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Jessica Watson – no criticism of Jessica – just her PR Team

by Rob Kothe & the Sail-World Team on 7 May 2010 /AUS
The Sail-World team has attracted a lot of criticism – for our coverage of the claims being made by 16 year old Australian Jessica Watson’s PR team, while she is still battling the southern ocean. The three main threads of criticism have been

1. Why are your WSSRC record rules so stupid, restrictive, North Hemisphere biased, discriminate against young sailors etc etc.?

2. Why are you criticising Jessica?

3. Why did you not bring the shortened distance to the attention of her team before she went rather than waiting until now?

1. The WSSRC RTW rules have nothing whatsoever to do with us. They are what they are and we understand they have remained unchanged for decades.

2. We are absolutely NOT criticising Jessica.

We have nothing but admiration for her achievement and her attitude. She is truly an inspiration to people around the world, particularly young people, and our great sport of sailing. Jessica's voyage is a great tribute to her positive attitude, courage and good sailing skills.

We and the entire sailing world will celebrate a wonderful accomplishment when Jessica safely sails into Sydney Harbour next week. It has been a great adventure, a rare adventure, and she is certainly a strong role model for young Australians.

We should all look forward to Jessica's arrival in Sydney Harbour; it’s going to be a major celebration of a remarkable feat by this young lady. We wish her fair winds for the next few days.

3. However, we believe she and her hundreds of thousands of followers could have been better served by her media management team, they have certainly caused some issues that may well damage the Jessica Watson 'brand' and by these actions have taken away from her tremendous achievement.

Our criticism of Jessica’s PR team is not a criticism of Jessica. We don’t believe for a second that Jessica had any decision making role in the PR approach that has happened before or during her circumnavigation. Jessica did not decide her route, nor write the contracts with sponsors, nor send out the press releases about her world record and how she was aiming to beat others.

Here is some background

Last year when looking for sponsors, Jessica's PR management representatives, 5 Oceans Media, sent out a written prospectus to potential sponsors. This prospectus and then the contract sponsors signed stated her 'record attempt' would be conducted in full compliance with the rules and requirements of the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC).

Here is an extract from the the contract appendix, supplied to us by one of Jessica’s official sponsors:

The premise of the Voyage is for Jessica Watson to sail single-handed around the World non-stop, without assistance. The intended result is for Jessica to be the youngest person to ever do so.

The voyage will follow the rules and guidelines of the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC).

The route will commence from Sydney Harbour in or before the fourth quarter of 2009. The minimum distance is 21,600 nautical miles and is expected to take approximately 230 days.

When we saw that Jessica’s 'Great Circle*' route, as drafted and expanded in August/September 2009, we realised it would see her sailing a much shorter distance than the 21,600nm she needed to have done to achieve a properly constituted circumnavigation.

At the time we immediately contacted by phone and then email Andrew Fraser from 5 Oceans Media for explanations on what record she would be attempting to break, as it was clear that she could not beat Jesse Martin’s record,if she was sailing a shorter course. Andrew promised to get back to us, then he arranged for other people to come back to us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get clear answers back then, and we still do not have them.

We will accept the criticism that we did should have tried harder. However, we note none of that criticism comes from other media, because they did not even notice the discrepancy in the claims.

We just got on, and along with hundreds of thousands of other sailors and people worldwide, enjoyed Jessica’s blogs and reports of her inspirational journey.

However, as she headed towards her destination port of Sydney, we began getting increasing numbers of emails from sailors questioning the accuracy of Jessica’s PR team’s claims. Then other media outlets began to ask those same questions (the ones we started asking back in August, 2009, remember).

The subject was initially raised on two North American websites in early April, and then came the tipping point; the following commentary from Bob Fisher, the highly regarded British yachting journalist (he is considered by many to be the pre-eminent yachting journalist in the world) in his regular Yachts and Yachting column, which ran in the UK and Africa.

Bob Fisher has emailed us a copy of what he said, at our request:

'I have deliberately avoided commenting on the endeavors of some young sailors attempting to be the 'youngest to sail around the world,' since I regard these as wildly irresponsible on the part of their parents.

However, it would appear that Australia is split down the middle by the recent claim of Jessica Watson beating Jesse Martin’s record.

What the majority do not appreciate, thanks to the PR spin, is that while Jessica’s feat was a courageous one, she didn’t sail the requisite distance to qualify for a Round The World Record.

The distance around the Earth at the equator is 21,600 nautical miles and to sail any less than that, by Great Circle* calculations, would seem to be invalid.

Jesse Martin sailed 21,760, thereby qualifying, while Jessica’s voyage was one of 18,582. Jesse’s record remains unbroken.'

With that very public comment from Fisher – a high-profile commentator on the world yachting scene, with his UK Guardian newspaper articles widely read – we sought independent confirmations of the distances traveled by Jessica, then provided that information to her management team.

In other words, we did what professional media organisations are supposed to do – which is to report the facts as we are aware of them, without fear or favour.

We then sent the following note to 5 Oceans Media:

‘One of the local navigators has just presented the following data to us.

              Great Circle NM Rhumb Line NM
Sydney Start (Heads) 33' 50 S 151' 17 E to Line Islands 1' 40 N 157' 21 W 3600 3602.6
Line Islands 1' 40 N 157' 21W to Cape Horn 55' 47 S 67' 30 W 5480 5653.7
Cape Horn 55' 47 S 67' 30 W to Cape Agulhas 35' 05 S 19' 60 E 3590 3840.7
Cape Agulhas 35' 05 S 19' 60 E to SE Cape Tasmania 43' 38 S 146' 49 E 5288 5911.1
SE Cape Tasmania 43' 38 S 146' 49 E to Sydney Finish (Heads) 33' 50 S 151' 17 E 624   623.5
          Total Distance 18582 19,631.6

Do you have any data that is significantly different to this?

Note, tacks and gybes, zig zagging up and down a course do not count, it’s waypoint distances only.

You would be aware, I am sure, that this is significantly less than the WSSR minimum RTW distance of 21,600nm, (40,000 km) which is the circumference of the earth at the equator,

So everyone is on the same page, what record is going to be claimed?

The response from Andrew Fraser was as follows:

'Since the WSSR don’t recognize the record, it hardly matters. But she (Jessica) will have sailed over 23,000nm, sailed the 4 main capes & crossed the equator, non-stop & unassisted.

We’re not really interested what anyone else thinks in regards to contesting any of this.'

Our response to this was:

'It actually matters quite a lot if there is talk of 'beating Jesse Martin's record', and I am sure from every point of view, Jessica and yourself would want there to be absolute clarity and truth in all claims made.

There are just two ways to calculate marine distances traveled; great circle* and rhumbline. They respectively give 18,582 and 19,631 nautical miles for the course we understand Jessica will have sailed.

Great Circle* is the method used in all of the Round the World records (the WSSR Council lists Jesse Martin's distance as 21,760nm, based on a calculated Great Circle* distance.)

There has never, ever been a case of a sailor calculating a passage distance based on the zigs and zags of every tack and gybe, nor by adding the daily logged distances and claiming a record. On that basis the 628 nautical mile Sydney to Hobart race would be up to 800 nautical miles long.

So what could become a very important question is, 'On what basis do you calculate Jessica will have sailed any distance, greater than 18,582 nautical miles?'

Back came this response from Andrew Fraser:

You have my final response. We are not really interested in the technical concerns of a minority, so the tide can rise. The rising tide of her supporters is a millions multiple of the minority.

To be honest mate, we have much bigger fish to fry right now!

On the positive side, your coverage has been good – so thank you.

After this exchange, Andrew Fraser said the email exchange was confidential and not for publication.

Our response was, sorry it does not work like that. If you had said that in the first email, we would honoured it. But you can’t go back and forward with a media organisation and then decide looking back there were things you don’t want public.

We will report on the matter of the modified record claims tomorrow.

Overnight Bob Fisher has written more extensively on this matter and we commend his article Lies, Damn Lies and PR Spin to you. We have re-printed his article with his permission.

Correction: In the first cut of our Monday article, in good faith we attributed a quote to John Reed of the WSSRC, which we had been sent by an online source.

However, on further cross-checking and discussion with John, we found that to be a misquote. We removed it immediately. John Reed has formally advised us that no one in his organisation has ever communicated with anyone from Jessica’s team.

*The Great Circle distance or orthodromic distance is the shortest distance between any two points on the surface of a sphere measured along a path on the surface of the sphere (as opposed to going through the sphere's interior). The Great Circle distance around the equator is 21,600 Nm.
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