Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ella-mental my dear Watson

Photo by Dallas Kilponen from Sydney Morning Herald

You have to feel for Jessica Watson, the unwitting cipher in a bizarre national game of mixed messages. In a country where most sixteen year-olds are not allowed to go around the corner unaccompanied, the thought of letting one sail off around the world in mountainous seas was almost more than the collective psyche could bear. It didn't help that she got skittled by a cargo ship while apparently asleep in a shipping lane just outside of Brisbane on the first evening of her practice run.

But then she went and we didn't hear much about her as she pootled around the globe's various treacherous horns and capes. Now she's back and has gone from being the subject of a crass public conversation about child protection to having the mantle of 'hero' thrust upon her by a fawning Prime Minister, no less. Must be mighty confusing. Not at all easy to unpick your adolescent rights from your responsibilities in that lot, I imagine.

It's hard enough for most of us to form a sentence after a therapeutic weekend dodging the madding crowd. After seven months of solitude and battling to dismiss her sea legs, the poor poppet was marched up a pink carpet and called a hero the minute she landed. She obviously is a hero, not least of all for summoning the presence of mind to deflect the implied burden with this,

'I don't consider myself a hero. I'm an ordinary girl who believed in her dream.'

Ah-hum. That was kind of a timely reminder that she didn't have too many backers for that dream before she set off. I don't remember the PM or anyone else for that matter screaming 'you go girl' as she sailed out through the Heads. Yes, it's all fine and good until someone loses an eye was more the general gist.

It hasn't been easy finding a nuanced appraisal of Jessica's achievement. She's either Joan d'Arc incarnate or the epitome of Gen-Y narcissism. The PM's already nailed his embarassingly crimson colours to her, er, mast. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum we have her sometime sponsor Marty Stills who called her 'selfish' and the commercialisation of her voyage 'disgusting'. With friends like this eh? It would be interesting get his perspective on what he understands the term 'sponsorship' to mean in the twenty-first century.

The best reportage I've found comes from It covers the event and its implications calmly and sensibly. It was also from this source that I learned exactly why Jessica's trip isn't eligible to be considered for an official record. Apparently the category of 'youngest person to circumnavigate the globe' was abolished a year or two ago out of a well-founded fear that candidates were only going to get younger. As I write there's a fifteen year-old from California well into her solo around-the-world voyage and a thirteen year-old whose parents have had their parental rights suspended for indicating they would give her permission to go.

As Jessica Watson was nearing Sydney Heads in her yacht Ella's Pink Lady in the early hours of Saturday morning, NSW police were making a gruesome discovery. In the southern suburbs of Sydney, the body of an eighteen year-old woman was found in a creek bed. She had left her home on Friday evening to meet a couple of young men she'd befriended on Facebook. It was a disquieting contrast in fates.

In many ways this is a case of all's well that ends well. Watson herself has missed no opportunity in politely suggesting that the cloying and very much unwanted over-protectionism directed at her was gender-based. Welcome to the real world babycakes.

The arguments have gone back and forth about her level of skill as a sailor, as if that would have made a blind bit of difference had she hit a storm with ninety-foot waves. You have to admit though it's a bit of an anomaly that a kid who isn't allowed to drive her Mum's Honda to the supermarket can legally take a small boat through the seven seas for seven months.

She arrived back safely and, in these outcome-obsessed times, that means we get to 'celebrate her success' with thoroughly distasteful nationalism. Had the doors slid differently, we might have been steeped in a mire of compulsive reflection and looking at a serious revision of nautical regulations, as suggested somewhat disingenuously by Bosun Stills. And we would have had a girl to blame it on. I have no doubt whatever that while one of the PM's assistants was drafting his 'Australia's newest hero' speech, another, or perhaps even the same assistant, was penning a self-recriminating harangue about reckless endangerment, just in case.