The young girl and the sea

Jessica Watson learned to distract herself from loneliness with chores as she sailed solo around the world. Photo / Supplied
Jessica Watson learned to distract herself from loneliness with chores as she sailed solo around the world. Photo / Supplied

Young Australian sailor Jessica Watson left Sydney Harbour on October 18 last year and for the next 210 days braved storms, loneliness and a collision with a ship as she fought to become the youngest person to sail solo round the world. Following are extracts from her new book, True Spirit.

A horrible bone-shuddering explosion of noise woke me as Ella's Pink Lady was suddenly stopped in her tracks and violently spun around. Jumping up as the awful grinding noise continued, a quick glance up through the companionway told me that we'd collided with something huge, a ship. The sky was a wall of black steel, obscuring the stars and towering over me. The roar of engines filled my head and my whole world.

Leaning out into the cockpit, I grabbed at the tiller, flicked off the autopilot and tried to steer us. It was hopeless. There was nowhere to go, nothing I could do. Shuddering and screeching, we were being swept down the ship's hull. Another glance told me that the ship's stern, with its bridges protruding, was fast approaching. The noises were getting louder and, knowing that the mast and rigging were about to come down, I rushed back below hoping for some protection.

With my hands over my head I sat on my bunk as a whole new and far more terrible set of noises began. A few short seconds passed but to me they felt like hours. The cupboard next to me ripped apart as the chainplate behind the bulkhead splintered it into a million pieces. The boat heeled to one side then suddenly sprung upright with the loudest explosion yet as the entangled rigging suddenly freed itself and crashed to the deck.

When the boat steadied and the roar of the engines started to fade I went back on deck. It was a mess. There was rigging, lines and huge rusty flakes of black paint and slivers of metal from the ship's hull everywhere. Beyond Ella's Pink Lady I could see the dark outline of the huge ship's stern slipping away unaffected, leaving us at a stop in the foaming white slipstream.

Shocked and disbelieving, my head still reeling, I desperately tried to come to grips with what had happened while checking the bilges for water and the hull for damage. All I could think was "my poor boat", and while flicking switches to see what equipment still worked it became a sort of chant - "my poor boat, my poor, poor boat". I was numb and still shaking off the last remnants of sleep; being scared hadn't crossed my mind. My only thoughts were for Ella's Pink Lady.

Taking deep breaths to calm my shaking hands, I picked up the radio to call the ship and then grabbed the phone to tell Dad what had happened. "I'm okay," I told him. "I'm fine, perfectly okay, but we've been hit by a ship, we've been dismasted," I finished in a rush.

Back on deck, alone and miles from land, it took me over two hours to slowly clear the deck, lash the broken rigging in place and cut the tangled headsail away. I had to pause frequently to lean over the side and throw up as my earlier queasiness had turned into full-on seasickness. Finally, I turned on the engine to motor the six hours to the Gold Coast.

How quickly everything had changed.

Ahead of me lay at least 23,000 nautical miles of empty ocean, furious gales and the threat of multiple knockdowns. But on that day, I doubted that anything I was to face in my months alone at sea would be as difficult as holding my head high as I steered a crippled Ella's Pink Lady between the Gold Coast breakwaters and saw the crowds lining the river, the fleet of spectator boats and the scrum of waiting media.

I wasn't hiding things from people reading the blog but I was reluctant to really go into depth about my blue days. More for my own protection than anything, but also because I didn't want to worry Mum and Dad. It was up to me to pull myself out of the bad times and writing about it didn't help. What I had to do was distract myself, or get busy on something else.

There hadn't been too many tough times but it wasn't all easy-going emotionally either. At first I tried to hide any little hitch from everyone back home but then I realised that it was all a part of learning about myself.

A big factor in sailing around the world alone was seeing if I could do it and learning how strong I was and what I could do to deal with the bad times.

I had a few rubbish times in that week and felt alone, headachy and lethargic but I tried to keep it all in perspective. I'd had much worse at home. It was weird because most of the time I was fine and loved being by myself and then, boom, out of nowhere I'd just want someone there to give me a hug and look after me. At one point in that week there were things I absolutely had to do and I had to force myself to keep going when all I wanted to do was get into my bunk and sleep for days. I was dreading talking to Mum and Dad and Bruce in the mood I was in but I managed to snap myself out of my funk. It really was the small things that helped, things like tidying up the cabin, talking to friends, reading, writing and eating well - something I didn't always do! I don't think I mentioned in the blog that I had popcorn for breakfast a few times. I tended to write about food when I was being good.

As the waves were still building, I spent the first part of the storm out in the cockpit, hand-steering and then when it became too wild I sat watching over the electric autopilot as it fought to keep us running down the waves. The wind was freezing and thick with spray and it hammered in. It bit into any exposed skin and hurt.

As the storm got stronger I was completely mesmerised by the waves. I was just completely awestruck. I'd seen big waves before but this was very different. They were huge walls of water. I'd visualised them for years, pinned up pictures of fierce Southern Ocean waves on the bulkhead on Home Abroad, but nothing had prepared me for their power and their beauty.

Ella's Pink Lady handled herself as well as could be expected with just the little storm jib up but after a few hours my nerves were jangling.

The storm kept building and I was yelling almost constant encouragement to the boat and the autopilot. If a particularly big wave reared up behind us I'd loudly call out a warning so I could be heard over the howling wind, "Okay girls, here's a big one coming, get ready!" As the wave's crest knocked us sideways I hung on to whatever I could and kept yelling, "Hold it, hold it, come on, you can do this!" I'm not sure now if I was talking to Ella's Pink Lady or myself. As the wave picked up we'd surf down the face with me yelling, "Steady, steady."

We'd hit the trough and for a few seconds it would be quiet (at least quieter) as the wind was muffled by the mountains of water on both sides of the boat. I wouldn't have to yell as loudly as I said, "Good job girls, good job team." As I felt the boat start to ride up the next wave I'd shout, "One more, just one more. We can do this!"

I'm sure the yelling did more for me than Ella's Pink Lady and the autopilot but by keeping my voice strong and sounding so positive I almost tricked myself into thinking I was cool, calm and collected rather than completely freaked out.

It was like that time under the table with Maggie, our pet bird. I was reassuring myself by putting all my nervous energy into reassuring someone else. Does that sound totally crazy? It might, but it worked. There's nothing like a good bluff and pretending to be in control when really everything is out of control.

After a few hours the wind kept growing stronger and the waves had become massive dark mountains with faces completely streaked white. The white tops were foaming and curling like they do when breaking on a beach. There was nothing else I could do on deck, and I was getting really cold so I decided it was time to strap myself in below to wait it out.

* Extracts from True Spirit by Jessica Watson (Hachette, $39.99). Extract one taken from pages 2-4; extract two, page 16; extract three, pages 226 -228.

- Herald on Sunday

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