When Jessica Watson set out from Sydney, Australia, last October to sail non-stop around the world, solo and unassisted, I was—how shall I put this?—extremely skeptical. It wasn’t her age—just 16—so much as her inexperience, though that is age related. It didn’t help that she collided with a freighter before the start. I thought her parents were idiots.
Mostly, though, it was my perception of solo, RTW sailing as an epic, dangerous, and lonely challenge, requiring superhuman discipline, an ability to survive on little sleep, and the capability to fix, invent, and jury-rig your way around the globe. I got that perception from devouring the RTW sailing literature from the early days: Robin-Knox Johnston, Bernard Moitessier, Miles Smeeton, and many others. Also, from following the inspired craziness of the Vendee Globe. This canon elevates solo, RTW sailing to world-class adventure, matching anything you can find in mountaineering or exploration.
But now that Jessica is cruising serenely toward Sydney on her S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady, about to conclude her voyage successfully and become a marketing superstar, I realize that it’s time to update my perception.
I don’t want to take too much away from her accomplishment. Any solo, RTW voyage is a big deal, and I sincerely doubt I would have fared as well. She was knocked down multiple times, slugged her way through gales and headwinds, and, at least early in the voyage, sometimes appeared on the verge of tears.
But after following her voyage I was struck by how much the nature of this sort of adventure has completely changed. It just doesn’t feel very “solo” or “unassisted” anymore, and that takes the blood and guts out of it. Think of all the time Jessica spent on the sat phone, talking to her family and shore team. Problem with the autopilot or generator? Get on the horn with the manufacturer for step-by-by step repair instructions. Feeling lonely and blue? Call up your Mum for a chat and some bucking up. Need an emotional lift? Read the comments on your blog.
And then there is weather. Without doubt, the most challenging element of early voyages was a nearly complete inability to know what weather lay ahead in time to do anything about it. So part of the deal was having the snot knocked out of you on a regular basis. In the Southern Ocean, you got the snot AND the crap knocked out of you, and that was why it was such a hoary, intimidating place.
But both Jessica and Abby Sunderland (the other 16-year old who was up for a little global sail), have been on the receiving end of incredibly precise and detailed weather routing. So good that Abby commented that “it was like having driving directions.” So good that I was amazed at how rare truly nasty weather was. In fact, I would venture to guess that Jessica experienced less extreme weather, and a lower average wind speed, than most if not all previous solo RTW voyages.
Now, if I was a 16-year old (or the parent of one) setting off to sail solo around the world, I would want every technology and level of support imaginable, especially weather routing. But there is no question that all that support, and all the connections to the real world, completely change the nature of solo, RTW sailing.
I think that’s a shame, and it’s something that is happening in other extreme sports, like mountain climbing (where almost anyone fit can now climb Mt. Everest, thanks to fixed ropes and climbing guides who do almost everything but push you up the last step).
In 1968, sailing around the world solo and non-stop was so hard Robin Knox-Johnston could barely do it. In 2010, it is so easy a 16-year old can do it. It’s just not that exciting anymore. Knox-Johnston’s book, “A World Of My Own,” is one of the greatest adventure books ever written. I sincerely doubt I’ll read Jessica’s.