Australian Jessica Watson eyes the ‘youngest circumnavigator’ title two young men are now pursuing
The title of youngest solo circumnavigator has become an object of hot pursuit. First, 16-year-old Californian Zac Sunderland set off in June 2008 from Marina Del Rey in his refurbished 1972 Islander 36. Sunderland, who turned 17 in March, was within weeks of his destination in early June, having traveled 24,568 miles. Even if he succeeds, however, he might not hold the title for long.
Last November, British teenager Mike Perham, who is 108 days younger than Sunderland, took to the seas from Portsmouth, England, in an Open 50 racing yacht chartered by his father, Peter. Perham had hoped to finish before his March 16 birthday, but he was delayed by fierce squalls in the Southern Ocean. In early June he had left New Zealand and expected to complete the voyage by the end of July.
Now a third teenager, Jessica Watson of Buderim, Australia, who turned 16 May 18, has her eye on the title, as well. She hopes to begin her quest in a Sparkman & Stephens 34 in mid-September.
“It’s been my dream since I was about 11, but watching Mike and Zac’s progress has definitely increased the inspiration,” says Watson in an e-mail interview. “Some people think I thought it up a few months ago. I have wanted to do this and have been planning for it for years.”
Watson hopes to complete her voyage by April 2010 — before she turns 17. Meanwhile, Sunderland was sailing along the coast of Mexico, only weeks from reaching home in Marina del Rey.
Sunderland is sailing a westward route, and Perham is sailing eastward. Sunderland’s is a more traditional cruiser’s circumnavigation, sailing from California to Hawaii, then to the Marshall Islands and Australia, to Cape Town and Grenada, passing through the Panama Canal and heading home. Perham’s route is more like that of round-the-world racing sailors, spending much of his time in the Southern Ocean and rounding the great capes — Cape Horn, Cape Leeuwin and the Cape of Good Hope — a shorter but more challenging voyage than Sunderland’s. Watson will also take an eastward passage around the great capes.
For the California teenager, the world is a much bigger place, now that he has almost been around it, but Sunderland admits he can’t wait to be home. “I’m really looking forward to being in one place for more than three weeks,” says Sunderland, who spoke with Soundings over satellite phone shortly after embarking along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. “It’ll be awesome to hang out with my friends again and live life normally for a little while.”
Sunderland became concerned last November when he heard Perham was going to be chasing the same title. He’s pleased now that he probably will finish before the British lad — even if he doesn’t get to keep the title for long.
Sunderland believes the trip has changed him in the sense that he will always be looking to the next horizon for the next adventure. He has had his share of trials along the way, including a harrowing trip to one of his early pit stops, the Marshall Islands, in October. He had to deal with several storms, and his 30-hp Yanmar diesel died while motoring through 10 miles of reef to get to the Majuro Atoll. He put in for only a few hours in Costa Rica to pick up a new mainsail after enduring a night of lightning storms.
“I was only there for about three hours, but it was beautiful,” he says.
Sunderland has had his family’s support throughout the trip. His father, Laurence, who owns Sunderland’s Yacht Management in Marina Del Rey, kicked in $50,000 to help his son refit Intrepid for the voyage.
Sunderland intends to write a book about his adventure. In fact, he already has completed a couple of chapters. He hopes to use the profits to recoup his parent’s expenses. His mother, Marianne, says she is proud of his progress but is anxious to have him home safe and sound.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him,” says Marianne. “It’s really hard to fathom he’s done all this and seen all these things.”
While Sunderland looks forward to finishing high school and getting back to a “normal” life, he would like to be able to pull off some future sailing adventures. “I hope I will be able to keep Intrepid, but it has been an expensive voyage, so I may have to sell her,” he says. “It’s really been the experience of a lifetime.”
For more on Sunderland’s voyage, visit www.zacsunderland.com.
In early June, Perham, 17, had 14,900 miles behind him and about 9,100 to go. “The experience of sailing Totally Money.com around the world has been fantastic,” he says in an e-mail interview. “She’s such a thrill to sail, and nothing beats sailing deep in the Southern Ocean with huge swells and you’re putting out a really good day’s runs.”
Perham says his Open 50 has been holding up well, aside from a few equipment problems. He hit a snag a week after his departure from Portsmouth, when his autopilot and generator malfunctioned and he had to put in at Cascais, Portugal. And a freak wave in the Southern Ocean knocked the boat over, well past 90 degrees.
“My feet were on the ceiling at the time,” says Perham. “Loads of my gear inside the boat went absolutely everywhere. However, we picked ourselves up and kept on sailing along.”
Dealing with the elements on his own is nothing new to Perham, who crossed the Atlantic solo at age 14. Even so, this trip has provided new mental challenges to overcome, spending so much time on his own. “A trip like this definitely changes you a bit,” he says. “You learn to appreciate people and friendships more than ever.”
Perham knows Sunderland probably will finish before him, but his zeal is undiminished. “Zac may well finish ahead of me, but that’s fine and good on him,” says Perham, who met Sunderland in February in Cape Town, South Africa. “I am three-and-a-half months younger than Zac, so all I need to do is finish within three-and-a-half months of Zac’s return to get the world record.”
Perham’s father, who is chartering the vessel for his son, says: “Considering this is a 17-year-old, he’s really doing amazingly, really. As long as he’s happy, that’s where I want him to be.”
Even if Perham finishes, he may be in the same position as Sunderland — that is, surrendering the title quickly. Nevertheless, he says he’s excited the young Australian woman is going to try.
“I’m totally supportive of what Jessica is going to attempt to do,” he says. “There’s no denying that it’s going to be really tough, and she’s in a much smaller and slower boat than mine, so it will take much longer for her. Eight months is a long time to be on your own, but I’m confident she’s got what it takes.”
For more on Perham’s voyage, visit www.sailmike.com.
Long before Sunderland and Perham began their quests, Watson was reading Jesse Martin’s book, “Lionheart.” Martin is from Melbourne, Australia, and he completed a circumnavigation in 1999 at the age of 18.
“After I read this I was sure it was something I wanted to do,” says Watson. “I have never changed my mind since.”
Watson has been sailing and racing dinghies since she was 8 years old. Her parents — Julie, an occupational therapist, and Roger, a real estate agent — are working with their daughter full-time to get her ready for a September departure. Watson is the second-eldest of four children, with Emily, 17, Tom, 13, and Hannah, 11.
“The preparations are going really well, definitely on schedule at the moment,” says Watson. “It’s a long list, but we have an amazing team working together to achieve it all.”
Watson will sail a Sparkman & Stephens 34 that Australian adventurers Don and Maggie McIntyre bought for her voyage. The McIntyres, residents of Tasmania, are best known to Australians as the “Antarctic Couple,” because they spent a year in 1995 living in total isolation on Cape Dennison. Don has also sailed solo around the world, and the couple is providing much of the training and equipment Watson will need.
“[The boat] is undergoing a complete refit — everything from a completely new rig to new wiring, new electrical components, telecommunications and radar mapping equipment,” says Watson. “The marine industry has been incredibly supportive. There is no doubt I will have every means available to achieve my goal.”
The boat also has a 3-cylinder engine Watson says she will be relying on as little as possible.
Some of her sponsors include Red Lid Advertising and Design, providing Web site design and hosting; BWR Multihulls, which has supported the modification of Watson’s S&S 34; Fibre Glass International, which has provided the materials for the refit; and TracPlus Global, which will track Watson’s progress.
Watson has taken a leave of absence from her studies at Cairns School of Distance Education and will return when she completes her trip next April.
“It’s funny to have my parents working for me, sort of,” says Watson. “We’re not an old boating family, but we’ve been cruising and sailing for close to six years.”
Watson says her mom is working with her on fitness, nutrition, safety and mental planning, and her father is making sure everything is going according to plan. “Dad has put his whole self behind this project,” says Watson. “His day-to-day ranges from helping coordinate the refit to making sure everything is done as safely as possible and ensuring every member of the team behind me knows our timeline and our own responsibility.”
For more on Watson’s upcoming voyage, visit www.youngestround.com.
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.