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16-year-old Jessica Watson completes solo circumnavigation, flunks geometry

When 16-year-old Jessica Watson arrives in Sidney tomorrow, she will be the youngest person to sail around the globe alone. The precocious Aussie will be denied an official record however, for the same reason the Olympics enforce a minimum age for gymnasts, protecting suggestible minors from overzealous parents ostensibly. The snubbing might seem an unenforceable formality, but it turns out Jessica comes up short on another technicality, the same principle which holds that girth is measured at the waist.

The “circum” in navigate refers to circumference. Let’s take nothing away from the young adventurer who’s proven herself plenty brave, a capable sea-person, and undeniably a class act. Criticism of her geometry or vocabulary is aimed really at her internet fans who are now raining expletives on sailing officials who would deny her a world record.

Just as we credit her home team for media, communications, and consultation, readers of her blog know that Jessica set her autopilot to daily coordinates provided to her. Thus it was Team Jessica which charted the interesting compromise.

While no one expects round-the-world sailors to follow the equator, circumnavigation at minimum requires traversing an orb over its circumference. You cannot, as an extreme example, run a few paces off the South Pole and call yourself a circumnavigator. Soon we’d have swimmers circumnavigating the North Pole. The de-icing of the Northwest Passage likewise will be providing new shortcuts for would-be record breakers. Jessica Watson’s ability to traverse the south seas owed entirely to techncal innovations which have yielded stronger crafts and better storm avoidance. The latitudes formerly named for their impenetrability, the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties and Screaming Sixties, are now open to sporting pursuits. Making the straight shot across all longitudes there is a distance a fraction of the equator. As a result, ocean racing adjudicators have decided that a proper circumnavigation should mean at least 21,600 nautical miles across the seas, a distance that approximates the width of our planet.

Did Team Jessica miscalculate? More likely it was an expeditious decision to enable a finish before the youngster’s 17th birthday. Going the extra distance would have added extra days to Jessica’s sixteen years. The course was thus plotted to make Sidney at greatest haste. Which meant setting their own interpretation of a circumnavigation.

To do this, Team Watson contrived a simplification of the minimum requirement: crossing all longitudes and passing over the equator twice, which their sailor dutifully did. Their explanation to Jessica’s fans sounds officious, but is not universally accepted as equivalent to a full circumnavigation. Can you measure a waistline by passing the tape around one leg so long as you extend it up through a belt loop? On a globe such an approximation comes up short. Level of difficulty to sail it, still enormous, but a foreshortened route.

Actually, Miss Watson’s Burmuda rig will have traveled 23,000 sea miles taking into account her drift and the tacks required to work the wind, but her charted course accumulates to only 19,000. Imagine shortening the Tour de France to substitute sections on stationary bikes. No less effort, but not quite the Tour.

Watson’s official start was delayed by a mishap that sent she and Ella’s Pink Lady back for repairs and may have sealed the fate of her world record.

Pink Lady’s departure made the news in a bigger than expected way over a half year ago. Concerns about allowing so young a person to attempt a solo circumnavigation appeared vindicated the next day when Jessica struck a freighter on her very first night. This meant a return to harbor for the Pink Lady and having perhaps to reroute the journey of shorter duration than initially planned.

Perhaps the racing officials are right to retire seafaring records based on age. With modern technology and remote systems having become what they are, what does it mean anymore to differentiate “assisted” or “unassisted”? 2009 witnessed the first Atlantic crossing of a catamaran captained by a quadriplegic. By any conventional understanding of seamanship that feat was impossible. Before long, who or what is put at the helm will be irrelevant, watercrafts will progress –“unassisted” meaning untouched– guided by unmanned vehicle operators at computer consoles. Perhaps the control could eventually even be crowdsourced online.

The crowd’s attention to Elle’s Pink Lady was owed undeniably to its captain being a 16-year-old girl. For a period on the official blog, public comments were closed off to shed followers whose infatuations may have been unflattering to the schoolroom audiences which Australian television news was drawing to the website. If I had to guess at what was jettisoned, it was probably fan fiction fantasies thinly veiled as hopeful advice to avoid Somali pirates. While some followers were no doubt titillated by the thought of a vulnerable young woman alone on the dark sea, to the average audience, the opportunity to check-in on the Pink Lady in 10-meter swells in near-real time, took vicarious adventuring to new heights.

On the other hand a 16-year-old captain’s log had obvious drawbacks. The facility to wax poetic hits at an age later than the teens apparently. Previous age-record holders like the teen who took five years to circle the globe in the Dove was in his twenties when he chose to write about it. Jessica’s narrative was extemporized and followed a pragmatic motif. Her notes reflected the singular focus of young specialist whose technical proficiencies might have crowded out wider observation skills. Preoccupied with her boat’s speed, in between, nothing. Her typical report was peppered thus:

“Yeah, so, nothing new to report really, so, yeah, so, that’s about it for me, so, yeah.”

When Captain Jessica wasn’t relating the progress the Pink Lady was making, or the occasional repair attempt she planned to revisit, her thoughts were on the day’s menu, the supplies packed for her which she opened like a Christmas chocolate calendar, supplemental gifts scheduled to lift her spirits at regulated intervals and the latest blog comments to which she relayed personal replies.

In addition to the typical teenager sweets fixation was another unexpected first, although clearly enough foreseen by Team Jessica’s sponsors. Video blogging on a daily basis meant that Jessica had to worry about her makeup and hair. She holds the world record I’ll bet for first solo circumnavigator to concern herself with wardrobe and beauty products.

For the most part, Jessica impresses like the average gifted and talented, and disappoints where you’d expect it too. How interesting are the whims of a child of millionaire parents able to indulge a not-necessarily world-changing enterprise? Elle’s Pink Lady is a model of commercial endorsement banking on publicity spectacle. No different from most high profile sports, professional tennis for example, but of virtuoso certainly less athletic. It’s more like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, watch their children take to the sea.

With Jessica’s upcoming arrival garnering excitement, isn’t it fitting that an unpredicted non-sponsor is stepping forward to reap product placement. It turns out the Australian conglomerate responsible for the “Pink Lady” apple considers the name of Jessica Watson’s project a trademark infringement, but they’re ready to settle if she considers adding them to her endorsements.

5 thoughts on “16-year-old Jessica Watson completes solo circumnavigation, flunks geometry

  1. Hmmmm. I’m not quite sure of your intent with this posting, Eric. But to clarify, according to her blog, Jessica never sported the idea of getting recognition because she is under the age limit of 18. She currently is at over 22,000 nautical miles which is a amazing feat for a girl so young. I applaud her. Her route has been documented though and she has fulfilled the requirements….crossed all latitudes, the equator and started and is returning to the same point.

  2. I do agree that the “commercialism” of it all was distasteful, but even more that that….my Dad and I both felt that it sets a dangerous precedent. Future attempts by youngsters should be curbed. I read reports that another sail by a 15 year old is in the offing. It’s irresponsible and dangerous. Parents that would support this kind of venture are even more so.

  3. As a life-long ocean sailor, I would like to ask the Eric if he has ever sailed the open ocean alone for any length of time. I suspect not. The comments about automation (GPS, autopilot) do not take into connsideration hand sailing to counter waves, broken sleep for days on end to keep proper lookout at night, repairs of equipment failures and maintenance to minimize them, and the courage to find oneself alone in the middle of the ocean, radio contact not-withstanding. If Eric has done this and still considers technology rendering the feat meaningless, then he is a fool. If he has not done this, then he is an arm-chair critic in addition to a fool.

  4. My ocean-sailing experience is not even appreciable, and I concede despite automation Watson’s feat was extraordinary, expert and off-my-charts courageous, but meaningful? No.

    Likewise, 13-yr-old Jordan Romero could forgo ascending his last Antarctic peak in favor of following the Nepalese Sherpa Apa who climbed Everest a record 20th time to pick up sportsmen garbage.

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