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Jessica Watson

“I don’t consider myself a hero. I’m an ordinary girl who believed in a dream. You don’t have to be someone special, or anything special, to achieve something amazing. You’ve just got to have a dream, believe in it, and work hard. And I’d also like to think that by sailing solo nonstop and unassisted around the world, that I’ve proved what really can be achieved if you set your mind to it, that anything really is possible.” ~Jessica Watson, 16

On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Australian homeschool student Jessica Watson became the youngest individual to sail solo around the world non-stop and unassisted. Jessica was born on May 18, 1993, in Queensland, Australia. The second of four children of Roger and Julie Watson, a New Zealand couple who moved to Australia in 1987, she has dual Australian and New Zealand nationality.

Jessica has an older sister, Emily, as well as a younger brother and sister, Tom and Hannah. All four siblings took sailing lessons (Jessica started at age 8), and the family lived aboard a 52-foot cabin cruiser for five years where the children were homeschooled via distance learning. Having been raised on the water and feeling comfortable there, Jessica actually prefers being at sea to being landlocked.

When Jessica was 11 years old and they were still living on the boat, her mother read Jesse Martin’s Lionheart: A Journey of the Human Spirit to the children as a bedtime story. The author of that book had completed his own solo, nonstop, and unassisted circumnavigation at age 18 on December 8, 1998. This led to Jessica forming the ambition at 12 years of age to sail around the world.

Sometime in early 2008, Jessica began seriously planning a solo non-stop and unassisted circumnavigation of the globe. As training for her voyage, she served on the crew of a number of vessels, and also acted as skipper on one boat. Jessica logged over 12,000 miles of sailing experience, took several courses in boat safety and operation, and received a first aid certificate. She says that the great attraction of solo sailing is testing yourself to your limits.

Jessica’s round-the-world trip was officially announced in May 2009. The voyage was expected to take up to eight months with an approximate distance of 23,000 nautical miles. Since the plan was to sail non-stop and unassisted, no other person would be allowed to give her anything along the way and she must not moor to any port or other boat, although advice over radio communication was okay.

During a test run sailing from Brisbane to Sydney, Jessica’s sailboat accidentally collided with a Silver Yang freighter at about 2:00 am on September 9, 2009. (Jessica had been taking a nap at the time and hadn’t seen anything on her radar prior to lying down.) Jessica’s boat was dismasted but she was able to retain control and return the boat to shore under motor.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s report on the collision found that both Watson and the Silver Yang's watchkeepers had failed to maintain an adequate lookout. This probably served as a wake-up call since she would be completely on her own – including making any repairs to the boat and equipment by herself – once she started on her journey.

On October 18, 2009, Jessica headed out of Sydney Harbor in her 34-foot pink-hulled sailboat named Ella's Pink Lady. From there she sailed east across the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. The circumnavigation route would pass near New Zealand, Fiji, Kiribati, Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and South East Cape of Tasmania.

Along the way, Jessica suffered several knockdowns in which her mast hit the water – one of them with the mast deep under water – but luckily without any major damage or injury. She was luckier than fellow circumnavigator Abby Sunderland whose round-the-world trip was cut short when a huge wave snapped off her mast.

Earlier that year Jessica had met British teen sailor, Michael Perham, when he made a stop in Australia during his own circumnavigation. 17-year-old Perham was the previous record holder for the youngest circumnavigator. The two circumnavigators kept in touch over satellite phone during her voyage and he helped coach her through some rough spots. They have since become quite close and have continued seeing each other.

Perham was not homeschooled, but at age 14 when he became the youngest to sail across the Atlantic singlehanded, the headteacher of his school said: “This is the first year of his GCSEs and his parents spoke to us about the time he would be missing from school. We have provided him with a revision programme to support him.” (A revision programme is designed to give students guidance as to the tasks they should be completing in order to make sure they reach their target grade for the General Certificate of Secondary Education.)

Even so, the headteacher admitted that the boy would have learned important non-academic lessons from the trip: “What he has achieved is an education in itself and when people achieve success in something like this it translates into success in other areas. Michael will have learnt a lot about himself and learnt resilience. It has been a great opportunity for him to develop.”

Jessica completed her circumnavigation on day 210 of her voyage, arriving back in Sydney Harbor at 1:53 pm on May 15, 2010 – three days before her 17th birthday. The Los Angeles Times reported Jessica’s reason for her journey: “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.”

Watson plans on writing a book about her experience, which will be titled True Spirit. Perham has subsequently written a book about his journey, called Sailing the Dream, released on March 18, 2010.


Recommended Reading

Dove, by Robin Lee Graham - The autobiographical account of Robin Lee Graham's record-breaking voyage as the first teenager to sail alone around the world.

Joshua Slocum’s classic adventure, Sailing Alone Around the World, the story of the first solo circumnavigator who set sail from Boston in 1895. Arthur Ransome wrote in 1947: “A school library without this book is incomplete. It should be part of the education of every English or American boy.”

Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It’s a detailed autobiographical account of a two-year trip out of Boston and around Cape Horn to California circa 1834. You will love this story if you like books about sailing and the sea, travel, or adventure.

Jesse Martin's Lionheart: A Journey of the Human Spirit. By circumnavigating the world in his 34-foot yacht, Lionheart, the 17-year-old Australian became the youngest person in history to sail around the world solo, nonstop and unassisted. He never stepped off the boat for the entire 10-month trip!

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