If anyone reading this has been fancying their chances of being named Young Australian of the Year next Australia Day, I’d brace yourself for disappointment unless your name is J. Watson. Because after sailing around the world at the age of 16, Our Jess, or Ella Bache’s Jess, or One HD In Conjunction With News Limited’s Jess depending on your understanding of the pertinent sponsorship arrangements, is a certainty. She’s like Kay Cottee and Hayley Lewis wrapped into one teenaged bundle of all-Australian awesomeness, with a heart bigger than Phar Lap’s, at least metaphorically.
Watson returned in triumph on Saturday after sailing 23,000 nautical miles. But of course you already know that, unless you’re lucky enough to have just returned from a protracted sea voyage yourself. Her arrival was covered live on all three commercial channels, and dominated the weekend’s newspapers, both in print and online. Thousands of people came out to welcome her, along with the Premier and Prime Minister – and even after 210 days at sea, she could have been forgiven if she’d chosen to turn the boat around rather than endure a welcome speech from Kevin Rudd.
The presence of the PM and Kristina Keneally at the Watson Welcome did seem somewhat tacky, as though they were hoping that some of her immense popularity would sprinkle some fairy-dust on their election chances. And it’s not just the politicians – right now, in boardrooms around Australia, marketing executives are surely talking up the value of an association between their product and Brand Jessica, the fresh-faced blonde who could have walked right out of Summer Bay. And it’s lucky for Kevin Rudd she has such peachy white skin, of course, because he wouldn’t have wanted the electorate to make the mistake of thinking he was welcoming an asylum-seeker.
While it’s understandable that Watson needed Ella Bache and the others to pay for her boat, all this hubbub about new sponsorship deals seems tacky in the extreme. To be fair, Watson herself appears to have a degree of class, judging by her apparent decision to turn down an offer of $250,000 for a magazine to attend her 17th birthday party. (I’m not sure her manager showed as much class, mind you, by announcing it.) And throughout all the hero-worship of Saturday, she kept repeating the mantra that she was a normal person. She’s not, of course. But I kept wondering, as I watched her on TV, whether she’d rather have arrived to a low-key catch-up with her friends and family instead of that circus. Someone could have thrown her a barbie, far from the TV cameras and paparazzi. And then if the PM and Premier really felt like shaking her hand, they could perhaps have dropped by her party discreetly, without the need to go live-to-air?
I kept asking myself why we couldn’t just be cool about Jessica’s achievement, play it down for once. But no. We had to have pink carpet, and politicians, and interviews, and endorsements. And, most vomit-inducingly of all, her supposed love interest Mike Perham hit the media circuit to trumpet his “special connection” with the girl who’s made headlines around the world. He calls her mum his future mother-in-law, isn’t it adorable? I don’t want to sneer at young love, of course, but wouldn’t someone who truly cared for Jess have perhaps resisted a gushing interview with New Idea?
While it’s easy to forget now amid the plaudits, Watson’s voyage has always been controversial. Most recently, there has been an argument over whether her feat meets the official definition of a round-the-world voyage. But even if she’d gone that extra distance, the World Speed Sailing Record Council doesn’t recognise underage records. Which makes them seem like terrible killjoys, of course. But it’s a sensible policy because while this particular voyage had a happy ending, it could so easily have been different.
I’m willing to admit that I was one of those who criticised the idea before her departure, when naysaying experts were warning that she could kill herself. The fears seemed justified after her test run, when Watson somehow succeeded in hitting a 225m long Chinese freighter – she was asleep at the time. And even though she triumphed brilliantly, proving people like me and the Queensland Premier wrong, that doesn’t mean it was a smart risk to take in the first place. I don’t have a child, but if I did, there is no way on this earth that I’d allow them to undertake a voyage like that at 16. Fortunately, if they have half my genes they’ll undoubtedly be too timid and unathletic to want to.
Watson’s headline-making is far from over – for one thing, she’s due the singular honour of receiving the keys to the Sunshine Coast. But all of this hoopla, and the commercial bonanza that will make her a millionaire, will surely encourage unscrupulous parents to send ever-younger children on ever-more dangerous adventures. To top her efforts, the next kid to sail around the world will have to be 15, then 14, and where will it stop? As has been proven by the habitual cruelty of tennis parents and the gaudy hideousness of junior beauty contests, the sound judgement of parents cannot be relied on when fame and fortune are at stake for their offspring. How long until, inspired by Watson’s example, some unscrupulous parent straps their toddler onto a raft and sets them adrift in the general direction of New Zealand?
While I’m in awe of Watson’s bravery and amazed by her achievement, it would have reflected better on the rest of us if we could have handled her arrival as sensibly as she handled her circumnavigation. The next young sailor who barrels into a Chinese freighter on account of her inexperience may not be lucky enough to escape with only the loss of their mast.