Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Jessica Watson Matters to All of Us.

I have to admit that in the past month I’ve done more reading up on sailing, watching videos, and becoming more informed on this subject than I ever have in my life. Not that I’m an expert; still quite a novice, really. Strange, I suppose, for one who originally hails from the Caribbean. I grew up, and have lived all of my life, near beaches and the sea, but apart from water-skiing, snorkeling, spear-fishing, some deep-sea fishing, and a few cruises on sailing boats, my knowledge is quite lacking. (I was fortunate enough to travel on many oceanic ship journeys, including one on the way to England in 1961 which encountered seas so rough that we later heard the captain say that he didn’t know it we’d make it). Jessica Watson has now stirred in me much more interest in sailing. I also have to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate what Kay Cottee and Jesse Martin accomplished. It was Kay Cottee and Jesse Martin who inspired Jessica, and Cottee really did it the hard way in 1988. No GPS or autopilot; she had to wake up every hour to stay on course, and she was violently thrown overboard in a knockdown during monstrous seas the Southern ocean, only saved by her harness and just managed to get back on board.

Unfortunately, the knockers and critics are still legion. I can scarcely visit a forum or read commentary without someone giving an armchair lecture from the moral high ground. Comments range from the variety of the “little dolly girl” with the internet on board; the “feminisation” of the voyage, with everything in pink, to some truly macabre suggestions and comments about her sexuality, and wishes for her “opponent” Abby Sunderland to “smash into an iceberg”. Not to mention sarcastic comment about these “two little rich girls” who should be at school rather than attempting world records for solo sailing. I think my point is encapsulated in a recent article from The Daily Telegraph

THE email arrived in my inbox two years ago. It read simply: "Hello, my name is Jessica Watson. I'm 14 and I want to be the youngest person to sail round the world."… It may seem like an extraordinary ambition for such a young person - but two years on, as her dream is close to becoming reality, it is apparent Jessica is no ordinary girl….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."….When Jessica said "maybe" it meant she'd already made up her mind….Her dream started about five years ago with a book called Lionheart, written by Australian Jesse Martin….To Jessica, it was a call to arms. An almost personal challenge to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone….But for Jessica's parents there was no choice. While her dad Roger Watson originally tried to talk Jessica out of it, her mum knew her daughter was doing everything in her power to prepare properly for the adventure.

And she could not bare the thought of Jessica leaving without knowing she had her mother's support.

"I knew she would do it with or without us. What if she had gone and she didn't have our support? I could never forgive myself," Mrs Watson said yesterday….In about three weeks, weather permitting, a teenager just shy of her 17th birthday will sail her trusty little 34-footer back through Sydney Heads, having survived hurricane-force winds, monstrous seas, lightning storms, freezing conditions, sail damage and five terrifying knockdowns. [Make that six knockdowns]…. She wrote emails to find backers, she asked experienced hands to share their knowledge, watched every machine she could find being stripped so she knew how they worked and could repair them.

She pestered tradesman to show them their craft, took a diesel mechanics course and washed dishes to pay for airline tickets so she could gain more offshore sailing experience delivering yachts to Australia and New Zealand.

"She wanted to do a Sydney to Hobart but she was too young," Mrs Watson said. Instead she flew to New Zealand to sail down to the Antarctic.

"She did a radio operators course, safety at sea, Maritime First Aid, a marine diesel course," her mum said.
"She saved up and flew places so she could sail and get experience.

"When she sailed to the south Antarctic islands she was working.

"She was helping with meals, navigating, doing watches and she was talking to everyone, hearing their stories, learning from them. Educating herself."… "She's isn't your average 16-year-old girl preoccupied with what 16-year-old girls are preoccupied with. She has a mental toughness about her," John Hallas said of his company Ella Bache's decision to be one of Jessica's earliest financial bakers.

"She is brave, she chases her dreams and she has a conviction and drive to be the best she can be.

"When people ask me why I got involved I say it is part of the Aussie spirit to have a go . Just have a go.
"It's the Anzac spirit and Jessica is an extraordinary person and extraordinary people have to be supported."

That mental toughness was clearly demonstrated when Jessica ploughed into a 63,000 tonne tanker on her trial run. From the Courier Mail , Sept. 9, 2009:

TEENAGER Jessica Watson, who is attempting to sail solo around the world, has vowed to carry on with the voyage despite a collision with a ship….Fronting a media conference on the Gold Coast shortly after powering her yacht through the Southport Seaway, the 16-year-old said she was disappointed by the incident but was more determined than ever to complete her solo voyage. "The whole incident gives me confidence - wow, I can actually handle this," she said. "It could have happened to anyone ... I'm unlucky I suppose, but you also learn from it."

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, initially a critic, said in a backflip:

Premier Anna Bligh urged Jessica to continue her "big dream" once she has recovered from the accident.

Ms Bligh said Jessica was "a determined young woman" who would almost certainly continue her quest.
"There's been a lot of discussion about whether this young woman is up to it; I think she is".
"She's had a bit of a hurdle and a stumble but that's what happens when you have a big dream."

Her major sponsor was also undeterred:

But her major sponsor, cosmetics company Ella Bache, said it had full confidence in Jessica’s sailing abilities and would not be withdrawing its support. "Ella Bache continues to support her in every way," a spokeswoman for the company said.

More criticisms came from The Australian Family Association:

The Australian Family Association says the trip is too risky because Jessica, who turns 16 next week, will be too young when she sets sail.

But Jessica's mother, Julie Watson, said her daughter had what it took to see her dream realised.
Ms Watson said she could understand people's concern but said Jessica was no ordinary teenager and she had completed several training voyages, including eight in open water. Each skipper had given a glowing assessment of Jessica's ability, knowledge, problem-solving skills and attitude, she said.

"If you have a chance to meet her, you'll understand where she's coming from," Ms Watson said.

Source: Sunshine Coast Daily

Jessica has had some influential backers all along, not the least being Don McIntyre, the owner of Ella’s Pink Lady (Jessica is the operator):

With the prospect of many hours needed for the refit, I placed an ad in Trade-a-Boat looking for volunteers to help. The response was amazing. At times there were up to 11 people working on the boat. Corporate executives, retired carpenters, sailors and friends from around Australia. They all moved up to Queensland to pick up tools. In fact, sometimes, they even went to the shop and bought the tools with their own money!

Like all aspiring adventurers, Jessica was not flush with cash. So began many weeks of frantic effort with all the emotions, frustrations, joy, anger and exhaustion that goes with that. There was a great deal of collective expertise among the workers to help Jessica make decisions. Bruce Arms, the boat manager, also became social worker and people coordinator extraordinaire, while Jessica’s parents had to house and feed them all in between other campaign management duties as well as helping to sand and grind.

The hull was cut back, epoxied and painted, pink of course! All skin fittings, valves and hoses were renewed, and keel bolts X-rayed and one replaced. The pedestal and wheel were off and a new rudder and tiller fitted. New cockpit drains were designed and installed. All chainplates came out to be checked and new rear lower gussets glassed in and extra chainplates fitted. A new watertight bulkhead was glassed in forward of the chain locker to hold the new inner forestay chainplate and then the anchor locker filled with foam and sealed making a great crash compartment. The electric anchor winch was removed and the anchor now stowed below. All the cockpit lockers were made independently watertight, with their own bilge pumps, so as not to drain into the hull. Four Johnson electric bilge pumps were installed, together with two big manual pumps, one inside and one outside.

All deck gear came off, including hatches, windows, winches, tracks, travellers, cleats, stanchions, and more — absolutely everything. Decks were sanded, all holes glassed and filled, then painted (light pink of course) and everything refitted was brand new! Then came the dodger, not your average dodger, more like a work of art that consumed everyone during its construction. It was a gift from the “workers” to keep the skipper dry, safe and happy. It was a passion and symbol for all who worked on it and, yes, it too was pink.

People were going the extra yard to help Jessica. The mood was infectious.


It is little wonder that Jessica later remarked:

"I wanted to challenge myself and achieve something to be proud of. And yes, I wanted to inspire people. I hated being judged by my appearance and other people's expectations of what a 'little girl' was capable of. It's no longer just my dream or voyage. Every milestone out here isn't just my achievement, but an achievement for everyone who has put so much time and effort into helping getting me here.”

Source: Wiki (From the LA Times)

However, the most significant comment (in my opinion) came from McIntyre himself, on the ABC:

Things are getting really grim here at the moment. Adventure is something that can be a swear word to a lot of people.

As soon as you say adventure, they say rescue. And there's a lot of people that sort of question the values of it. But the bottom line is; if we keep wrapping up our society and our young kids in cotton wool, which is what we're doing, we're changing the culture of Australia.

Australia needs heroes, Australia needs adventurers and there's a lot of real serious positive benefits from anyone that's getting out there and having a go, and chasing their dreams and really pushing themselves to the limit.

Source: The 7.30 Report

So why do I support Jessica so much? Because I’m a humble night shift cab-driver, and I see the best and the worst of society. I see drunkenness, violence, verbal abuse, excessive drug and alcohol abuse, people (including young people) who can barely walk to a cab (much less sail around the globe) because they’re so high in the skies; people who have lost hope in humanity and society, and perhaps some even heading towards eventual suicide because of hopelessness. Don McIntyre is completely right when he says that we’re “wrapping up our society and our young kids in cotton wool”. The knockers and critics ought to take heed of Jessica’s lesson for all of us, and it is, indeed, in the spirit of the ANZAC tradition. With all of the “modern conveniences”, many still fail to realise that this was always a life-risking adventure which could have gone horribly wrong at any moment, and Jessica, as I write this, is still not in the clear, as she battles nasty weather around Tasmania on her final leg of this journey. Nothing is final until she sails safely into Sydney Harbour, and not without the hopes, good wishes and prayers of literally millions across the globe hoping for her safe return. If she gets filthy rich from this, she deserves every single penny of it.


  1. Cheers Ray.
    Great article well researched & your points are all valid & well thought out.
    She is a bloody bewdy & deserves our respect.

    1. She doesn`t deserve any respect. Great she can sail round the world, but really who cares. She ain`t doing it for anyone except herself and it comes in handy to be able to get away with crashing a boat.

  2. Beautiful words Ray; thank you, thank you. See the knockers are out from under the stones again! So she needs support from people like us!

    1. What support? She's got enough. She was able to crash a boat and there were enough supporters to help her succeed.

  3. Hi Folks, and thanks for your comments. I just sent this to my local media outlet, but have no idea whether it will published it or not (update: It was just published):

    Mr. Kotche, from "Listen, we don’t want to take away from what the kid’s done, I think she is a little hero.” The dripping condescension should be obvious to all (I’ve been following most of the commentary). Jessica has sailed virtually a similar route to Kay Cottee (who finished her solo sail in 189 days, covering roughly the same distance as Jessica), and Cottee did *not* meet WSSRC “regulations” either (of touching antipodean points, not just the equator). In the article “Keeping the record straight”, *no* mention is made of the fact that Kay Cottee would not qualify as the first female solo, non-stop and unassisted round the world circumnavigator if the same WSSRC standards applied to Jesse Martin were applied to her. I’d invite Mr. Kotche, or anyone, to explain why they are applying to Jessica Watson standards they have not applied to Kay Cottee, yet still recognise her (Cottee) as the first solo female circumnavigator. I will stand corrected if Mr. Kotche can explain this inconsistency.

    What is very saddening to me is that Jess has endured so much criticism from her own fellow Australians (not that I think criticism should be silenced, but it should be scrutinised for accuracy and consistency, which is often sadly lacking), and I suppose it (the criticisms) reconfirms the “tall-poppy syndrome”, but I’m also very, very heartened by the *vast* majority of Australians who have fully and unequivocally supported her, and recognise this amazing young lady for her tenacity and total bravery (while we sit at home enjoying microwave dinners, so to speak); characteristics we need so badly today in modern Australia. In the final analysis, who really cares about “official” records, and WSSRC “scrutiny” – Jess has proved her point, and confounded her critics. I have not only been totally captivated by her solo voyage, but by her simplicity, humility and honesty, and terrific sense of humour in the face of so much adversity and opposition, and not only from the elements, but even in her home-coming some are still trying to cast doubts on the merits of her incredible journey around the world.

  4. Thanks for the great research and article.

  5. Insightful comments Ray. I'm writing from California. I've been a supporter of Jessica from her departure. I've sailed enough to know what she's accomplished; the anxiety and physical strain behind the words we read on her blog. She is One Tough Cookie.

    My own son hitchhiked through Mexico just out of high school and eventually, years later, went on to sail from San Francisco to NZ with only his new wife aboard their Island 34.

    Adventure and the risk of learning so much comes right along with the risk of serious harm.

    Letting our kids take those risks is, in some way, allowing them to live.

    Steve in California

    ---- Ray thank you for your clarity on all of these issues ... sad it is when an appointed authority like "" seeks to mislead with its lack of respect for correct detail. So much for Sail-World's credibility.

  7. One word: AWESOMENESS!!

  8. Thanks all.

    Steve in California: I agree when you wrote: “Letting our kids take those risks is, in some way, allowing them to live.” One of my sons was the owner of a turbo-charged Nissan Skyline, but I never gave him lectures of the dangers of cars that could reach such high speeds in seconds. Come to think of it, I would love to have had such a car at 17 or 18, so why should I turn around and deny him the same? My own story; at 17 I wanted to own a motor-cycle, but my parents were petrified of the idea and tried to dissuade me, even though my father owned many motor-cycles (BSAs, etc). Only months into my “adventure” I had an accident and went sprawling along the ground for some 50 metres, ending up with stitches in the head and face (there were no helmet laws in those days, which may give an inkling that I’m not exactly a spring-chicken, but I still bear the facial scar). Of course I learned from the accident, and always wore a helmet after that. I know Jessica is now talking about motor-cycles, and her father isn’t too impressed, just like he originally wasn’t with her dream to sail solo around the world. She’s obviously adventure-oriented, and I can almost hear her parents asking, “what next?” But like you say, we must “allow them to live” and take the risks that go with living.

    Bruce S: I’m not impressed with the commentary from Sail-World, and why they chose to bring this up now, when Jessica is virtually on the home stretch. I’ll probably have some more to say about this later (or maybe sooner).