility than their parent? Sure, there are bad parents with bad judgement. But a good parent knows their child and knows whether their son or daughter can handle it.

SAIL: Yet, your own mother was against you voyaging solo. In your book you discuss how she actually hired a lawyer to try and stop you from setting sail.

Graham: As a parent myself, I have empathy. But, even though we cruised extensively as a family when I was growing up, my mother was never really a sailor. Sailing was my father’s passion, and mine. Mom never really understood the whole “lure of the sea” thing. So when I wanted to sail around the world, she just didn’t understand. But once I actually was on my way, she became very supportive. I’d call her on a ham radio rig from various ports, and she was always very encouraging. But it’s a parent’s job to worry. My mom is 88 and still worries about me.

SAIL: So, what do you say to those who might claim it is bad parenting to allow a son or daughter to pursue their passion when that passion leads the child into dangerous situations?

Graham: It’s just not cut and dried. Each child is different. Being a good parent means understanding your child. Understanding whether they have a strong enough desire to overcome adversity and whether they have the skills, knowledge and maturity to accomplish their goals.



Reader Comments

Posted Sun Aug22, 2010, 12:23 PM — By Louis Bullard

Robin Lee Graham helped to shape my ambition as a sailor. Not being from a sailing family, I could only watch from the sidelines and dream. I value his insights and opinions and I am glad you had the inspiration to ask him to contribute. I would have difficulty encouraging my daughter to sail around the world (she is 10 years old)at this time, but if she was devoted enough to develop the skills and attitude, I would hope to be open-minded enough to help her realize her dreams. That is a parent's responsibility too.


Posted Thu Sep 9, 2010, 10:04 AM — By Karin Berryman

It's so good to hear from Robin Lee Graham again! He and his wife Patti look extremely well I'm very happy to note. He inspired me to grasp my opportunities for travel with his courageous, but thoroughly prepared, commitment to the ultimate adventure of setting your sails! To sail around the world non-stop for the sake of achieving it at the youngest age though is a pity. Encountering danger in the form of other marine craft, storms, dangerous currents and possibly marine animals is definitely adventurous. Seems a shame to me though that these young sailors missed their opportunity to visit the islands and countries along the way with the wealth of culture and character Robin Lee Graham enjoyed and conveyed to his readers. How much better educated and enriched these junior sailors would be if they could have island tripped, met and mingled!


Posted Sun Sep19, 2010, 12:20 PM — By stan

Always wondered what happened to Robin Graham. Really enjoyed this peice. Well done.


Posted Sun Sep19, 2010, 8:20 PM — By Allison

Robin Lee Graham is one of sailing's greatest living legends and it was wonderful to read about him once again after a long absence. More than 20 years ago an old boyfriend gave me a copy of the book Dove and I fell in love with it. First I think I loved it as a love story. I fantasized about being the girl who flowed her man from port to port all over the world, praying for his safe return to me. A second or third reading got me fantasizing myself to be the actual sailor crossing oceans in a small boat and that's what got me hooked on sailing. Today my husband (not the same guy as the old boyfriend ... I wonder what ever happened to him) and my son and I make up an avid sailing family. All because of Robin's book. Thank you Robin Lee Graham. And thank you Sail magazine for reviving this memory of a most inspirational young sailor.


Posted Tue Sep21, 2010, 11:11 PM — By Paul the landlubber

This is an excellent article and interview. Michael Petrie delved deeper into the story behind the story that mainstream media missed. It beckons to an instinct to explore the stuff we are made of and when people did things more for internal discovery as opposed to outer fame and fortune. Petrie really touches on stuff that goes beyond the world of sailing.


Posted Mon Sep27, 2010, 7:09 PM — By Laura Alger

25 years ago my son read Robin Lee Graham's children's book The Boy Who Sailed Around The World Alone and it was one of his favorites. Mine too. So I really enjoyed reading this article about Robin Graham and knowing that he is still alive and well.


Posted Thu Sep30, 2010, 4:23 PM — By Lon

For readers like me who devoured Robin's books (yup, both of 'em) back in the day, this is one of those rare pieces with perfect timing; newsworthy and current as to the context of the piece (the 'Abby' controversy), interesting to see that Robin is alive and well as it touches on being a 'where is he now' piece (although far too briefly, Id like to know a bit more), and his advice to parents, and to adventure seekers of all ages; timeless.


Posted Sun Dec 5, 2010, 8:15 AM — By Frederick Corey

I, too, am thrilled to hear of Robin and Patti and that they're doing well. I'm now 55 and preparing my boat for Pitcairn sailing. As a youngster, I flunked out of college, made my way to St. Thomas, lived on a boat and found Robin's DOVE nearby. It was a mess! 'Course I just have a Caliber 28, but I'm making it ocean-worthy and will see the same sunsets and dive the same reefs as the fatcat crowd. My thanks to Robin Lee, Herb Payson, Capt. Fatty, Fritz Seyfarth and Dave and Jaja, for inspiration. My dream is finally coming true and I'll sail as far as my boat will take me...


Posted Thu Dec23, 2010, 4:52 PM — By Sam Merrifield

Robin Lee Graham was my inspiration - I followed his adventure in National Geographic; and then made the decision - if he could do it, so could I. Problem was: I was then in my mid 30's with 6 children! Well, to make a long story short, 6 years later we took a 14 month sabbatical:my reluctant wife, 6 children (ages 6 - 19) and I sailed freely (confined to the western hemisphere) aboard our steel, 2-masted schooner. It was an exciting, adventurous, and exhilarating experience - one in which the entire family reminisces on today. Like Robin, we returned to the land (but we have deep memories).


Posted Wed Dec29, 2010, 6:21 PM — By Martin

I've probably read Dove a dozen times from cover to cover (also read Home Is The Sailor a couple of times) and saw the movie The Dove at least a dozen times. In my late teens, I'd take my dates to see that movie - and if they did not show proper excitement for sailing & cruising to distant lands, that would be our last date. If they passed the movie test, I'd give them a copy of the book to read. Robin Graham was my litmus test for finding the right girl/woman. Often the best made plans do not work the way intended ... I married a seasick landlubber who only tolerates sailing. Oh well ... love conquers all. Luckily,our kids always enjoyed sailing our family boat, so all was not lost. LOL. Loved reading about Robin Lee Graham again after such a way too looongg absence!!


Posted Sat Mar12, 2011, 9:59 PM — By (none)

I guess someone could come up with a video game called Teen Solo Circumnavigation. But then kids already get criticized enough for sitting around the house doing nothing.


Posted Wed Mar23, 2011, 8:29 PM — By Dr. G

Great writing ... I followed Robins adventures in National Geographic at the time. Being just three months younger I dreamed it was me! Just five years after his departure from the Ala Wai in Honolulu I was living aboard my own boat in the Ala Wai and though I never sailed beyond Hawaii I sailed thousands of miles amoung the islands for over twenty years. Thanks Robin and Patti ... I wouldn't have lived that life without your inspiration ... Wonderful to know your doing well.. Peace, and God Bless


Posted Sun Mar27, 2011, 7:27 PM — By (none)John Robirds

(none)Enjoyed the information on Lee Graham. We were childhood playmates while he lived in Baywood Park California. At that time he was sailing a 8ft pram which he would capsize just for fun. I was very saddened when his family move away I lost a great friend. We both love being on the water. I followed his adventures in National Geographic at the time. I went on to serve 30 yrs in the US Navy sailing seas on big aircraft carries. I still dream of sailing on Morro Bay as a young boy with Robin very happy days. Thanks for the memories LEE.


Posted Thu Apr14, 2011, 1:18 PM — By Jack Bunnell

I first read Dove my Jr year in college in 1972 (and of course followed the Nal Geo articles). As a result of the Book, I bought a boat, got married, lived aboard and had three kids, then we moved ashore. We sent my son's book, Robin Lee Graham's children's book The Boy Who Sailed Around The World Alone, to Robin in Montana in 1988, asking for an autograph. He signed it with a nice note and returned it. My son is 27 now and still treasures the book. My son now works in the sailing boat industry and has more ocean miles than I can only dream about. RLG had a great influence on this family.


Posted Mon May23, 2011, 2:27 AM — By (none)
i am 51 years old and still have the original National Geographic my parents had of Robins journey. It inspired me then and still does today. Robin is one amazing person in addition to an amazing sailor. I wish him and his wife well. God bless.

Posted Thu Jun 2, 2011, 11:33 PM — By Burton Hughes
I'm 53 years old and was living in a rural part of the Big Island of Hawaii (South Point) when Robin was half way around the world in his circumnavigation. Without electricity, we spent a lot of time reading -- and following Robin's adventure in National Geographic. After returning to the mainland my parents sold the family home and moved my twin sister and me onto a 30 ft sloop during our high school years. I have always loved the sea and after three children and thirty five years of marriage I've finally made my way home-- just recently acquiring a 29 foot sloop. My grown son and I are planning our transpacific trip back to the islands with the inspiration of RLG, the Dove, and the Lord. The name of my boat...Manuku. Hawaiian for Dove. God bless you Robin and Patti! Shalom.

Posted Mon Jul25, 2011, 11:04 PM — By Jeffrey C Cox
So good to catch up with how Robin and Patti are today. I was building my Herreschoff H28 yacht in 1975-77 and Robin's book was my inspiration. Then I saw the film and named my yacht "Summer Wind" after the song "Sail the Summer Winds". Borrowed the Nat Geo mags to read the stories. For the last five years I searched many secondhand bookstores to find those three editions, finally finding two of them in an antique store, then the last one was just sitting on the top of a pile of Nat Geos in another antique shop. I was elated to get them again. Sold Summer Wind in '85 after marrying a non-sailor! Best of luck to Robin and Patti. Jeff C Cox Hastings Australia.

Posted Thu Aug11, 2011, 2:08 PM — By Tim Pattison

I came to the Dove story by way of the movie in the mid 70's, drawn by the adventure, the wide world, the pretty girl, the testing of the sea. I have read the book and have seen the movie many times since (love the cheesy 70's vibe!)and sail a 14 foot West Wight Potter pocket cruiser. I'm leaving tomorrow for a solo circumnavigation... of Washington's San Juan Islands. Thanks all for the ongoing story! Pattison, Bellingham, Washington


Posted Thu Aug 18,2011,10:10AM -- By Stan the Man

How totally refreshing to read this! While many of this generation spent their youth on drug-induced psychedelic trips to nowhere, frolicking in free love, getting wasted at rock concerts, contemplating their navels looking for the meaning of life, and likely have only fractured memories of it all ... THIS baby boomer was on a REAL trip to REAL and exciting places, found TRUE LOVE rather than just meaningless free love, explored many other cultures around the globe who give real meaning to life, listened to the natural concerts of whales & the ocean, and has a world of wondrous memories recorded forever in his book. Baby boomers are a adventurous generation, I only wish more of us had directed those adventures in the more positive direction as did Graham. Really great to read this. Thank you.


Posted Mon Feb 13, 2012, 11:19 AM -- By Megan

Baby Boomers had the Beatles and Rolling Stones. And those of us who are sailors, who love the sea and thrive on adventure, had Robin Lee Graham. To us, RLG was as huge as those rock performers. After so many years out of the world spotlight, I am so very happy to read this update, to know he is alive and well (I'd heard some years back that he'd died in a motorcycle accident), to know that he and Patti are still together, and to read his views on this new generation of adventurers. Thanks for this, it was truly enjoyed.




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