Places of the Heart: Jessica Watson

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At 16, she sailed the world solo in a 34-foot yacht. It’s not the only epic journey the 2011 Young Australian of the Year has undertaken. 

2010: Cape Horn

Rounding Cape Horn, the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, is – in the maritime world – like conquering Everest. It is notorious for its brutal conditions and the ships that have gone down there over the centuries. As I neared the cape early one morning, I saw some grey rocks sticking out of the water and I remember jumping up and down, screaming. I’d been at sea for 88 days and hadn’t seen land in months. It was the height of summer but the temperature was getting down to 4°C and I was cold and damp most of the time. I sailed through that night in 40-knot winds and a big sea. I was looking at the chart thinking, “I really, really want to see this piece of rock but I can’t wait around and delay in this weather.” Then at daybreak I caught a glimpse of the cape. It was so dramatic, with squalls, big waves and flying spray, and albatross circling around. It was perfect – just as I’d imagined it. If I’d rocked up on a sunny day, it just wouldn’t have been right.

2011: Hobart

Hobart isn’t a big city but it’s charming and the people are gorgeous. They are so outdoorsy and adventurous and interested in sailing, and that really makes it special to me. Every time I go to the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, I’m blown away by it. They do a festival so well! In 2011, I was skipper of the boat with the youngest team to compete in the Sydney-to-Hobart race. The project had been a year in the making, including a three-month training period. When we arrived, the celebrations rolled into New Year; it was a big party for four days. The Taste of Tasmania event was on and it was such an incredible atmosphere. Customs House Hotel is open 24/7. You go for a drink and plan on heading to bed then another boat arrives and you have to stay to celebrate.   

2015: Beirut

I’m an ambassador for the United Nations World Food Programme and this was a trip to see the refugee crisis in Lebanon. Everyone knows Beirut as a war-torn city and nothing else. You can definitely see the scars – there are bullet holes in the buildings – but it’s a lively, amazing, exciting city with luxury shops and an amazing bar scene. One day, with UN warships patrolling in the distance, I went sailing with some young Syrians from a refugee camp. A couple of the refugees hadn’t been on a boat before so it was quite special. But hearing how badly they wanted an education was moving and sad – and a big shock to me. I’d sat through my last uni lecture bored and thinking, “Whatever”. But at the end of that day I realised just how lucky we are.  

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