WHEN JESSICA WATSON WAS 10 SHE HID UNDER A TABLE ON THE FAMILY BOAT DURING A STORM. SIX YEARS LATER HER PARENTS TRUSTED HER ENOUGH TO LET HER SAIL THE WORLD ALONE
HOW JESSICA WATSON WENT FROM TIMID TEEN TO QUEEN OF THE SEA
embroidered sloop sails east across Jessica Watson’s pillow. Her bed is made. A flotilla of yachts passes lighthouses on her doona cover. At the foot of the bed is a collage of faded pictures cut from magazines and sticky-taped to the wall with care; square and rectangular images of waves and sailboats. And people on sailboats crashing through waves. And waves crashing over sailboats. Terrifying rogue waves. Monstrous dark killers. The stuff of nightmares. The stuff of dreams. “That’s Jessica’s cabin,” says Roger Watson, who, no matter the oceanic prowess of his second child, remains the proud captain of Home Abroad, the family’s 12m motor cruiser berthed at the Mooloolaba Marina on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“I was standing here,” he says, in the doorway to the boat’s galley. “And she was there… ” The sleeping space that Jessica shared with her elder sister Emily is the size of a small two-person tent, split by a wooden divider. Jessica’s bed is lined with sailing trophies, sporting ribbons and books about oceans. “That’s where she told me what she wanted to do.”
Emily was the first person Jessica told. Home Abroad was at anchor in north Queensland, and the girls had their heads on their pillows looking up at a sky sprinkled with stars. Jessica made a point of sounding serious. She didn’t want her sister to belittle the dream, to cast it aside as another starry-eyed wish. Emily thought for a moment. My dyslexic sister who can barely read or write wants to become the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted non-stop around the world. My twiglegged sister with the fear of water wants to round Cape Horn alone; wants to brave the Atlantic. Magellan. Sir Francis Drake. William Dampier. Jess. “Well,” she said. “If you’re serious about it, then that’s cool.” Emily was the first to believe. Jessica was 12 years old. She smiled at Emily, then 13, and returned her gaze to the sky. The map of her life was etched in the stars.
Roger Watson straightens the corner of a doona. “I said, ‘Yes, of course you can do it.’ Because I knew her determination. But I always hoped for a long time that she wouldn’t. I had a lot of fear.” In the early weeks of his daughter’s seven-month, 24,285-nautical mile solo circumnavigation of the world, Roger couldn’t stomach looking out to sea; he was physically incapable of it. Endless father-daughter pre-sail trips between the family home in Buderim and the Mooloolaba work shed had brought him closer to Jessica than ever before. He finally understood her. The shy girl had bloomed, and let him into her complex, imaginative world. A place his wife Julie can describe only as “so … very … Jess”.
By the time Jessica, then 16, set off on her journey last October, her father, a boilermaker who had made some good money on real estate, was financially, emotionally and physically spent. He wasn’t sleeping. He’d grown paranoid about the volunteer workers who helped prepare Jessica’s boat, Ella’s Pink Lady. “Quite often I would stay back at the boat afterwards and have a look at what they’d done. There were people that I didn’t know. This is my daughter. Every nut and bolt, every last screw, I would check. Every contingency was planned for, but there was still that thought that when we waved her goodbye it could have been … goodbye, you know? Jess might not have been coming back.”
He walks through the galley, where a bread board and some used plates are stacked on the bench. “Sorry about the mess,” he says. “We’ve been a little busy.” He recalls the first real storm Home Abroad faced, sailing north to Hervey Bay. He recalls a terrified Jessica, then 10, hiding beneath the galley table, nursing the family bird Maggie. Jess was frightened of the water. She feared its power, its unpredictability. “But she had this very uncanny ability to read the wind and the weather, even from a young age,” says Roger. “And when she was at sea she said to me – and it sounds stupid – but I think before the waves got big she could actually feel what the weather was doing. A sea sense. She said she sailed around the world with her ear.” He smiles. “She was a very, very … different child,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
Jessica comes aboard, followed by her boyfriend and fellow solo circumnavigator Mike Perham. They’ve driven down from the Buderim house, where Jessica
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