Saturday, 31 October 2009

Jessica Watson sets off around the world

Four days, ago, Australian sailor Jessica Watson finally set sail on a 22,000 nautical mile around the world solo trip from Australia. Jessica is just 16, and wants to be the youngest person to complete the journey nonstop and unassisted.

Jessica's plans had raised a raging controversy in Australia and across maritime circles, as an earlier trip from the Sunshine Coast resulted in a near disaster: she ran into a 60,000 tonne Chinese bulk carrier, probably while asleep, and broke her yacht's mast. Critics point to Maritime Safety Queensland's report into the collision, which criticised her navigational skills: she had dozed off without turning on a warning device, did not have any clear plan and had kept a log with "irregular latitude and longitude entries". Media reports after the collision had alleged she kept a safety checklist on a scrap piece of paper, was otherwise unqualified to undertake such a perilous journey and was way too young for such an exacting expedition. Psychologists warned of the effects of prolonged loneliness on one so young; it is an eight month solo voyage, after all.

Her supporters, including her family, friends and corporate sponsors, claimed otherwise. They said that the media 'was being sexist and criticising Jessica's determination because she was a girl. They claimed that the boat and safety measures had been augmented, that Jessica was more than capable and that her determination to undertake the voyage after the collision showed the kind of grit that was required to succeed in the epic voyage. Jessica's mother Julie said that the collision had provided the opportunity to reexamine Jessica's safety and fatigue management systems, and that everything had been done to guarantee the girl's safety: "Everything has been revisited and ramped up, so we've just left no stone unturned,' she said. "She probably has more gear on board than most ships," the mother said.

These arguments are now moot anyway: At the time of writing this report, Jessica is 150 miles off Sydney and doing six knots, according to reports. She has enough technology to assist her on the 'Ella's Pink Lady', her Sparkman and Stephens 34 yacht. Besides improved radar equipment subsequent to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's preliminary report on the earlier collision, the 10.23 m yacht is equipped with satellite navigation and tracking, communication, radio, weather and storm tracking, satellite phones and internet for the eight month voyage.

Jessica's route will take her from off Sydney towards northern New Zealand, from where she will turn to port towards Fiji. Once past Fiji and Samoa, she goes Northeast past the Line Islands and then turns South past the roaring forties before rounding the 'Everest of Ocean Sailing', Cape Horn. She then sails 'Cape to Cape', rounding the Cape of Good Hope before heading home to Australia.

The real tests will be Jessica's responses to the inevitable hairy situations that she will face and her ability to make the right decisions under pressure. There are other questions in many minds: how much risk is acceptable when teenagers too young to vote want adventure at sea? And, is Jessica adequately capable of handling the yacht in all weather conditions over a period of eight months?

We will find out the answers to these questions eventually. Meanwhile, can only applaud this teenager's grit and determination.


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