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When 16-year-old Jessica Watson sailed into Sydney Harbour on 15 May 2010, to become the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world, she inspired a nation. Whether it was her youth, or that many had doubted her ability to succeed, more than 75,000 people, including the Prime Minister, and a vast flotilla turned out to welcome her home.
Jessica Watson was born on Queensland’s Gold Coast on 18 May 1993, the second of four children to Roger and Julie Watson. All four children took sailing lessons, but her mother claims that Jessica seemed the least likely to take it up, later describing her as a quiet, shy child who didn’t like adventures.
For five years, the Watsons lived on board a 16-metre cabin cruiser. During this time, Watson‘s mother chose as a bedtime story Jesse Martin’s book about his solo circumnavigation on Lionheart. It planted a seed in Jessica’s 11-year-old imagination that soon grew into an ambition.
Over the next four years, she completed 6000 coastal miles and 6000 ocean miles sailing experience, and gained qualifications in offshore safety, diesel engines, radio operation, sea and safety, First Aid and yacht master theory. She crewed on a number of vessels, including acting as skipper crossing the Tasman Sea.
Her departure generated much controversy. Perhaps it was because someone so young was setting off alone on what many considered to be the Everest of sailing. The naysayers became even more strident when Watson’s yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady, lost its mast after colliding with a bulk carrier at night shortly after leaving Brisbane for Sydney.
With Ella repaired, Watson sailed out of Sydney on 18 October 2009, five months after her sixteenth birthday. Over the next 210 days, her boat rolled four times in an Atlantic storm, while the Pacific offered her glorious days surfing waves and enjoying the flight of albatross. Homework, maintenance and blogging (yes, social media had arrived) filled her spare time.
In 2011, Jessica Watson was awarded Young Australian of the Year and in 2012 the Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to sailing and as a role model for young Australians.