Schoolgirl circumnavigator hit by violent storm

Teenaged solo circumnavigator Jessica Watson has faced her toughest test to date on her circumnavigation, having experienced a violent storm overnight with hurricane-force wind gusts of up to 70 knots and a swell of 7-10 metres, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Jessica also experienced her first knockdown and then had to endure three more during the eight hour storm. A ‘knockdown’ is when the mast goes below horizontal and into the sea. In Jessica’s case, she was hit by a series of rogue waves.

During the storm, Jessica sailed past the 11,000 nautical mile mark. She was belted in to her wet-seat throughout.

Despite the horrific conditions and some minor damage, the good news is that both Jessica and her boat, Ella’s Pink Lady have fared well.

On her blog, Jessica reported: ‘We experienced a total of 4 knockdowns, the second was the most severe with the mast being pushed 180 degrees in to the water. Actually pushed isn’t the right word, it would be more accurate to say that Ella’s Pink Lady was picked up, thrown down a wave, then forced under a mountain of breaking water and violently turned upside down.

With everything battened down and conditions far too dangerous to be on deck, there wasn’t anything I could do but belt myself in and hold on. Under just the tiny storm jib, the big electric autopilot did an amazing job of holding us on course downwind, possibly or possibly not helped by my yells of encouragement! It was only the big rogue waves that hit at us at an angle (side on) that proved dangerous and caused the knockdowns.

The solid frame of the targa (the frame that supports the solar panels) is bent out of shape and warped (see pic below), which provides a pretty good idea of the force of the waves. Solid inch thick stainless steel tube doesn’t exactly just bend in the breeze, so I think you could say that Ella’s Pink Lady has proven herself to be a very tough little boat!

With my whole body clenched up holding on, various objects flying around the cabin and Ella’s Pink Lady complaining loudly under the strain, it was impossible to know what damage there was on deck. It was a little hard at times to maintain my positive and rational thoughts policy, but overall I think I can say that the skipper held up us well as Ella’s Pink Lady. It was certainly one of those times when you start questioning exactly why you’re doing this, but at no point could I not answer my own question with a long list of reasons why the tough times like that aren’t totally worth it!

So in the middle of all the drama, back at home Mum received just about the worst phone call possible from the Australian Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), telling her that one of my EPIRBs (emergency signaling devices) had been activated. One of the knockdowns had caused the automatic EPIRB mounted under the dodger to turn on without me knowing. Luckily I called in only a few minutes later before anyone could really start to panic. I was pretty annoyed at the stupid thing for going off and giving everyone such a scare!

After clearing up the worst of it and despite finally managing some good sleep, I still feel like a giant marshmallow. Physically, my arms and legs are all heavy and pathetic and of course I have a lovely collection of bruises! Mentally, I feel like I’ve aged a good 10 years, but I’m back to normal now and in good spirits as we approach the half way mark.

Read more on her website