Before Jessica Watson steered her 34-foot yacht across four oceans, circling the globe without stopping once, her yacht had a collision with a 63,000-ton bulk carrier during the first night of a sea trial. Her boat, Ella’s Pink Lady, lost its mast. Her quest to sail around the world before her 17th birthday was already controversial, and the collision only seemed to strengthen the arguments against the young Australian—that she was too young, too inexperienced, and too immature. (These were also directed at Watson’s parents and two other young wannabe circumnavigators, siblings Zak and Abby Sunderland.) But Watson, who was raised on sailboats and is more poised than most, quietly returned to port, tended to her broken ship, and returned to sea. “Any doubts about whether I could cope mentally,” Watson later wrote, “vanished…I was stronger, more determined, and ready….”
On May 15, 2010, after 210 days, the smiling 16-year-old arrived in Sydney Harbor, the youngest single-handed, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigator of all time. This, too, would become controversial, for detractors took Watson to task for not sailing far enough into the Northern Hemisphere. No matter. Tens of thousands of fans came out to greet her triumphant return to Australia, while millions watched on national television. But perhaps more impressive were the numbers of people following her journey in real time, through her blog. Watson once wrote: “I could write about a fly landing on Ella's Pink Lady and someone would find it interesting.” And 447 encouraging comments followed.
—By Ryan Bradley
IN MY OWN WORDS
By Jessica Watson
I’m on boats all the time, just hanging around marinas, shipyards, studying every part of a boat, and celestial navigation, too. Before I left, the longest voyage I’d been on was 14 days straight, though I had almost 10,000 miles sea time through the Tasman, Pacific, and the Southern Arctic Oceans.
For me, the most important thing was preparation and the amazing team of people around me, who just wouldn’t have let me leave unless I was ready. You need an incredible amount of support to achieve something like this, and I was lucky. I’m not saying everyone should go out and sail around the world.
In the Atlantic, the boat rolled over four times during one storm. The third wave had me worried—I got picked up 180 degrees upside down and then thrown into the trough of another wave. It kind of makes you think: How big must that wave have been to do that? There wasn’t a lot I could do, in a situation like that, except hunker down, hold on to anything and everything, and stand on the ceiling.
The Pacific was easy sailing, smooth and fun. In the Southern Ocean, around Cape Horn, the albatrosses were just amazing, surfing down the face of the waves. One of the great things about sailing is no two days are really the same. Some days I was getting as much sleep as I could, just reading, keeping up with schoolwork, maintenance, and keeping in touch with home.
In the last week, crossing the Tasman Sea, there were lightning storms and the wind was gusting 50 knots, but I couldn’t have cared in the slightest. I was out there doing what I loved, preparing for an amazing welcome. Honestly, I wanted to keep going, to keep sailing. Nothing could have killed that buzz.
Before I left, I remember being asked by someone, “How can you possibly know what’s going to happen?” Well, of course you can’t. You do your best to prepare, but it is an adventure. You can’t fully prepare—that’s the point.
Driving, Schoolwork, Still Sailing
After I finished, I sailed Pink Lady back up home and since then I don’t think I’ve spent two weeks in the same place. I haven’t been home in a few months, and on the road I’m learning to drive and doing homeschooling. People say that it’s too bad I’ve been robbed of being a normal teenager, but what’s normal?