Commentary

Fellow Aussie inspired Watson

Updated: September 27, 2009, 12:51 PM ET
By David Amber and Nicole Noren | Special to ESPN

Jesse Martin was in a good mood. Martin, a 28-year-old Australian sailor, was in Los Angeles to attend a screening of his new documentary, "5 Lost at Sea." The film had just been awarded best documentary at the West Hollywood International Film Festival, and he was eager to share his tale and his opinions about another Australian sailor, 16-year-old Jessica Watson.

[+] EnlargeJessica Watson
AP Photo/Liam KidstonJessica Watson, 16, is about to embark on an around-the-world journey all alone.

Watson is preparing to attempt to break Martin's world record as the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe -- without any help and without stopping. She plans to leave Sydney Harbour around Oct. 12. Martin has unique perspective on this venture, and says that whether Watson succeeds will ultimately come down to how she handles the adverse emotional and psychological conditions she will face.

Martin was 18 when he returned home to Melbourne on Oct. 31, 1999, after 328 straight days at sea. He had survived months of isolation, exhaustion and extreme storms to sail into the record books. Martin's triumphant return left an indelible mark on the sailing community, and now another young Aussie is preparing to attempt to make her own impression by braving the open water, without help, without stopping, with a place in history on the line.

Watson is 16 and not yet old enough to vote, own a firearm or even drive a car alone in her hometown of Buderim on Australia's Sunshine Coast. Her youth, however, hasn't been a roadblock for Jessica as she prepares to set out on her own voyage of self-discovery. It's a journey that's expected to last eight months and span 23,000 nautical miles.

"I love the challenge of it," Watson says. "You know, every day is different. You don't know what you're going to get and you've got to overcome what you're given."

Watson says she first dreamed of sailing around the world by herself when she was around 11 and her mother, Julie, read her Jesse Martin's biography, "Lionheart -- The Jesse Martin Story."

[+] EnlargeJesse Martin
Robert Cianflone/Getty ImagesJesse Martin accomplished the feat 10 years ago, and now says Jessica's effort will largely depend on her mental stamina.

"That was just sort of like for me, like wow, you know anyone can do this, I could do this," Watson said in August as she prepared for her upcoming trip.

With eight years of sailing experience and having lived on her family's boat for nearly a third of her life, she has far more experience on the water than Martin had at his departure. Martin had just six hours of solo sailing under his belt when he began his 11-month voyage around the world on Dec. 7, 1998.

"A lot of people thought that I basically had no experience and didn't know what I was doing," says Martin, now 28. "And to a degree they were right."

Martin's youth and inexperience made his family and him easy targets for critics who opposed the trip. Martin's mother, Louise, who had taken out a second mortgage on her house to help pay for her son's trip, quit her job while her son was at sea because of the scrutiny. Still, Martin says he wasn't deterred.

"I was a bit oblivious to the negativity" he says, "but you know, I think some parents thought my parents were sending me to my death."

Martin did have a few close calls. While sailing below South Africa, he encountered four straight days of winds greater than 55 mph. A series of 30-foot waves almost destroyed his 34-foot yacht.

"I could hear the wave approaching and I knew what was about to happen," he said. "I was feeling the boat shake and wondering if the pressure of this wave was just going to smash my boat like an eggshell."

During the worst night, he says, there were five knockdowns when his boat was slammed onto its side repeatedly and Martin was tossed around helplessly while many of his belongings were lost overboard. Martin says that was the low point of his 11 months at sea.

His journey was made into a documentary, "Lionheart: The Jesse Martin Story." (Watch a scene from the film.) The film details the physical and psychological strain months alone at sea had on him. At one point, Martin appears a broken soul, filmed sitting on the floor of his boat, weeping, terrified that his vessel won't survive the immense storm he is facing. Martin's boat, although damaged, survived the trip.

Watson will use a similar 34-foot yacht -- Ella's Pink Lady -- on her journey, and thanks to a legion of corporate sponsors and volunteers, she will have a state-of-the-art vessel equipped with all the latest safety and technological devices. Watson's boat has a GPS tracker and four positioning beacons so that her location is always known. She will have a satellite for phone, Internet and e-mail access, as well as five cameras for video blogging and a planned documentary.

Much of what was captured on film during Martin's trip was the eerie isolation he felt sailing alone mile after mile. During one stretch, Martin went nearly five months without seeing another human, isolation he remembers vividly to this day.

"I saw planes in the sky in the Atlantic flying over," he says. "I was picturing everyone up there eating their meals and watching movies, and I was just stuck there with a book."

Martin, who had a satellite phone to communicate with family and friends, acknowledged there were difficult times on his trip when he was ready to quit.

"There were times when I was writing [in a journal], 'I wish something would happen to the boat, so I could get rescued, so it was no longer my choice to keep going or turn around,'" he says. "You know, because it's always a choice to keep going."

[+] EnlargeRoger and Jessica Watson
Bill Roach/ESPNJessica's father, Roger, quit his job as a real estate agent to help her prepare full-time.

Martin said that because it was a nonstop trip, he really didn't have an easy way out.

"I was so far from land that to choose to turn around would take me a month to get back," he said. "And by then, I probably would have changed my mind. So, being so remote probably helped me because my only way out was to get to the finish."

Martin, who turned 18 eight months into his trip, didn't quit. But how will a 16-year-old handle these conditions? Martin says he believes Watson will learn to cope with her unique surroundings. Others say prolonged isolation and unpredictable, possibly extreme weather could spell disaster for Watson.

In the Brisbane Times, Bill Muehlenberg, a representative from the Family Council of Victoria, called Watson's trip "irresponsible." Dr. Patricia Noller, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Queensland, added, "I think there could be an enormous sense of loneliness and isolation, which you know, can send people a little crazy."

Noller, who has published 12 books on family relationships, told ESPN that Watson's trip is a classic case of parental boundaries being neglected for the sake of accommodation.

"Parents tend to surrender," she said. "Instead of being a parent, they want to be pally, chummy with their adolescents and so they are more likely then to go along with what they want, rather than to help them really evaluate how sensible their decisions are."

Watson's family dismisses the criticism as uninformed opinions, citing the three years of preparation and planning that have gone into her trip. Furthermore, Watson says she has learned from the pitfalls that Martin faced and has planned her trip accordingly. She hopes by leaving in October, rather than December as Martin did, and by taking a different route than Martin, she can avoid some of the weather conditions he encountered. As an added safety measure, Watson has registered with the Rescue Coordination Center, which will continually track her progress.

[+] EnlargeJessica Watson with her brother Tom and mother Julie
Nicole Noren/ESPNJessica's mother, Julie, and brother Tom help her gather her food for the journey.

These safety precautions recently came into question after Watson, who had set sail for Sydney from her home on the Sunshine Coast on Sept. 9, collided with a 225-meter, 65,000-ton Japanese bulk carrier on her first night at sea. The trip was planned so she could do some more solo sailing and test her yacht's equipment, but the accident damaged her mast and rigging.

On Saturday in Australia, an incident report from the government agency Martime Safety Queensland was leaked to the media. According to the Brisbane Times, MSQ determined that Watson most likely "dozed off" before the collision. Acting Queensland Premier Paul Lucas has made a personal appeal to the Watsons to rethink the planned trip. The government, however, has no authority to stop her from setting off on her journey.

Watson's team is busy repairing her yacht, and told ESPN that she is on course to set sail out of Sydney Harbour in approximately two weeks. Martin says he believes Watson's success will depend largely on her mental stamina. Asked how her trip will be different than his, he said: "I can't see it being that different at all. She'll have better communications, but at the end of the day she is still going to have that same feeling I did when you hang up the phone and you go, 'I'm on my own.'"

During his trip, Martin was forced to make a series of boat repairs, survived some personal injuries including a severe cut on his finger, and was fortunate to avoid crashing into a whale in the South Atlantic. He says Watson, whom he met in July and describes as mature, will need equal parts luck and resilience to overcome the inevitable problems she'll encounter. If she does set a sailing record there's no telling how great her celebrity and earning power could grow.

[+] EnlargeJesse Martin and Zac Sunderland
Nicole Noren/ESPNJesse Martin and Zac Sunderland share a common bond having made it around the world solo.

When Martin sailed into the Melbourne Harbour returning from his trip, he was welcomed by 25,000 people. His instant celebrity led to two documentaries, the founding of a production company and a book. The money he has earned covered the estimated $300,000 cost he says financed his trip, and allowed Martin to start a sailing adventure charter business with his brother, Beau, in Papua New Guinea. He also has a Web site, jessemartin.net.

Martin says there is far more media attention surrounding Watson's trip than there was for his. Perhaps the added wrinkle that it's a 110-pound young woman setting out to sea alone has captivated some hearts and heightened the scrutiny.

Either way, Martin downplayed Watson's gender as a factor in how she will fare.

"People assume to conquer the world you need to be strong and they go, 'Well, she's a girl, surely she can't be strong enough,'" Martin says. "But you know, I've always thought you need brains. I think it's more about the brainpower than the muscle power."

Martin says he will be keenly watching Watson's progress as the weeks and months go by. Not because his record is on the line, but because he has great respect for anyone who will take a risk and ignore the skeptics to attempt to fulfill her dreams.

Especially since it's a dream that Martin helped inspire.

Pink LadyNicole Noren/ESPNWatson will skipper Ella's Pink Lady on her trip.

David Amber is a reporter for "Outside the Lines" and "SportsCenter," and can be reached at david.c.amber@espn.com. Nicole Noren is a producer for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at Nicole.K.Noren@espn.com.