Adolescents and adventure: How much is too much?
June 11th, 2010
02:12 PM ET

Adolescents and adventure: How much is too much?

The fact that Sutherland has been located is cause for celebration, but the concern and activity surrounding the search for a teenager allowed to sail alone across oceans brought this question to many people’s minds: Is this a good idea?

The answer: well, it depends
"Adolescents vary tremendously in regards to their judgment, maturity and the risks that they face in life," says Frederic Reamer, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College and a member of the National Association of Social Workers. "There are circumstances in parenting where virtually everyone would agree… and then there are circumstances like this where reasonable, thoughtful minds can differ tremendously," he says.

Abby Sunderland is not the first adolescent to embark on such a quest. And Reamer says children who complete these tasks can benefit from “a strong sense of accomplishment, competence and remarkable satisfaction,” and parents should not stifle their teen if they feel their child is mature and demonstrates good judgment.

In an interview with CNN shortly before her daughter set off on the around-the-world adventure, Sutherland’s mother, Marianne, did express concern over how her daughter would handle loneliness, but also said she felt Abby could handle the challenge. "The critics don't know Abby and what a good sailor she is. We know it's a risk, but also that with the right equipment and preparation, it's a very calculated risk”, she told CNN’s Anouk Lorie.

Others say hold on a minute
“I think its wonderful she wanted to take this on, but when you're responsible for helping a child to develop, you are gradually increasing the risk in their life,” says Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C.,  area, and a member of the American Psychological Association. “In this case, it sounds a lot like allowing a toddler to walk himself to school.” Weber encourages parents to consider everything their children come to them with, but only within boundaries.

Dr. Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology whose research at the Teachers College of Columbia University focuses on children of privilege, says the cultural context of American society often encourages parents to say “yes” to situations that could lead to harmful outcomes for their child. “There is this feeling that more is always better, and the more you can do and accomplish the better. But there needs to be limits,” she said in a phone conversation. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.”

Studies looking at the teenage brain show that adolescent brains are different from adults, and that certain areas impacting judgment may not be fully developed until they are in their twenties. Weber says the fact that the teenage brain is not developed, can put childredn at increased risk of being traumatized in dangerous situations. “If you're suddenly flooded by fear, that's when the frontal lobe needs to kick in, but for adolescents, it may not.”

A spokesperson from US Sail, the national governing body of sailing, says there are no age limits on an when a person is too young or too old to sail, but the most important thing is to be aware of safety requirements . "We’re happy that Abby is safe, and the fact that she was able to maintain herself in these conditions demonstrates she had a firm grasp of the guidelines."

In comments to CNN before her departure, Sutherland demonstrated a keen awareness of the challenges she could face.

“I know there is a possibility I could die. People die at sea all the time,” she admitted in the interview, adding “It's kind of terrifying to think about. But it is those thoughts that will keep me safe as they'll make me very careful.”

soundoff (277 Responses)
  1. PaulLD

    Comparisons to the past is ridiculous. Back in the 1800's, Mormons can mary many wives, child labor is rampant, girls get married off as soon as puberty hits, etc...COMPARISONS TO THE PAST DOESN"T APPLY BECAUSE WE ARE SUPPOSED TO KNOW BETTER BY NOW.
    I have kids and I want my daughter to succeed and feel accomplished but letting your 16-year old daughter to sail around the world alone just to be on the record books is a pure stupid, selfish, stunt more concerned about bragging rights than the overall benefit of anybody. Did the stunt benefit anybody besides the girl and her family? No. Did it inconvenience or even put other people's lives at risk because of this? yes?. If you are a parent, if there is a 50-50 chance your child might die if he/she does something, would you allow it? No. If the girl needs to sail around the world for 'self-esteem issues', then this is a failure of parenting right there. I say stick them with the rescue effort bill and investigate the parents for allowing this.

    June 12, 2010 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bill

    I, myself, have a place in the Guiness Book of Records, being the youngest member of my family to ever have had my arse whipped by my dad for doing stuff that wasn't even as dumb as this girl's trick.

    June 12, 2010 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Odalice Yolanda Feliz

    that's a crazy adventure....

    June 12, 2010 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Paul McKelvey

    Childhood is supposed to be a time to try things out safely. Parents are expected to use their experience and judgement to keep children out of situations that have a high risk of permanent consequences such as death. The fact that the child was able to avoid death this time is immaterial. If the girl had died in her circumnavigation attempt, would the parents placed her death in the "it happens" category? If so, perhaps they should not be responsible for the welfare of any children.

    June 12, 2010 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. h1

    Glad she is safe, but her parents made the comment before she started her journey that the ones who were critical about the trip were people who would die in their recliners watching TV. Well I wonder now if the ones sitting in their recliners are the ones who will be footing the bill for this rescue effort. Her parents should be just that -"parents". She is still a child in the eyes of the law and should have never been allowed to attempt such and endeavor alone.

    June 12, 2010 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rick In Atlanta

    You Go Girl! Power to you! We're all very proud of you ... How can I help sponsor your next trip? God Bless, take care, and no more rouge waves next time!

    June 12, 2010 at 18:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ed

    It's bad enough that some will give up their own freedom for safety, and, as Ben Franklin said, thus deserve neither. To go further and take away the freedom of others is the worst sort of tyranny. There is no need to defend the decision of Zack or Abby to challenge themselves against the sea, or to defend their parents' support and expert assistance. But those who condemn them must defend their own need to control others.

    June 12, 2010 at 18:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kate in DC

    Would all the scaredy-cat underachievers who would have never dared to do anything even remotely risky or adventurous in their lives please just keep your opinions to yourselves?

    There's a reason why mediocrity has become the new "standard" for civilization. All people do is totally ruin their children's chances of surviving in the world by making like ostriches.

    The world *is* and always *has* been a scary place, a dangerous place – that isn't going to change no matter how much people wish it otherwise.

    People need to wake up and re-evaluate their fears and stop projecting them on their kids.

    THAT's the real child abuse.

    June 12, 2010 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply


    June 12, 2010 at 18:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. kwag

    Well said, JinAz. To continue that thought, children have no reason and no outlet to be brave anymore. They have virtually no heroes, except soldiers who are taught to kill. Kids can't ride bikes without heavy gear because they might fall and hurt themselves; no playground equipment without rubber padding on the ground because of injury or lawsuits; no walking to the store because they either live in communities without walkable neighborhoods or they are driven everywhere; no cops-and-robbers play because a finger-fashioned 'gun' is either politically incorrect or a minority of society has decided for the majority that kids might grow up to be gang members or bank robbers. Abby's parents are clearly involved with, and available to, their children - all 7 1/2 of them. They've been taught to stretch, to try harder and go farther. They've been taught to make mistakes and learn from them. This is good and effective parenting. My kids were always told to 'take some risks today' - every day. They knew what I meant. Nothing dangerous or stupid, but stretch a little each day. They shared their experiences and sought my counsel every day. I knew where they were, who they were with and what they were doing every day. Discipline was teaching, not physical punishment. A parent can be in control without being controlling just by being there. Once, my grown children asked me what would be the worst thing they could tell me. I thought unwed pregnancy or cancer or jail, but all of those could be handled. I told them the worst thing they could tell me was that they wished I wasn't their mother. That is irretrievable. I'd never change a thing I did as a single parent because my kids, and many of their friends, are brave, giving, logical and effective adults. I'd encourage either of my kids to sail the world - as all children should be allowed to do.

    June 12, 2010 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. HS

    It was this girls goal....and no matter what age she is when she attempted it it would be just as dangerous. Why not let her do this when she is you and not weighed down with all the worries of adult life. This is probably the best time for her to do it.

    June 12, 2010 at 19:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. capncarrboro

    I had some choice words for all these nattering ninnies and buttinsky virtual helicopter parents, but I think 'floridagranny"s poignant missive says it all. And, to 'floridagranny': Maybe you can no longer sail around the world, but it's never too late to embark on your own adventure–Take it from an aging post-polio gimp.

    June 12, 2010 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Indymom

    I agree with the comments saying we cannot paint all kids with the same brush. Kudos to these parents for instilling the incredible amount of self confidence and courage this girl possesses. They obviously know their daughter very well and play a very active role in her development. More parents should be this way! Keep reaching for your dreams Abby! I, for one, am proud of you and your family.

    June 12, 2010 at 19:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Shirley

    I think that Abby's parents were very irresponsible. She could have been killed by the storm, kinapped or even been raped. Even though this was considered to be an adventure, the parents used very poor judgment. Frankly, I do not understand how they slept at night knowing quite well what their daughter might have encountered. Even an adult would have considered all the risks that I have mentioned before undertaking such an adventure. Very disturbing!

    June 12, 2010 at 19:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mark

    How about we stop 16 year olds from doing anything? As a matter of fact, lets not let any of them drive or ride in a car until they are thirty. Lets start charging everyone that gets in an accident for FULL refund to the police and fire that clean up, and maybe they should pay damages for those that are late to work because of the accident. Come on people, this is still America. Who cares what she does if it doesn't endanger you? It's her and her parents choice. It's far more that some of you lazy people have ever attempted. Oh, how about people pay for their own healthcare too if they ever have any risky behavior. What's the difference?

    June 12, 2010 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Mark

    meme, really take her away for actually doing something with her life. Grow up!

    June 12, 2010 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. chasm

    Someone asked me a while ago what is the single thing most wrong in the world today. To my surprise, I answered in an instant, "Not enough people inspiring others to greatness." Not sure where that came from, but thinking on it since then, I think it's right.

    Abby was trying something cool, challenging, dangerous, and monumental. The safest and soundest thing? Far from it. But somehow inspiring. I say, "Go for it, Abby." And thanks for giving us something to read about that's inspiring instead of dispiriting.

    June 12, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. SueK

    What if she was found by pirates and, heaven forbid, raped ? WOuld she blame her parents for letting her make this foolish decision, and not putting their foot down ? And who says they were prepared for everything ? If they were, they wouldn't be yelling "Help" to ten different authorities around the world. So much time and effort (of many ppl) wasted for so worthless an act.

    June 12, 2010 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Dr. Mama

    A parent's job is to protect a child and keep them safe until they are mature enough to decide for themselves which risks are worth taking. We've determined as a society that 18 is the age of maturity (even though recent research demonstrates that the teen frontal lobe isn't mature until about age 25).

    This child is 16. Not old enough. End of story.


    June 12, 2010 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. jimc

    Granted some 16 years old youth can successfully complete this circumnavigation. Zac, Mike Perham and just recently Jessica Watson. But they spent a great amount of time testing their boats and many trials and preparation time getting ready and waiting for the exact time of the year to leave so they would be in the various oceans at the proper time.
    Abby did all this is a few months. Purchase a never before seen boat, had little time on it and almost no sea trials. Certainly no time with this boat in any kinds of weather. Then she left at a time that would put her in the southern and indian oceans in the worst time of the year. THEY KNEW THAT! but she wanted to beat Jessica. It was not a personal challenge but the need for the Sunderlund family to have a world record. A world record that does not exist except in their own minds. Something the parents can use to further their own goals.

    Mr Sunderlund keeps stating Abbys Rescue is Priceless. In that case Mr. Sunderlund pay the expense. Hello!!! Hello!!! Mr. Sunderlund are you still there? Hello!

    June 12, 2010 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. HWMNBN

    Onedad wrote:

    "Here's a clue, Stacey. I won't encourage my daughter when she is a teenager to get pregnant and won't encourage my teenage son to go off to war. I also won't let me kids try to sail around the world when they are 16."

    To which I say: here's a clue, Onedad. I'm an alumnus of Harvard College. Every year, I interview high school students, generally 17 years old, who are applying to attend Harvard.

    The applicants I like are generally the ones who have done something extraordinary that their peers haven't - maybe that's a ground breaking science experiment, or working on a high-profile political campaign, or starting a small company. Or maybe that's doing a solo circumnavigation around the world.

    I can't say whether I'd recommend Abby for admission, since I only know of her through the headlines. I can say that I generally recommend applicants *like* Abby.

    The likes of your sheltered offspring, who have played it safe and done nothing to get noticed, won't be getting my recommendation. And I think it's safe to say that the admissions office of Harvard, and of other elite schools, thinks the same way. Leadership requires risk.

    June 12, 2010 at 21:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. HWMNBN

    luvcomments wrote:

    "People should realize that not all teens are American and, therefore, not undisciplined and inept. I came alone to the US at the age of 18, not knowing anyone here."

    Your comment is condescending at best, bigoted at worst. If you think that you'll find nary an "undisciplined" teen in Europe, I suggest you check out a few London high streets on your next jaunt across the pond.

    June 12, 2010 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. HWMNBN

    Floridagranny1 wrote:

    "I an sick now, unable to walk, may never get anywhere that I ever dreamt of, and I miss my life, the way it should have been..."

    Floridagranny, you should consult your doctor and check out some programs like Elderhostel to see if they can accommodate travel with your medical conditions. Seniors travel all the time these days, and you shouldn't assume that your age rules it out.

    June 12, 2010 at 21:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Simon Phoenix

    I think that it is a terrible idea! I am glad that the young lady was alive and alright, but I think it is a clear sign that she should either have somebody flying a plane watching over her to ensure she is alright, or she should just go back home for her own safety.

    June 12, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Kip

    Taking measured, calculated risks is what growing up and maturing is all about. As I get into my senior years, the memories of those risky moments are some of my most treasured memories. I don't think in this case the risk she took was inappropriate nor was the decision by her parents to allow her to do this inappropriate.

    1. She is an experienced sailor. 2. Her brother has already done the same trip. 3. Her parents are experienced sailors.

    It is none of our business nor CPS's business.

    June 12, 2010 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. john gitz

    For those who say the parents should pay for the rescue, let's be fair. Any rescue service should be charged for: police, fire, Coast Guard, whatever. Have a credit card reader available: no pay, no rescue. Bulldoze car accidents to the side of the road and let the drivers involved fend for themselves. No cash. no credit, no rescue.

    Also, any parent who allows a 16 year old to get behind the wheel of a car and drive should be brought up on charges and jailed. More teenagers die in car accidents than all adventure trips ever taken. What rational parent would allow a child of 16 or 17 to drive, a remarkably dangerous undertaking? Only reckless ones.

    Most people live their lives looking for safety, or at least the perception of safety. On their tombstones it will read: "Did nothing dangerous, led a long and safe conventional life." Fine, many of you have no courage, no way to take a step past what is comfortable. You raise your kids to be the same frightened cowards. How sad that is.

    Good work Abby. You decided to live your life rather than just hide until it's over. Good work Abby's parents, allowing your child to be brave and test herself regardless of the risk.

    June 12, 2010 at 22:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. nik

    i think there is a point where too much adventure is too much. but this person wanted to accomplish something that you know not many people would up and do. it dosnt matter if shes 18 being 18 doestn mean anything its just another label society puts on humanity to dictate what we can and cannot do. and this person didnt cross the barrier i wish that she was able to continue on her jouney to fullfill what she wanted to. i fully believe in what the proffesors and phycologists have said about this.

    June 12, 2010 at 22:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. nik

    and the fact that teenageers are pretty set apart from there parents and she talked to them about this and they believed in her and supported her tho whole way thru. i think thats love right there not bad parenting. yes they are there child but i think every parent would want there child to do something great with there lives

    June 12, 2010 at 22:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. davec

    How about if the fascist nanny state minds its own business? Leave us alone, we will do fine without you telling us how to live our lives.

    June 12, 2010 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Sane

    The "youngest to" adventure records setting need to regulated. The acknowledgment of age of minors in setting records of the kind that involve disproportionately high risk should be eliminated. Then, Abby and her parents would have done what was in the best interest of Abby (i.e. waited some time) and not put her in calculated harm's way sending her through the deep southern hemisphere in winter. Sure parents need to encourage their children to strive to stretch themselves, but this stunt was silly and also inevitably put the lives of the rescuers at risk. Also, it would be helpful to send the search and rescue bill to her parents. This would be a strong message and would put a stop to this silly teenage high risk arms race, and discourage attention seeking parents pushing their ever younger children to attempt dubious stunts.

    June 12, 2010 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. David

    xenoc is right on the money.

    The media should have a creed of ethics that refuses to report "youngest ever" records or attempts. Sponsors should refuse to support them. People following a young person's efforts should not "click" on those ads.... etc...

    Parents should be the ones who decide, along with their children. But in a vacum of zero media attention , and no long term "benefit", the screwed up parents would dissapate.

    There are times where such events are probably OK - true child prodegies do exist. They should be rewarded for what they acheived and NOT for the age at which they did it.

    Mozart wrote some good stuff at a tender age. But its not his age that made it good. Its that it was good!

    June 12, 2010 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Mike

    Someone made an excellent point here that we as a society have close to zero consistency when it comes to parenting and directing teenagers. It come from "I'll raise my kids how I want and the Devil take anyone who tells me otherwise" attitude that we seem to have, and that kind of thinking passes down.

    Abby has a kind of courage that many of us are lacking, and now that she's survived this ordeal maybe she'll learn from it. But I think that America's response has shown that we've forgotten how deal with teenagers who want to do things greater than go to the mall and buy things. Mainly because we probably spend so much time trying to act like teenagers ourselves that real teenagers make us uncomfortable.

    June 12, 2010 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. elise

    I agree with Mike. Additionally, this is not an adolescent – this is a 16 year old female. The decisions she made, including calling for help,indicate maturity. Kudos to her parents.

    June 13, 2010 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. normalparent

    If the media didn't report on every ridiculous stunt that happens, how would we know that two idiots had let their 16 year old daughter sail off "around the world". We wouldn't. First they make the news then they report on the news they make. I'm glad this kid is all right, but what a stupid thing to do in the first place. I mean, as soon as she is successful someone's 15 year old will sail around the world. It never ends. Maybe balloon boy's dad had it right. Just tell them you put your kid in harms way and then stick him in the attic. That way, you get on TV and your kid doesn't wind up at the bottom of the ocean.

    June 13, 2010 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Pat S

    More power to Abby and her family for trusting in her and in her capabilities. It is obvious that she is an ecceptional individual. I agree 1000% with the comments made by Mike on June 11.
    Great job Abby. I am sorry you were not able to finish this trip.

    June 13, 2010 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. mmi16

    Life is facing adversity and pulling through the situation. A parents job is to educate their children to be able to LIVE their own lives....the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and everything in between.

    Compliments to the Sunderlands, they have raised their children to live their own lives and be accountable for their own actions. That is all that can be expected of any parent.

    June 13, 2010 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Dr D Robbins

    Abby is a courageous 16 year old, but speaking as a parent of a 16 year old daughter... I believe that Laurence Sunderland is an irresponsible parent and should be held lawfully accountable for endangering his child's life. Any decent, caring parent in their right mind would never allow a such a risk to their child.

    June 13, 2010 at 01:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. drdave

    What ever they do is their own affair. Just make sure that the family pays 100 percent of the rescue costs.

    June 13, 2010 at 02:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. hold the phone

    I wonder if this story had a tragic ending or if someone who wasn't part of a rich white egotist would have so many people defending this senseless risk to a child's life? Just because you risk your kids life by letting them do something stupid because your writing a book doesn't make it any different then someone doing the same and is arrested for it somewhere else.

    June 13, 2010 at 02:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. lara

    I agree that she has experience and is mature for a 16 years old girl. But she is still a young girl and when it comes to life and dealth situation, it is too serious to have her make that decision.

    June 13, 2010 at 02:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Shai

    Yes I agree CPS should call ont hese parents. There has to be some legal standards for what is expected from parents.

    This teen only survived because a fishing boat was able to find her in a remote part of the indian ocean. This is not the same as letting your child skateboard a halfpipe, or surfing in the ocean.Letting your child circumnavigate the ocean on her own is akin to child endangerment. I think the DA in their town should take a serious look at this.

    June 13, 2010 at 03:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. liz

    I was working full time and had my own apartment at 16. Relatives of mine fought in WW2 when they were 16.
    A young Australian, Jessica Watson, 16, just completed a solo round world trip. Several years ago Jessie Martin (another Australian) did the same at 17.
    It depends on the teenager- my nephew is 17 going on 12, yet his sister at 13 is incredibly adult and dependable.
    I think pushing your kid into showbiz or modelling at a tender age is far more damaging than letting a skilled athlete test their boundaries.

    June 13, 2010 at 04:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. liz

    Oh, and to the person who asked who pays the rescue bill? Australian government and Qantas have footed the bill.

    June 13, 2010 at 04:11 | Report abuse | Reply


    June 13, 2010 at 06:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Lynn Le

    I was surprised that there is no additional boat with a few experienced adults on board following teenagers who are on the high seas in boats by themselves. Back in January when I heard about Abby, I just assumed that this would be the case. It never occurred to me that someone would allow their child to do this. Besides the dangers that mother nature can throw at boat, there is the risk of encountering dangerous persons on other boats.

    Bottom line: Kids should not be making long journeys at sea totally alone. If kids like Abby are going to be in boats on the high seas, then there needs to be adults in a second boat to rescue them if necessary. As for the cost of rescuing her, absolutely the parents should pay the costs. Just because no one got hurt rescuing a child voluntarily at sea this time, does not mean that the next time someone else might not get hurt.

    June 13, 2010 at 07:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Sooner08

    Looks like to me just another spoiled rich brat that's always gotten her way. So does this set a standard, sail the world at 16 alone. What's next 15, 14? What about the Austrailian tax payers. Who's to reimburse them the cost of rescue attemps?

    June 13, 2010 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. madmad

    This was done to beat a world record. When child says " I knew I could die" That just makes me crazy. How can a parent put their child at a risk that they could DIE for the purpose of a world record ? Thats the point . Why do they have to teach their daughter that you should risk your life to be the best. SELFISH. All this proves is their bad judgement and character.

    June 13, 2010 at 08:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Mitchell

    What about Zac Sunderland? Seems there is so much hysteria around this girl getting into trouble. Come on America, a little less hype and fear and perhaps we'd be great again

    June 13, 2010 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Terri

    I see this very differently. At 18 we say kids are old enough to stick a gun in their hand and send them off to war. There are some 40 year old people I wouldn't trust with my car or the key to my house, much less a solo sail. But if this kid has the resources– financial, emotional and mental– along with the drive, since when do Americans discourage that?
    I'm not sure I would let my 16 year old do that, but it would really depend on the person. I think this young lady will probably go on to do amazing things.
    And I applaud her for trying.
    You go, girl.

    June 13, 2010 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Musician

    On a similar but unrelated note, my 20 year old nephew was in the Navy serving in the Middle East and could not RENT A CAR when he returned stateside – WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT??????

    (I still feel the 15 year old was way too young to attempt this by herself – why not with a group?)

    June 13, 2010 at 09:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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