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Jessica Watson- Keeping the Record Straight

by Nancy Knudsen. on 5 May 2010
Jessica Watson route SW
As publication for sailors, not the general public, it behoves us to be accurate about round the world circumnavigation records at a time when there are some fairly confusing distance figure and claims being bandied about.

With the enthralling tales of Australian schoolgirl 16 year old Jessica Watson's voyage gaining enormous attention in the media, we have been inundated with in the last two weeks with emails, texts, skypes and calls from sailors who have been concerned that there is much confusion in the mainstream media and as one navigator commented 'apples are not being compared to apples'

When Jessica Watson sails into Sydney Harbour next weekend, she will have survived a bruising voyage with bravery and skill, and be on her way to fame and fortune, but she will not have taken Jesse Martin's non-stop unassisted round-world record from him.


Prior to her departure, her website said that, as she was 'inspired in her turn by Kay Cottee, the first woman to sail solo non-stop unassisted around the world and by Jesse Martin, the youngest person to do so, Jessica Watson has set her sights on shattering Jesse’s record.'

It is a truism in sport as well as other enterprises that the higher you aim, the greater the scrutiny. Olympic athletes who aspire to records are subjected to greater scrutiny than those on the local sports field. Clothing rules, drug tests, inspections of all sorts accompany their attempts.

Its a precise world. Another young Australian sailor David Dicks missed out on a 'non-stop unassisted' circumnavigation in 1996 by accepting one small bolt mid-ocean in order to repair his yacht.

The definition of a circumnavigation of the earth had its birth with one of sailing's early heroes, Sir Francis Chichester, who defined it as 'A true circumnavigation of the world ... where the track passed over 2 points antipodean to each other ... a circumnavigation where the vessel passes through two points on the earth's surface which are diametrically opposite each other …'

After the drama associated with the tragic demise of round world competitor Donald Crowhurst during the first round-world solo race in 1968, sailing authorities moved to make clear what it means to make a round-world journey. The World Speed Sailing Record Council, the offical record body that operates under the auspices of ISAF, the peak body for World Sailing is the recognised world authority.

The reason why the WSSRC, exists is so that such claims can be scrutinized before, during and after the attempts, lest everyone and their sponsors claim their own records, which is what many sailors is happening here. '

Jessica, with all of her braving of the Southern Ocean, will have completed a circumnavigation but not to the satisfaction of the WSSRC for Round the World record purposes. According to the WSSRC rules she has simply not gone far enough north of the equator. Look at her track and that of Jessie Martin and you can easily see where his extra thousands of miles were sailed.

We have been advised that prior to her departure Jessica's course router was well aware that her course would fall short of the WSSRC's RTW minimum distance.

Here is the full WSSCR Rule extract http://www.sailspeedrecords.com/the-courses-offshore.html

26.1. World Record courses for offshore yachts of any size.

All coordinates below are given in WGS 84 and are approximate to .1NM

a. RTW - Round the World, eastbound and westbound 21600NM . 2 separate records.

To sail around the World, a vessel must start from and return to the same point, must cross all meridians of longitude and must cross the Equator. It may cross some but not all meridians more than once (i.e. two roundings of Antarctica do not count).

The shortest orthodromic track of the vessel must be at least 21,600 nautical miles in length calculated based on a 'perfect sphere'. In calculating this distance, it is to be assumed that the vessel will sail around Antarctica in latitude 63 degrees south.

A vessel starting from any point where the direct orthodromic distance is too short shall pass one single island or other fixed point on a required side so as to lengthen his orthodromic track to the minimum distance.

No starting point will be permitted more south than 45 ° south.


As happens in every sailing passage Jessica has not sailed a straight line, she has tacked and gybed and will have no doubt travelled around 23,000 miles according to her log. However according to the great circle calculations carried out by one of Australian leading offshore navigators and crossed checked by a number of others, she has travelled 18,265 nm orthodromic distance (or 19,631 rhumb line distance), which adds up to 2,335 nm LESS than the official round the world distance, and 3,495 nm less than Jesse Martin's official Performance Certificate distance.

To make sure there was no disagreement - the full distance travelled data set below was supplied last week to Andrew Fraser, Jessica's Public Relations Manager to check.

              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


We invited Andrew to present alternate numbers if he and Jessica's team felt they were wrong. Andrew acknowledged receipt of the data, but did not disagree with the point to point calculated numbers.

However the confusion remains. Yesterday one newspaper reported 'Jessica has passed the 22,000 nautical mile mark on her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world

Why the distance discrepancy? The different set of distance has popped up because media has been given Jessica's distance sailed by summing distances sailed from sat tracking or perhaps daily logs, therefore counting every zig and zag across the oceans.

That of course has never been the way any sailing distances are calculated.

For instance the Sydney to Hobart race is a 629 nautical mile race. The mileage is published according to the straight line line distances, and does not include the tacks or gybes that yacht might make on the way. Some yachts might do 800 miles to get there, if the race is hard on the wind, but it's still a 629 nautical mile race.

That same newspaper would not report Wild Oats XI has sailed 650 nautical miles to Hobart and has only 100 left to go ...would it? Of course not!

Using such a calculation method Jesse Martin would have sailed 25,000 nautical miles plus, but that is not what the record books show, nor should it.

Jesica's voyage is a great tribute to her stoicism, courage and good sailing skills, to the excellent choice of yacht, to the technical and moral support given by her land team and the strong support by her sponsors, and to the craft of the PR company who has carefully guided the Watson family to maximise all the possible PR opportunities, but that's all.

It matters not that Jessica claimed that 'There are a few key targets I must achieve to qualify for around the world status. The approximate distance is 23,000 nautical miles (about 38,000 kilometres). I must depart and arrive from the same port, cross all lines of longitude, cross the equator entering into the Northern Hemisphere at least once and round the southern landmarks of South America and South Africa.'

While the WSSRC no longer recognises the 'youngest' or 'oldest' in any area of sailing, separately from that, the fact remains that under WSSRC definititions Jessica has simply not sailed an official RTW circumnavigation This is the way it is.

We and all the sailing world will celebrate a wonderful accomplishment when Jessica (hopefully) 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, its going to be a major celebration of a remarkable feat by this young lady. We wish her fair winds for the next six days.

However given that fact that the WSSRC is the the offical record keeping body Jesse Martin will remain the youngest sailor to have completed a Round the World circumnavigation, non-stop and unassisted.

This is the way it is, too.

CORRECTION: In the first cut of this article, we attributed, in good faith a quote to John Reed of the WSSRC, which we been sent by the 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.

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