At the age of 16, Jessica Watson spent 210 days at sea on a solo voyage of the globe. Here’s what the trip taught her about solitude.
At the age of 16, Jessica Watson spent 210 days at sea on a solo voyage of the globe. Here’s what the trip taught her about solitude.

‘Best moments are the silent ones’: Jess Watson’s iso joy

Jessica Watson is feeling peppy. The sort of peppy that comes from venturing further than the five kilometre loop you've been walking for weeks.

The sort of peppy that springs from knowing you have 25 kilometres to enjoy the jacaranda-lined streets with their purple carpet at your feet.

The sort of peppy that makes Watson, 26, just want to get outside, and get going.

"Do you mind if I walk and talk?" the seafarer, now temporary landlubber, asks.

"I'm on my mobile so I hope that's okay, but it's just so great to be out and about. It's weird, I'm seeing things I'm actually really familiar with, but really, really appreciating them."

In fact, Watson muses, her voice growing breathier with each step, being in Melbourne on this particular October morning when the city's tough Stage 4 coronavirus lockdown measures are lifted, is a little bit like being on a boat. By yourself. In the middle of a vast, deep ocean. Which is something Watson knows a fair bit about.

Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel
Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel

"It reminds me of being at sea, because when you are at sea, you don't see anything for miles, so when you do see something, anything at all really, you just really appreciate it. Everything becomes a novelty, everything becomes magnified.

"Well, this feels a little bit like that."

It was 10 years ago when the world watched Watson's entry into Sydney Harbour on her bubblegum pink yacht Ella's Pink Lady after a record-breaking 210 days alone at sea.

It was May 15, 2010, and surrounded by a bobbing flotilla of boats, and greeted by thousands of well wishers waiting for her at the Sydney Opera House, Watson, then just 16 years old, sailed into the history books, and a new-found, at times overwhelming, celebrity.

Then-prime minister Kevin Rudd was on hand to greet her, as was 60 Minutes, which had scored the exclusive TV interview with the teenage girl brimming with derring-do.

Watson's girls' own adventure on the 10.23m Pink Lady saw her cross 23,000 nautical miles; from the South Pacific across the equator, south to South America's Cape Horn, across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, then through the Indian Ocean to southern Australia and finally, Sydney Harbour, and into the arms of her somewhat relieved parents Roger and Julie.

Jessica Watson was officially the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone, non-stop and unassisted.

Jess Watson, at sea at 16.
Jess Watson, at sea at 16.

Along the way, courtesy of her video blogs, the world watched her battle huge storms, delight at dolphin pods surfing the waves beside her, and celebrate crossing the Equator by tipping the traditional bucket of salty water over her head.

It is a journey which requires an unusual level of skill and self-belief at any age, but at 16 years old it was extraordinary - something Watson herself didn't fully grasp at the time.

Growing up on Queensland's Gold and Sunshine coasts with Roger and Julie, siblings Emily, Tom and Hannah, adventure was written into the Watson family's DNA.

When Jessica Watson was nine, her parents swapped the family home for a 16m cabin cruiser christened Home Abroad and spent the next three years travelling up and down the eastern Australian coast. The kids were homeschooled, and the experience left the whole family equally at home at sea as on land. Perhaps a little more at home at sea.

"Sailing just felt very normal to me, and sailing around the world did not feel like an abnormal thing to do at all," Watson reflects.

"My parents were criticised a bit at the time about letting me go, but what people didn't realise was that my parents raised all of us to be very independent, to think for ourselves and to get ourselves out of trouble.

"We would go sailing off from Boreen Point on the Sunshine Coast as kids and stay out all day, but it wasn't extreme. Our home life was a lot more normal than people realise. But yes, my parents did encourage all of us to have a spirit of adventure … I just took it a lot further than they thought I would."

Watson laughs. Older herself now, and perhaps with a better understanding of just how much trust Roger and Julie Watson placed in her young hands. They always did, whether it was tackling the shifting moods of an open sea or the incomprehensible squiggly lines of an open book.

Jessica Watson, 16, off the southern tip of Tasmania.
Jessica Watson, 16, off the southern tip of Tasmania.

"I am dyslexic, and when I was a child had a pretty tough time trying to learn at school.

"But mum's mission was to build up my confidence and to not let it crush me. She was very much, "If you are not able to keep up with others the normal route, then let's find another way". She also let me know that reading and writing well didn't make me smart or otherwise. She would ask, "What else are you good at?". "Let's work on those things too."

How successful was Julie Watson at teaching her daughter alternative paths to learning?

Watson has written two books, her 2011 memoir True Spirit about her solo journey (currently being made into a Netflix biopic) and 2018's YA novel Indigo Blue.

She also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Melbourne's Deakin University and a Master of Business Administration from the Australian Institute of Management Business School's Melbourne campus.

Not bad for a girl who was once the only student in her Year One class who couldn't count to 10 or recognise the alphabet.

Persistence, it seems, has long been the companion of Watson. And fortitude. And courage.

During her epic sail, many watched in wonder at such self possession in one so young. Wasn't she frightened? Didn't she get lonely?

Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel
Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel

Frightened, a little, Watson says. Lonely, no.

"I think I was just so prepared for it, you know, to be alone, I think I was so mentally ready for it that I was able to see it for what it was, and then navigate my way through it.

"I did have times when I felt very alone, but not lonely, because I had trained my mind for that, just like I trained for the physical aspects of the trip."

Watson, who now works as a management consultant for a major accounting firm, and lives with her partner, Cameron Dale, 28, a property developer, says that today, all these years later, her solo voyage is still helping her navigate life's choppier waters.

Like so many other Australians, Watson is hoping to visit her family for Christmas.

Her parents now live on Brisbane's northside, and Watson hopes the borders will remain open during the festive season. She hopes so, but if not, there's a very high chance Jessica Watson will cope.

One way she might do this is take herself to her own "happy place", all these years later.

Watson says that if she's stressed, or anxious about a situation she cannot control, she closes her eyes and travels over the seas; once more a young girl at the helm of a dancing pink boat, salt spray on her face, sails unfurling above and grey dolphins racing beside her.

"I can go back there", she says.

"I can close my eyes, and be on the Pink Lady, away from it all."

She giggles, a hint still of the young girl the world fell for, hook, line and sinker. "Mostly, I do it at the dentist."

And in these uncertain and - in what has to be 2020's word of the year - unprecedented times, Watson says she's happy to pass on what got her through some of her own darker currents as she and the Pink Lady made their way across the waters.

"I don't think I'm any sort of expert at all in coping with COVID," she says, her voice growing breathier as she picks up her pace, "but there are some things that helped me that hopefully might help someone else."


Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel
Jessica Watson. Picture: Alex Coppel



It's okay not to be okay.

"I think it's not always helpful to say to someone who is in real pain, who might have lost their business through this pandemic,or someone they love, "just stay positive and everything will be okay". Sometimes, you are just really, really raw and maybethings won't be okay. What might help or at least what helped me was discovering that even though things aren't okay, thatwe really are resilient and adaptable creatures. We can be in the middle of the ocean thinking "Well, now what?", and thenwe human beings somehow figure out the answer for ourselves.


Don't take on the whole ocean

"When things just seem completely overwhelming, I think it helps to not even try to do it all at once or fix everything. Forme it was "don't think about the whole ocean". Instead I just concentrated on the next wave, or the next leg of the journey.When you are feeling good, you feel like you absolutely can take on the whole world, but if you're not, it's good to rememberyou don't have to. You just have to get through the next bit.


Wave your arms

"When I was alone at sea, I did have a lot of opportunities for communication because I was doing the video blog and speakingto my support people when I needed to. There is something about being human that drives us to be together, and even thoughI am someone who does enjoy my own company it did help me to have that human contact. I think it can help to connect withothers in the way you feel comfortable _ pick up a phone, or write a journal, or open up on social media, it's like wavingyour arms around in the ocean, just signalling you're out there.


Keep busy

"People often ask me if I got really bored during the trip, but I didn't because I always found something to do, from writingin my journal to performing boat maintenance to cooking, I knew that keeping busy was the key to the days not seeming so long.


Treasure the solitude

"Some of the best moments on my trip were the silent ones, just sitting in the quiet and taking in everything, enjoying theescape from the everyday noise. When I got back it was overwhelming coming into all that noise, all those people, all thatcolour. It was sensory overload. I didn't mind it, I loved it, but it was nice later to remember the quiet of the trip".



Originally published as 'The best moments are the silent ones': Jess Watson's iso joy

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