Risky Business: Teen to Carry on with Solo Circumnavigation

3 October 2009 By Kelly Sanford, By 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,, 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, 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 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.