Youngest sailor to circumnavigate

By Fiona Harper

Jessica Watson is a diminutive teenager with a big ambition.

Some sailors are content to drop their dock lines and venture out on the occasional weekend when the weather is favourable.  Others are more inclined to race their peers up and down the coast, competing in offshore races where comfort is sacrificed for speed.  Others still opt for a slower, full-time cruising lifestyle, conducting their home and work lives from their vessels.  Still others, like Mooloolaba’s Jessica Watson, won’t be satisfied until they have conquered the ‘Everest’ of sailing.  That is, until they have joined that eclectic group of legendary sailors who have circumnavigated the globe single-handed.  A select group for whom membership is granted to the hardiest, toughest sailors on the planet.  A coterie including the likes of Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester and Robin Knox-Johnston who smashed the record books in the process.

Since Joshua Slocum first sailed single-handed around the world in the late 1890s sailors have been captivated by his voyage.  Slocum’s epic tale of his voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World has subsequently entertained sailors for over 100 years.  Fuelling the dreams of others who have followed the route past legendary Capes Horn, Leeuwin and Good Hope, Slocum’s book has become a ‘must read’ for any young adventurer wanting to emulate such greatness.

In recent times Kay Cottee became the first woman to sail solo non-stop unassisted around the world, and Jesse Martin soon after became the youngest person to do so.  Now it’s Jessica’s turn.  Inspired by these heroes of single-handed sailing, 15-year-old Jessica aims to smash Martin’s record, becoming the youngest person to sail solo non-stop unassisted around the world.  Martin was 18 years old when he returned to Melbourne to claim the current record in 1999.   Jessica will be 16 years old when she departs in November 2009, intending to return home to the Sunshine Coast before her 17th birthday.

The rules for sailing around the world are actually quite simple.  They simply state that to qualify, a vessel must start and finish at the same point, it must cross all meridians of longitude and it must cross the equator.  There is also a minimum distance of 21,600nm that vessels must travel, preventing vessels from cutting corners and simply sailing around Antarctica.  The journey Jessica will take is approximately 27,000nm.  While Martin took 327 days and Cottee took 189 days, Jessica is expecting to back within 210 days (seven months).  

Growing up in an adventurous family, where home has alternated between a large motor launch and a fully kitted out motor home, Jessica’s family (she has three siblings) support her ambitions.  Indeed her pending circumnavigation has been on her mind since she was eight years old.   She began sailing dinghies around the same time, and has been inspired by the offshore racers and adventurers she encountered growing up onboard Home Aboard.  

Spending an afternoon onboard her family’s vessel, it is apparent that the whole family supports her, and are equally at ease with her ambitions.  Everyone is keen to assist, with ideas to help the project along coming from all members of the family.   Mooloolaba boat builder Bruce Arm, a single-handed sailor who has competed in the solo Trans Tasman onboard his own yacht Big Wave Rider, is mentoring Jessica in the art of solo sailing.  He regularly gives up his weekends to help her to refine such skills as climbing a mast unassisted, sail handling and boat maintenance.   He’s also been able to provide an insight into understanding the emotional issues confronted by a sailor alone on the sea.

Jessica is an active supporter of Oceanswatch, which works with the world’s yachting community to undertake marine conservation projects and provide humanitarian aid to coastal communities in developing countries.  She has completed a number of ocean passages with Oceanswatch onboard Magic Roundabout, a Sweden 34, and will soon be undertaking a Trans Tasman voyage.  Ostensibly a single-handed voyage, Jessica will captain the vessel while circumnavigator Donna Liege is onboard as mentor.  Melinda Taylor has completed a number of passages with Jessica and says that she is a natural sailor who has a passion for every aspect of sailing, even the tough jobs that most of us detest.  “Jess is a terrific helm and has a true feel for the wind and boat that can’t be taught: she’s so happy helming she sings to herself,”  Melinda says.  “We left Whangarei NZ in the middle of winter, freezing cold and pouring with rain, with everybody ducking for cover trying to stay warm and dry.  But not Jess, she’s happy to be on the helm, contentedly humming along to herself.”

Sailing around the world non-stop, Jessica aims to return home before her 17th birthday.

Melinda says that Jessica is a knowledge sponge, absorbing bits of information from every sailor she meets.  She’s always wanting to know how and why they do things a certain way, even the not so smart ones, if only to learn how not to do it.  “I’m positive every bit of information she’s received is still in that head of hers just waiting for the time it will be needed.  She remembers the smallest details of passages, how things went and why and she’s always analysing smarter ways to operate,” Melinda enthuses.  “She’s one hell of a sailor!”

Magic Roundabout is a similar size vessel to the once Jessica hopes to circumnavigate in.  Aware of the need for a strong, reliable well-equipped yacht, she is assessing the options as she searches for the right vessel.  Recent solo circumnavigators have used the proven S&S 34: Jon Sanders (who circumnavigated three times), David Dicks and Martin all sailed this tough little performer with great success.  Jessica and her supporters will equip the yacht they decide upon for the rigours of a long ocean passage, carrying out a major refit followed by extensive sea trials.   In the meantime, while the search continues, Jessica is canvassing corporate support for her voyage.  She’s also studying her RYA Yachtmaster certificate, as well as completing her regular high school studies through distance learning.

Jessica has been sailing since she was eight years old and is a natural sailor who is inspired by sailors she encountered growing up in an adventurous family.

Discussing her pending voyage with potential sponsors, Jessica considers the logistics of preparing such an ambitious campaign to be far more daunting than the actual voyage itself.   She calmly works her way through project milestones as she inches closer to achieving her goal.  A quietly determined young woman, she has such a strong vision of achieving her ambition, it’s hard to believe she won’t sail herself into the record books in 2009. 

Jessica Watson’s website

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