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Sails like teen spirit

Just after Christmas, an 18-year-old will lead a crew of teens into the world’s deadliest boat race. Vicious squalls, choppy seas, and injuries are the norm—and just another day at the office for Jessica Watson, the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world.

An edited version appeared in the international edition of Red Bulletin, December 2011

There are few stretches as treacherous as the 630 nautical miles between Sydney and Hobart, Tasmania that are raced every year on Dec. 26. Gale-force storms known as “southerly busters” hurtle through the Bass Strait making the sea choppy and challenging. In 1998, six sailors lost their lives. Six years later, only 59 of the 116 starters completed their journey. 

"The competition is very close and very competitive,” says Jessica Watson. “On top of the competition, the race is infamous for its challenging weather conditions. It’s going to be tough, and it could be dangerous, but we’re doing it because we want a challenge. We know what we’re taking on."
Coming as they do from an 18-year-old skippering the youngest-ever crew to compete in the 66-year-old race, those words might be mistaken for youthful hubris. Of course, Jessica Watson is no normal youth.

On May 15, 2010, at the age of 16, she sailed into Sydney Harbour after completing a solo circumnavigation of the globe, the youngest person to ever do so. Her feat was lauded by Australia’s then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and she was crowned Young Australian of the Year last January. Her autobiography “True Spirit” became a bestseller and she’s spoken to crowds as large as 10,000.
So what’s another race?

“We might be young, but we’re experienced,” says Watson. “On the crew are two solo round the world sailors, four Rolex Fastnet competitors (the European equivalent of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race), two sailors who crewed in the 2010 Sydney-Hobart race, and competitors in a multitude of smaller races – and that’s just in the past twelve months.”

Since the beginning of October, Watson and her crew of nine—who come from all over Australia and the U.K. and have an average age of just 19 – have been studying up on team building and leadership, problem solving, emergency planning, media and brand management training, and spent more than 300 hours at sea.

They first set sail in the relatively calm conditions around Pittwater on Australia’s eEast cCoast [should be lower case as is not a proper name], honing their sailing, maneuvering, boatspeed and offshore skills in their boat, a maxi yacht [100ft] christened “Ella Bache another Challenge”. Off-shore sessions geared to prepare them for the shifting wind and weather conditions followed that. In November, they sailed from Sydney to Hobart and back, and spent a week sailing in the Storm Bay and Derwent areas, where, as coach Jonno Bannister explainsed, “the race can be won or lost”.
    “They’ve had a solid month out in the conditions, which has helped them with strategy and navigation, and given them experience as a team on that boat, in those waters,” continues Bannister, who will compete against another Challenge along with co-coach Chris Lewin in the actual race.

Not only have they been spending all day, every day training together, the crew, who come from all over Australia and the U.K., are living together too.

 “We’re taking this seriously, but the team dynamic is great, and we’re having a lot of fun too!” she says Watson. “When we get home at the end of the day, we’re usually pretty shattered but we always eat together; we pair up, and take it in turns to cook for everyone.”

When the first breezes fill the racers’ sails on Boxing Day, Watson and her crew will set out from Sydney Harbor and sail down the southeast coast of Australia to Cape Howe. They'll cross the Bass Strait, skirt Tasmania and enter Storm Bay before they finish some 630 nautical miles (724 land miles) later at Battery Point—if they finish.

“At its simplest the Sydney to Hobart is four incredibly challenging days that you not only have to get through, but also have to maximize the boat’s performance with the skills and efforts of nine other people,” says Lewin, who’s skippered a boat in four Sydney-Hobart races, including the notoriously tough 2004 race. “Jessica and her crew are stepping into a very competitive division of one of the premier yacht races in the world. They can expect tough competition.”

He describes Watson as “fantastic” to work with: “She has her strengths and weaknesses, which is good, as it gives me a job to do. But ultimately she is very self-aware, eager to learn, and genuine.”

When she completed her solo circumnavigation after 210 days at sea, Watson was just three days shy of her 17th birthday. It made her the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world – although she doesn't hold an official record, as the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRCD), don’t acknowledge any records set by sailors under the age of 18; they think it’s dangerous.

So is the another Challenge crew's average age of just 19 an advantage, or a liability?

“Their youth is a strength,” says Bannister emphatically. “We’ve got a group of fit, enthusiastic young people that have gone through a very, very structured training program that’s left them as prepared, if not more prepared, than anyone else in the race. On top of that, the entire crew has just completed Sea Survival courses.”

Like many eager sailors, Watson grew up watching the start of the Sydney to Hobart race with her family on TV. Julie and Roger Watson weren’t typical parents to Jessica and her siblings: elder sister Emily, younger brother Tom and younger sister Hannah. She was eight years old the first time she sailed. And after attending a sailing camp on Australia’s Gold Coast, her she and her siblings moved on to weekend classes and club racing.

But it wasn’t love at first tack. “I was frightened to be out on the water and so far from shore,” recalls Watson in her autobiography. “But I didn’t want to be left on the beach, waiting for everyone to come back bragging about a race. I wanted to be in the thick of it.”

As she got better at sailing her confidence increased, and she began enjoying it more. Her family enjoyed it too – so much so, that in 2004, her parents sold their real estate business and brought a 52-ft motorboat called “Home Abroad” that became just that: home.

For the next five-and-a-half years, the Watsons cruised up and down the east coast of Australia. The children were home schooled, and all had chores on the boat. “This new life gave us kids amazing freedom,” says Watson. “We’d stop at islands where we’d be the only boat in the anchorage. We’d swim, snorkel, collect shells and explore beaches and islands.”

Reading solo sailor Jesse Martin’s autobiography, “Lionheart: A Journey oOf tThe Human Spirit” at the age of 11 inspired Watson to pursue her own solo navigation of the world. “It wasn’t so much the action-packed and adrenaline-fuelled nature of it that appealed to me. It wasn’t the thought of knockdowns and big waves; it was all about putting a plan in place and getting the details right.”

“To me,” she continues, reflecting on her years of preparation for her solo journey, “sailing isn’t about strength, it’s about knowledge.”

Watson’s remarkable teenage odyssey went ahead with the support of her parents, adventurer Don McIntyre, other solo sailors like Tom Mowbray and high-profile figures such as Sir Richard Branson. “She’s 16, she’s not a baby anymore,” quipped the entrepreneur on a visit to Brisbane in September 2009, when Watson and her parents were being heavily criticized for her plans (Around the same time a Dutch court had forbid 15-year-old Laura Dekker from her own solo circumnavigation attempt).

“I left school at 15 and started my own business and at 16 you’re pretty grown up,” Branson continued. “She should go for it. And you know it’s risky – it’s risky walking over the road, it’s risky in cars, risky on motorbikes, risky on bicycles. It’s far safer sailing around the world. She’ll have the adventure of a lifetime.”

Watson’s 210 days on Ella’s Pink Lady were both an unparalleled adventure and a grueling test. “There were some tough days out at sea,” she admits, “like the storm in the Atlantic where Ella’s Pink Lady was rolled upside down four times.”

She survived with just minor damage to her boat and the conviction that she could cope with anything – which is just as well, as the Sydney to Hobart race is one of the world’s toughest.

This year, around 100 teams from around the world are expected to enter, including the current race record holder, the Australian-owned and skippered Wild Oats XI, which crossed the line after one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds in 2005. “The length of the race will vary depending on weather conditions, but it’ll most likely take around four days,” says Watson. “It might not sound like a lot compared to the 210 days I spent at sea on the around the world voyage, but they are going to be four very intense days.”

Watson is passionate about inspiring and empowering young people to achieve their potential and become active participants in their own futures, even going so far as to kick-start an online debate about lowering Australia’s parliamentary voting age from 18 to 16.

She has acted as an ambassador for the Australian Youth Climate Change coalition, helping give young people a voice on climate change. “It bugs me that climate change is something that is going to affect our future,” says Watson. “Yet it’s the older generation that chooses how the issue is tackled or not tackled.”

In June 2011, Watson was named as a youth representative for the UN’s World Food Program. “This is a wonderful opportunity for me to help young people in countries not as well off as us,” said Watson at the time. “I want to help them achieve their dreams by ensuring they get the basic necessity of a meal every day.”

Come race day, the crew’s biggest challenge is going to be refining their boatspeed, reckons Bannister. “When they get tired, they need to till having that last 5 five percent of reserve energy to optimize the boat and everything they can do on it. That’s a challenge for every boat on the water.”

Bannister and Lewin confess that after the first three weeks of training, they went back to their own crew and told them they’d better step it up, if they wanted to have a chance. “These guys are going to be pretty competitive; we need to be on our game to be in with a chance of beating them,” says Bannister.

Watson herself is feeling positive about the race – whatever the outcome. “I’d rather be sailing than anywhere else,” she says. “I love the challenge of making decisions and overcoming problems. And it will be great fun—the crew is such a dynamic and likeable bunch. Nothing inspires me more than people who stand up and say, ‘Yes, we can do anything!’ You don’t have to be anyone special to achieve incredible things.”