Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some Thoughts on Jessica Watson and Her Critics.

A Platypus is a duck designed by a committee – anon

I suppose I should apologise to the half-dozen or so regular readers of my blog for focusing so much on Australia’s most recent and sensational news item: Jessica Watson. I also suppose that I should “come clean”, that I’ve never really had an interest in sailing until I read the name “Jessica Watson”. I lived through Kay Cottee, and Jesse Martin, as mere “blips” on the radar (nothing derogatory, just being honest), but it is a 16 year old from Queensland who has totally captivated me and made me familiar with sailing terminology I never knew. I’m so ignorant that I initially didn’t even know what a “knockdown” was. And my first question was, like so many amateurs, is how can a sailing boat recover from a 180 degree capsize? This voyage was no doubt calculated and planned with expert precision, but I’d never let this precision pre-suppose that Jessica would only have to sit back and “enjoy the ride”. A journey like this takes a special kind of spirit, one who is prepared to sacrifice and forgo the comforts of daily living to fulfil a dream, knowing that adverse circumstances, and even the threat of death, notwithstanding modern technology, can still prove exceedingly dangerous. “Modern technology” cannot protect one from the raw elements and whims of nature and the sea.

So let me start with the Keeping the Record Straight commentary. There is one, to me at least, obvious reason why they didn’t mention this at the start of Jessica’s journey rather than now: They didn’t believe she’d ever make it. But when Jessica neared Tasmania, Sail-World’s panic buttons were activated. They probably had a cold-shiver run up their collective sailing spines when they read:

Good news. Ella's Pink Lady and I have made it around the South East Cape of Tasmania and we're now headed north on the final leg to Sydney!

Source: Official Jessica Watson Blog

Remember that this is a girl who is unable to compete in the Sydney-Hobart race because she’s “too young”, and she casually says that :

I never expected rounding Tasmania to be much of a big deal, but all of last week's struggles made finally getting around the cape 10 times sweeter. (Insiders tip, jumping up and down in a 5 metre swell isn't a good idea. ouch!) There's no letting the guard down yet, but it's great to be back in to more familiar waters.

These “familiar waters” include the annual 630 mile Sydney-Hobart race, when in 1998 five boats sank and claimed the lives of six people. In comparison to her previous travails, Jessica considered this “easy sailing”. Now I’m quite aware that the Sydney-Hobart crews were probably not as well equipped as Jessica’s S&S yacht, which is specifically designed to withstand the sort of conditions Jessica faced. So it is sort of like comparing apples and oranges. Nevertheless, Sail-World decided to add its critical voice to Jessica’s solo circumnavigation, in their article titled Jessica Watson: Keeping the record Straight

Why they waited until Jessica was virtually in her final run to Sydney is anyone’s guess, and mine is that they never, for one minute, believed that a 16 year old girl could accomplish what she did. After her “infamous” collision with a tanker, they most likely wrote her off as a “dreamer”. Not having a clue what she was doing, and waiting for news of her prognosticated demise. However, Jessica is now only about 500 nautical miles from Sydney, as I write this, and about to throw scrambled egg on the collective faces of all of her detractors and critics. So Sail-World has stepped into the action, and doing everything it can to detract from Jessica’s phenomenal achievement, acting like a real “committee” dedicated to crossing T’s and dotting I’s. My question here is whether Sail-World, or the WSSRC kept careful track, for example, of Kay Cottee’s first female circumnavigation? Did they haveTracPlus? They know, for sure, that Kay Cottee covered the required distance? Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way meant to demean Kay Cottee’s achievements, and my only question is what precise measurements were used to determine Cottee’s course: The same being applied to Jessica’s? Sail-World seems to have no problem accepting Kay Cottee as the first female circumnavigator, and all the accolades she well deserves, but how did they measure her course as acceptable to the WSSRC? Did they take her word? There is no question that Jesse Martin met the requirements of “youngest circumnavigator”, but Jessica Watson knew, from the start, that she could not qualify as “youngest circumnavigator” as this was discontinued. All the light banter about “taking Martin’s” record has to be viewed in the light of Jessica’s original motives – to fulfil her dream of sailing solo around the world. To put it in blunt Aussie language, she probably didn’t give a “rat’s arse” about records, but only wanted to fulfil her dream, but media expectations and sensationalism must also have weighed upon her.

Moving on to other commentary. The media always like a good contrary story, and they provided it in bucketfuls. See, for example:

Confusion over whether Jessica Watson has sailed far enough beat world record
The Australian

Teen sailor Jessica Watson now the apple of Pink Lady's eye
Threatened Litigation

Jessica Watson's youngest solo unassisted world record sail 'fail'
"Sail Fail"

Doubt cast over Watson's record attempt

Maybe they should use trac-plus to bring Joshua Slocum's solo circumnavigation under scrutiny. They accept that without question? And they accept Kay Cottee’s solo voyage on what? Whether she crossed the equator?, or met the antipodean points?

The one thing that should be obvious to all here is that Sail-World and other “expert” sailors are plainly jealous of the fact that a 16 year old girl from Buderim, Queensland, has proved all of the “experts” wrong. Fortunately, someone of the stature of John Bertrand has spoken out on Jessica’s behalf:

"What Jessica has achieved is phenomenal," he said. "For such a young girl to tackle this feat, in sometimes extreme conditions, braving the elements of mother nature ... it's inspirational for the country and in a sense represents the spirit of Australia."

He said he would be surprised if her efforts weren't recognised.

"To sail around the world, by yourself at 16, it's remarkable," he said. "I think that it will be something she can be proud of for the rest of her life."

Source: John Bertrand

It’s time, folks, to stop the nit-picking, and fully recognise that we are looking at history in the making. And to those who consider Jessica’s solo voyage as a “glory and fame” adventure, consider these words from Kay Cottee :

After the voyage she found it difficult to adjust to being surrounded by people again. She threw herself into writing the story of her trip, and fundraising appearances for the Life Education Centres. Of all the awards she received, Cottee says that she has been bewildered and embarrassed by them, that she 'only set out to achieve a dream, a personal goal'.

So in closing, I refer to Jessica’s youthful dream:

And there was no laughing or saying no when Jessica announced, just after her 12th birthday: "Um, I want to maybe, um . . . sail around the world by myself."

Source:: The Daily Telegraph

Yeah, and I say this sarcastically, it was "all about money and fame". Sailing solo around the world as a personal achievement never occurred to Jessica Watson. The dollar signs bedazzled her!

My only hope is that when Jessica Watson finally completes her incredible voyage around the world that we will all acknowledge that in an age of cynicism, we all still believe in a “fair go for all”. Australia has had so many heroes, so many who have defied the odds, and most seem to come from the “common stock”, and the underdogs. From the reports I have, Jess is now enjoying the solitude and not in a hurry to return to all the fanfare that will inevitably greet her upon returning. Her greatest treasure, will without doubt, be the times she and "Ella's Pink Lady" battled the unforgiving oceans together, and came out victorious.

May you have a safe return to Sydney, Jess.


  1. Ray, that is a ripper of a commentary/analysis and spot on in my humble opinion. Good on ya. Cheers, KC

  2. Well said.

  3. Well done. Like you, I have followed Jess's progress day by day and have been constantly amazed by her resilience and courage. I agree totally with your point of view and get very annoyed at some people's need to drag everybody down to their level rather than acknowledge their real achievements.

    Mike (Avoca Beach)