Should a teenager sail the globe?

A 16-year-old girl has embarked on a great adventure, and prompted a great deal of fretting

By Kate Harding
Published October 20, 2009 12:20AM (UTC)
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Kids these days! If they're not shoplifting or sexting, they're insisting on solo circumnavigating the globe. On Sunday, Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson departed Sydney Harbor on a pink yacht, aiming to become the youngest person to sail around the world nonstop and unassisted. Last summer, American Zac Sunderland completed a similar trip at age 17, holding a world record for all of six weeks before the U.K.'s Mike Perham unseated him. In August, a Dutch court forbade 13-year-old Laura Dekker from setting out on her own round-the-world journey. (Previously, she'd been taken from her parents temporarily after they let her cross the North Sea alone.) It's madness! Next thing you know, parents are going to actually let their 6-year-olds take solo balloon flights, instead of just pretending it happened accidentally.

Or not. I can certainly understand the concern about letting a 13-year-old spend a year alone on a boat, and I think it's probably a good thing that Dekker's been forced to cool her young heels. And just in general, the idea of a world record for "youngest person ever to pull off a life-threatening stunt" is a bit unsavory, given where it must inevitably lead. But still, it's hard to say what the minimum age for such a trip should be, since A) so much depends on the individual, and B) attempting to sail around the world alone is extremely dangerous and slightly bonkers at any age. My grad school classmate Tania Aebi did it at 18, pre-GPS, with very little sailing experience and a boat plagued with problems. That she lived to tell the tale in two books and make a career out of sailing doesn't make her original decision to go one iota less batshit, in my opinion, but I am neither a sailor nor a particularly adventurous soul. What I've learned from Tania, and from reading about all these teenage voyagers, is that those of us whose personalities are fundamentally incompatible with the thought "Solo circumnavigating the globe sounds like a hoot!" really just don't understand enough to offer a useful opinion.


Meanwhile, I can't help noticing that there's been a lot more hand-wringing about Watson doing it than there was about Sunderland and Perham -- both of whom I only heard of after their trips were complete. "I do not want to shatter your dreams but to undertake such a voyage requires more experience than you currently have," wrote sailor Andrew Cape in a painfully condescending letter to Watson. Recently, the L.A. Times asked "Is the girl strong enough, mentally and physically, to deal with considerable hazards at sea, or the long, lonely calm stretches she's sure to face?" and fretted that the color of Watson's boat, "Ella's Pink Lady," would "announce to other mariners the presence of the fairer sex." Hmm, I wonder why folks are so much more worried about Watson than they were about those other two teenagers. There must be some difference there, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Watson's been sailing for half her life, has logged over 5,000 nautical offshore miles, and knows damned well what she's up against, as do her parents. Her father, Roger, has explained the calculation they've all made quite bluntly: "It would be devastating if we lost her ... but I still think it would be worse to say 'no you can't go' because of that risk, because of what she's put into it." Again, I have trouble imagining myself coming to a similar conclusion, but setting world records for perilous tests of human endurance is really not my thing. So I will defer to the opinion of someone whose thing it was, and who paid the ultimate price for her adventurous spirit: Amelia Earhart, whose new biopic comes out this Friday, 72 years after her disappearance. In a letter she left for her husband before her final flight, Earhart wrote, "Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

As far as I can tell, that's what it comes down to for Jessica Watson: She is quite aware of the hazards, but she wants to do it because she wants to do it. And in light of that, I'm with Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard: "I'm nervous for her. But my words at this stage, given that she's determined to go, would be to wish her the best of luck and to urge her to keep safe." 

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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