Sunday Mail Column 12-9-10: The one about Critical Thinking

I found myself eating a large serve of humble pie this past week. As part of the Brisbane Writers Festival I was asked to interview Jessica Watson. Yes, THAT Jessica Watson. The Jessica Watson who on 15 May 2010 at the age of sixteen sailed into Sydney Harbour and in doing so became the youngest person to sail solo, unassisted, non-stop around the world.

Like many I was dubious of the whole trip when I first saw Jess on the TV news back in 2009 talking about her plan.  What are her parents thinking? I mumbled shaking my head.  Why isn’t she at school?  I muttered rolling my eyes.  I mean, for Pete’s sake, this slip of a girl looked like she weighed about the same as my left thigh (possibly less). And she wanted to embark on an eight-month solo journey at sea? Had she not seen the cautionary tale that is Gilligan’s Island?

Did I know anything about Jessica Watson? Nope. Had I done any investigation myself into her background, her sailing experience, her demeanour? Nope. Was I in fact basing my opinion of her on 30-second TV grabs and the opinions of equally uninformed media commentators? Absolutely.

Before our interview I read Jessica’s book, True Spirit that chronicles her childhood as well as her experience at sea on Ella’s Pink Lady.

What I learnt within the first 20 pages is that Jessica Watson is a sailor.  And sometimes age actually is irrelevant.  It is blindingly obvious when you read Jessica’s story that she had the experience, the dedication, the know-how, the determination and the mental aptitude to have a damn good shot at achieving her dream.  Her parents knew. Her sponsors knew. Leading sailing identities knew. It was just we, the general public, who didn’t know. Didn’t know because we didn’t bother to find out.

My experience with Jessica reminded me of the importance of critical thinking. Whether it’s a sound bite about a teenage sailor or election campaign ads or moronic email petitions about refugees or free laptops – we’ve become lazy news consumers, willing to believe whatever angle we’re fed.

We sat through a recent election campaign eating up the outrageous spin both sides fed us. It’s worth remembering that statistics can be skewed and comments taken out of context.  Are “boat people” actually queue jumpers, taking the place of those waiting in refugee camps?  The Refugee Council of Australia website will tell you. Did Jessica Watson have much experience at sea? We could have read her 2009 blog. Can I really win a Dell laptop just by forwarding an email to ten people? Google it.  We need to get off our backsides, seek out credible information sources and find the answers ourselves.

As for Jessica Watson, well in person she’s a breath of fresh air. Jess speaks with great candour about her experiences in a refreshingly unpolished, humble manner. Is she tiny? Well, yes.  But she’s also wise beyond her years. Much wiser than me. Sorry Jess.

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  1. Georgia Guy on September 15, 2010 at 5:14 am

    Dear Rebecca,

    Superb article and I wish more of the press would do the quality research you did before they just “assume” they know all of the facts and the back story.


    Georgia Guy
    Marietta, GA

  2. JB in OK on September 15, 2010 at 5:32 am

    I appreciate your current post. Jessica Watson is truly a remarkable & accomplished sailor, a gracious & humble young lady, and a real Australian treasure. Thanks for recognizing her for who she really is!

  3. Anthony on September 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

    What a wonderfully candid reminder of not making snap judgements and of not simply accepting what the media parcels up into tiny packages for us.

    I think I’ll be making all my students read this column. Maybe twice.

  4. stinginthetail on September 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Critical thinking requires you question what you’re told – whether it’s by the press, or by someone who wants to sell you her book. Or by someone writing a post about critical thinking and then not doing any.

    Simply changing your mind about someone isn’t critical thinking, you’re just reacting to emotional stimuli, like you did when you first heard about her and jumped to emotional conclusions.

    As for this post, it seems you’ve been misinformed, and that Jessica Watson is perhaps responsible. She does not hold that record – or any other.

    She has however been a tireless self-promoter and seeker of funds to pay for her habit, along with her parents and PR agency – so she really can’t complain if the press sometimes prints/says things that aren’t exactly as scripted by her PR.

    The truth is – Jesse Martin still holds the record for “the youngest person to sail solo, unassisted, non-stop around the world.”

    Jessica cannot claim any records, for distance or age, because she didn’t actually do the required world circumnavigation distance. Simple. She wasn’t cheated, she just didn’t do the distance. She may be a fine sailor and a lovely human being, but she’s not a record-holder.

    Of course, if she’s trying to take someone else’s record and claim it as her own, then she’s not very nice at all.

    As the SMH explained it when the voyage was still underway…

    “Sail World managing editor Rob Kotche said to qualify for official “around the world” status, a sailor must travel at least 21,600 nautical miles, according to the World Speed Sailing Record Council. But Watson would come up short by about 2000 nautical miles because she did not go far enough north of the equator, Mr Kothe said.”

    • becsparrow on September 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Actually, at no point does Jessica claim to have the record. And I didn’t actually say in my column that she holds the record. And if you read True Spirit or spoke to Jessica in person you would find out that she was not interested in holding a record. When Jesse Martin completed his circumnavigation in 1999, the World Sailing Speed Record Council decided to stop recognising age records. So Jesse will forever hold that official record. Jessica Watson was well aware of this and for that reason decided to plot her own course around the globe — a more traditional round-the-world course similar to the one taken by Kay Cottee. jessica was not chasing a record and knew her name would never appear in record books long before she set sail. She simply set a goal for herself – a personal goal to sail around the world before her 17th birthday. As for sponsorship — if Miss Universe Australia applicants can seek sponsorship, why can’t a teenage sailor?

      As for Jesse Martin — the fact that Jesse was one of Jessica’s biggest supporters and is a close friend of hers, suggests he doesn’t feel like she is trying to “steal” his record.

      However, if you can find me an example of where Jessica Watson is directly quoted claiming to hold the record — email it to me. While I do not know Rob Kotche, I would say that many sailing identities decided to go to the media and comment on Jessica’s trip without actually speaking to the girl herself. If they had, they would’ve realised she was not chasing official “around the world” status.

      So you’re right — Jessica Watson isn’t a record holder. Nor has she ever claimed to be.

  5. magpie on September 15, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    A fantastic article.
    I love it when the naysayers have their two cents worth and seemingly forget that all the records set for round the world navigation, except for Jesse Martin and Kay Cottee, hardly touched the Southern Ocean. This particularly left out a rounding of Cape Horn and that bit where Bullimore and Autissier were rescued.
    Jessica had guts as well.

    • becsparrow on September 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

      Couldn’t agree with you more!

  6. hezakiah299 on September 15, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    09-14-10 @ 07:21
    Thank you Rebecca,
    It is so refreshing to see an honest and truthful article. Jessica is a unique individual and very special to thousands of people all over the world.
    This argument has been going on since before she returned to Sydney. As you know from reading the book, she never laid claim to the record, and yet certain media personell keep hounding that issue. I followed Jessica around the world, and then read her book. Finished the book and am getting ready to read it again.

    Thank you again for the fine article.
    G Michael Howard (aka hezakiah299)
    Kingwood, WV

  7. living savvy on September 27, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    One of my core values, which I bring to living savvy, is about being open-minded and learning by connecting with new information, people and experiences. Stretching and testing our assumptions and beliefs is just as important as stretching and working our bodies. If you want a strong, flexible mind, you’ve got to step out of your comfort zone and interact with people and information that you may not be comfortable with (for whatever reason). I attended a breakfast where Layne Beachley starred because despite reading and watching a few profile pieces, I’d never “warmed” to Layne and I wanted to check out my assumptions. Recently when I was asked if I was going to read, Juanita Phillips book, A Pressure Cooker Saved My Life: How to Have it all, Do it all, and Keep it all Together. The thought running through my head was, “Ugh, yet another book by an overachieving woman who’s surprised to discover that children really do turn your life upside down. So I took the time to read it and learned some things along the way – time well spent.

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About Bec

Over the past 25 years Rebecca Sparrow has earned a living as a travel writer, a television publicist, a marketing executive, a magazine editor, a TV scriptwriter, a radio producer, a newspaper columnist and as an author.

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