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Aussie girl, 16, to sail around the world alone

BUDERIM, Australia (AP) - Jessica Watson stares out at the expanse of Pacific Ocean from the deck of her family home. The sun glistens off the calm sea and all appears tranquil.

In September, Watson's experience of the ocean will likely be much different - she'll be attempting to become the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world.

She'll start the voyage at the tender age of 16, which has triggered animated debate in Australia about her parents and their decision to approve such a journey.

"You've got to have a goal, you've got to go for something," Watson said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I have the experience, I have the team, I have the preparations. I think I can do it."

Sailing in her newly refit 34-foot yacht, Watson will cover nearly 23,000 nautical miles on a journey that will take her from Australia's east coast and across the equator, south to Cape Horn at the tip of South America, across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, through the Indian Ocean and south of Australia back home.

She expects the trip to take her seven to eight months - "230 days hopefully" - she says, at which time she would become the youngest person to complete a solo unassisted circumnavigation.

The previous mark is held by another Australian, Jesse Martin, who was 18 when he completed the journey in 1999. An American, 17-year Zac Sunderland of Marina del Rey, Calif., is in the latter stages of completing a solo, around-the-world trip, although it's not in the "unassisted" category.

"Without assistance" means that a vessel may not receive any kind of outside help or take on board any supplies, materials or equipment during the attempt. A craft may be anchored or beached during the attempt, but any repairs must be made without outside resources, materials or help.

Watson, who was inspired by fellow Australian Kay Cottee, the first woman to sail solo nonstop unassisted around the world, could easily beat the record in both age and time, but the very fact that a slight, under 110-pound teenage girl will be attempting such an arduous and dangerous trip has raised its share of eyebrows.

John Morrissey of the Australian Family Association said his rather strong criticism of Watson's trip has led to "more flack from sailor types than anything else I've commented on."

Morrissey, a school teacher, stands by his comments that a 16-year-old girl should still be in school. Watson, an 11th-grader who studies through correspondence, hasn't attended a regular school since the ninth grade.

"I think she's too immature, both physically and psychologically, to do something like this," Morrissey said. "It's sure putting a big load on her guardian angel."

An informal Internet poll in her local Sunshine Coast newspaper marginally approved of Watson's plans. Forty-seven percent said they thought experience was more important than age, 39 percent said she was too young, and 12 percent said they'd like to meet her first before commenting.

That 12 percent would probably be impressed.

Watson seems mature for her age, and has been sailing since she was 8. Her New Zealand-born parents, former real estate man Roger and mother Julie, lived for 5 1/2 years on a 50-foot motor boat with Jessica, her sister Emily, 17, brother Tom, 14 and younger sister Hannah, 11. Before that, the family spent two years traveling around Australia in a motor home.

Watson said she expected some criticism.

"As long as it's sensible and good advice, you listen to it all," she said. "The one thing I won't accept is when someone calls this reckless. This is years and years of planning and preparation. We haven't just jumped into this."

Watson and her family have already spoken to Australian and New Zealand search-and-rescue officials. She's studied navigation, electronics and safety procedures.

She and her mother are seeing a nutritionist to best plan the freeze-dried meals she'll have on board for the journey, and she recently completed a maritime first-aid course.

"I learned about hypothermia, every kind of wound," she said of the course. "I stitched up some chickens and stabbed a few oranges."

Watson is allowed to catch fish, but admits a fishing rod is not "big on the agenda" because of the possibility of falling overboard. When she leaves Australia, she'll have only about 95 gallons of fresh water with her, but her sails and a gutter system on the boat will help her capture rainwater. A cooking stove will operate on methylated spirits, as propane gas was deemed to be too heavy and dangerous to take on board.

She will have four "EPIRBS," or satellite tracking devices, on board, including one attached to her body at all times. She'll also have satellite phones, a laptop, and music and books to keep her occupied and in touch with the world.

"Next week's plan includes final fiberglassing, getting the new paint under way, building a new galley, completing the plumbing, getting the wiring under way and I'll be heading down to Brisbane on Wednesday day to do a marine medical course," Watson said.

Don McIntyre of Hobart, Tasmania state, is a 40-year sailing veteran who circumnavigated the globe in 1990-91. He's providing the boat Watson will use and has helped the family in its preparations, along with a handful of sponsors who are providing sails, rigging and safety gear.

"I believe there is a lack of young people who want to live their dream," McIntyre said. "I can see that she is truly committed. You need to see they are happy within themselves, and that they are independent. She has a steely determination that is totally separate from her sailing skills.

"That's what you need. Will she do it? No one knows. There are other factors involved. But she has the ability to do it."

Jim Hawke, an Australian offshore yacht instructor who did a "mock" solo sail with Watson from Australia to New Zealand in January, was impressed with the-then 15-year-old's ability.

"She saps up knowledge like a sponge, she sorts it out, makes her own mind up," Hawke said. "The real strength is in her head. She has such an even temperament and never gets flustered."

Her parents agree.

"She has proven to us and applied the skills and shown us that she has the determination to see it through," Julie Watson said.

"We know she can do it," added Roger Watson, who admits it took him longer to accept his daughter's plans for the sail. "But that's not to say we won't have some sleepless nights when she's away."

The sailor herself admits to concerns over big waves and gear failure.

"And you have to be very careful about exposure," she said. "You don't get warm again out there."

And she again defends her age.

"Someone said to me recently that the ocean doesn't care how old you are," Watson said. "It respects experience, not your age."

She's sure to get plenty of experience on her voyage.


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Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: News on June 26, 2009 @ 10:24 PM


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