The True Story of a 16-Year-Old Australian Who Sailed Solo, Nonstop and Unassisted Around the World
Atria Paperback/Simon & Schuster, 356pp, $16
I tend not to pay too much attention to hugely publicized record-breaking feats of daring-do, mostly because they are so "other worldly." My world consists of books, salt-water, boats and the odd lot of old salts who sail them. We are grateful just to be out there. Sixteen year old circumnavigator, Jessica Watson, however, caught my attention. Her age alone, raised such questions as ...who, where, and what and why do her parents think she should undertake this grueling challenge.
There they are, first on the list of acknowledgments, "Thanks, Mum, my first supporter, and Dad for letting me go." They are right behind her. (Well, dad may have had a little hiccup about it.) In fact, the first 16 years of her life gave her the experience that inspired her ambition. Her family lived aboard and moved around the Australian coast often in tandem with boating friends, especially Bruce and Suzanne Arms (who sailed a Chamberlain 46 multihull catamaran) sailing, racing, picnicking, and playing in and around the ocean with friends and family. She was a water baby with a lot of highly skilled and supportive adults, teaching and encouraging her.
Then I read the book and was even more impressed. In my judgment, she is the real thing...a confident and capable 16 year old who was lucky enough to grow up on the water, living aboard with her family for the better part of her young life whose examples were competent seamen and women. Several of her helpers and supporters were record breakers, including fellow Australian, Jesse Martin, who had soloed around the world in 1999, at 18. In that environment, it would be hard not to grow the ambition to go it alone.
The book recounts the whole effort from financing--(big bucks and equipment donated by mostly industry supporters, but also friends, family and an Australian cosmetic company, Ella Bache), searching for the right boat, (an S&S 34) which was purchased for her by single-handed BOC round the worlder, Don McIntyre. Then there was fitting and re-fitting, course plotting, and a shakedown sail, (during which she was side swiped in the night by a huge freighter). Her boat was badly damaged and she was sure the jig was up...the repairs would be hugely expensive. Never fear! She had already inspired the boating community and donations covered the repairs. However, calls from the public to stop her from continuing her grand journey continued. Even Australia’s prime minister chimed in--in the negative.
What impresses me the most about the journal entries that make up the core of the book are modest little observations such as this early self-assessment, "I am not special. I am an ordinary person, and ordinary teenager, who has been lucky enough (some say stubborn enough) to keep following her dream." Reflecting on her solitude she says, "It is easy to become dulled down at home, too focused on the next step to enjoy the moment you are living. On Ella’s Pink Lady there was only the moment. It was a great lesson, and I hope I can carry it with me forever."
She chats about food and talks to her family and followers and battens down her crew (a gaggle of stuffed animals) as well as herself when the going gets rough. She reads a lot (but is not keen on mentioning the titles). When she rounds the horn, her parents fly over her in a small plane and hail her...pretty special, if extravagant, but then so is solo sailing around the world.
Watson does have her low moments, even cries sometimes and she is not ashamed to admit it. Her descriptions of her experience are often very funny and at the same time right on the money. "Overcast, squally, it must be a lot like the inside of a washing machine."
The aspect of this seven month solo sail that struck me the most was the array of electronic gear. Watson may have been physically alone as far out to sea as a person could possibly be but she was never out of communication. She had on board an AIS (auto alarm that sounds when another ship is within range, an autopilot--powered device to steer the boat, an EPIRB (emergency position-indication radio beacon), an HF radio (a long range marine radio) a PLB (personal locating beacon/distress signal) and a VHF (marine radio for short distances, a wind generator, solar panels for power and a wind vane that steered the boat most of the time.
She also had a lot of books, music and videos. She cranked her music as if she were alone in her bedroom at home, indulged enthusiastically in chocolate, chatted apparently daily with friends and family and she blogged regularly and posted videos on YouTube. I saved watching them until I finished the book, thinking they would make the book less immediate, possibly irrelevant. Not so. The book survived the electronic onslaught beautifully. The book remained the most intimate and personal log. Writing it was something else she had to do alone...although that word will never mean the same as it did for Joshua Slocum.