Risky Business: Teen to Carry on with Solo Circumnavigation

Oct 3rd 09
By Kelly Sanford and Louisa Beckett

This week, 16-year-old Jessica Watson announced that she was ready to resume her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. She set out on October 1st on a five-day test run from Australia’s Gold Coast to Sydney. Watson ultimately hopes to take bragging rights away from fellow Aussie Jesse Martin, who completed the 11-month circumnavigation at age 18 in 1999.

Watson and her family came under harsh criticism following the incident on September 9th when her 10.23-meter S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady collided with a 63,000-metric ton bulk carrier Silver Yang less than 24 hours into an earlier test run. The sloop was dismasted and required repairs, which have now been completed.

According to various Australian news sources, including The Courier-Mail, a Maritime Safety Queensland investigation into the collision found that:

Watson had likely ‘dozed off’ before the accident;

She had failed to turn on a collision warning beacon;

could not produce a clear, plotted plan for her journey;

had not developed a fatigue management plan, and

kept a log with “irregular latitude and longitude entries”.

A post on Watson’s Web site, www.jessicawatson.com.au, said, “The MSQ letter was confidential and contained some recommendations which have been adhered to….” It went on to express disappointment that the incident report had been leaked to the press.

Among those questioning the collective judgment behind Watson’s record attempt is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who said, “This is a very high-risk venture, frankly it’s one that I would be reconsidering, but ultimately it’s a decision for them.”

On the other hand, the teen has her supporters, including Sir Richard Branson, who told the Australian Associated Press he hopes she will continue her bid. He was quoted as saying, “It’s risky, but it could be risky walking over the road, it’s risky in cars, it’s risky on bicycles. She’ll have the adventure of a lifetime – you only live once and live life to the full.”

There also has been a mixed reaction among yachties.

At the time of the collision, Dockwalk.com blogger “JakeG” made a post which said, “You know, hooray for teaching your kids the discipline of sailing. I think every kid should learn to sail; it is a great achievement which develops all kinds of physical and mental skills, and something that will serve your kid over the course of their lifetime. It’s great. But a responsible parent (and any resonably experienced sailor) would teach their child to have a great deal more respect for just how dangerous and unpredictable an ocean passage can be and would certainly protect their child from wrecklessly undertaking a task purely for the sake of ‘bragging rights’ which might very well end their young life.”

“Dave” replied to Jake’s remarks: “I grew up cruising the world on a 35-foot sailboat and I would have to say that I had more than enough sailing experience to cross oceans at 16 years old…if I had the maturity and general knowledge of life to do it, I will never know, but I suppose a person who undertakes an adventure like this probably has the right mind set to learn and teach themselves as they go.”

Another reply by “Watchkeeper” pointed out: “Having a [collision] two days out is bad but a lesson learnt; two weeks out, no one’s left to learn.”

Poster “Henning” stated: “No mention that it is against the COLREGS and any sense of sanity to do these long singlehanded passages.”

According to Mahalo.com and other news sources, in August, a solo circumnavigation attempt by an even younger sailor, 13-year-old Laura Dekkers of The Netherlands, was delayed by Dutch authorities, who took temporary guardianship of the teen while evaluating her fitness to pursue her bid.

What age do you think should be the minimum for sailing alone around the world?


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11 Comments
  • This just in from the Aussie maritime folks:

    http://tiny.cc/YjZmq
    Posted by Chief_1 21/10/2009 18:39:50

  • Again...you may be correct. These days its possible to do all manner of crazy things. The media feeds and supports adventurers with sponsorship money, so that you may now aspire to hold the title of..... first person to walk across the Atlantic in Styrofoam shoes. Then if things go terribly wrong the public...YOU as a taxpayer ...honors your obligation toward professional seaman and instantly, at great expense, dispatche ships and helicopters to rescue the owner of the EPIRB signal. Its the modern life. everyone does it these days, they even sell upwind round the world yacht charters.
    . Ill bet that any modern adventurer would think twice if they had to spend their own cash and voyage like Joshua Slocum. At any rate she deserves our support and in reality its better to have kids doing crazy things with sailboats as opposed to doing crazy things with a can of spray paint on the side of your car.
    Posted by junior_1 05/10/2009 22:07:24

  • Precisely the point Junior. These kids are not setting sail for adventure, they are setting sail for attention pure and simple. Something they are certainly not getting the right kind of from home. Again, there is a big difference between a full grown adult making a dangerous decision and a child making one with their parent's blessing. This girl is the Britney Spears of Sailing, and I for one have far more respect for the art of sailing than to applaud when others deface it by exploiting children. I doubt Watson's sponsors give a flip about her or her skills, they see dollar signs just like this girl's warped parents. I'll agree with Captain Dave. I hope she is successful simply because I shutter think what becomes of her if she is not. No, I take that back. Either way, I feel sorry for this girl and think she is being exploited.
    Posted by JakeG 05/10/2009 17:14:30

  • Well Jake, you may very well be correct. I know nothing of Jessica and her skills, but to say..... " It takes maturity, experience and well honed seamanship skills " to put to sea makes me laugh. You have just sidelined half the yacht captains Ive met. Jake, each year countless middle aged, SUV driving wideboys abandon their computer terminals, grab suitcases full of cash, glide like vultures out of the concrete canyons of Manhattan directly to the nearest boat show, purchase 3 million dollar cruising yachts and proceed, fully insured, with their families out into the open sea. These inexperienced boneheads are the very heart of the marine industry yet they are not the object of your attention.
    I'm sure Jessica has much on the job training to do and I hope that she is mature beyond her age . Personally I think her big mistake so far was to draw unhelpful attention to her adventure by seeking publicity. Just the fact that you and me are talking about it tells me that she misplayed her cards. For a young person dealing with the weight of this publicity and other peoples expectations must be more challenging than the sea . Better to simply get on with your ambition and then when some doubter says that you cant do that, poke em in the eyes and say....I did it.
    As for her sponsors I assume they know their business enough to know that Bad Publicity from a sponsorship gone pear shaped is worse
    than no publicity. I suspect these Sponsors have met the girl and approve of her ambition and fitness
    Posted by junior_1 05/10/2009 16:32:29

  • No, it takes far more than energy and ambition to be okay on a solo round the world. It takes maturity, experience and well honed seamanship skills which Watson does not likely have enough of at this point in her life. What this kid seems to have plenty of is greedy sponsors who are eating up all the attention and copious amounts of bad advice from adults who should know better. She has her whole life ahead of her to set out on adventures. She SHOULD take her cues from REAL role models like Ellen Macarthur who achieved her goals gradually. Big difference between a transat at 19 and a solo round the world at 16. And from what I have read, this Watson girl is no Ellen Macarthur. At least the Dutch have finally set a precedent for these nut-case parents.
    Posted by JakeG 05/10/2009 12:52:10

  • I think Ellen is a role model. Didnt she sail singlehanded around Britian when she was 17 years old. Mini transat when she was 19 or something. Its possible. All Jessica needs is energy and ambition and she will be OK
    Posted by junior_1 04/10/2009 19:18:32

  • I have known Jessica for a few years, I wish her well & hope her journey is a success, this attempt is something she has been self driven to do for a number of years, not just a teen age fad, after a few years of her taking the bull by the horns - Studying, doing lots of local sailing, learning from other long distance sailors such as Don MacIntyre, doing long offshore passages etc. her parents realized she was serious & it was not just a whim. Yes she does still have allot to learn but she knows more than many so called "professionals" I have met & sailed with over the years - Go Jessica.
    Posted by Mark_10 04/10/2009 11:37:20

  • Sailing has always been about fantasy, ambition and energy. Jessica is just another in a long line of sailors. Wish her the best of luck, she makes a great role model for other young sailors.
    Posted by junior_1 04/10/2009 12:24:47

  • By the way, Ellen McAurther is a good role model for young female sailors. She has actual skills not just naive ambition. There is an important difference between the two.
    Posted by Capt.Dave 04/10/2009 14:10:18

  • I wish her well on her trip because if things do not go well, there is obviously NO WAY this child is either technically or emotionally prepared to handle it based on what the MSQ report said. Yes, you can repair a ship, but there's no un-doing dead. The potential risk versus reward for this young girl is totally irrational and I can hardly place any credibility in those who claim she is ready when the MSQ report repeatedly indicates otherwise. Like I said, I hope her bid is successful, because if it is not, it will likely be a tragedy.
    Posted by Capt.Dave 04/10/2009 14:01:29

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