On Saturday, Australian teenager Jessica Watson sailed into Sydney Harbour to complete an amazing journey. The 16 year old has spent 7 months sailing around the world, on her own, without stopping. The voyage will have a huge impact on the way sailing is regarded and also has big implications for the sponsorship of sailing activities. This is not about old men like the America’s Cup, this is about character.
Jessica’s story is not about sailing, not really. The reason that her arrival back in Australia received live television coverage and was reported in media that would never normally carry a sailing story, is that it is a human interest tale of achievement. It is the story of an individual who set out to accomplish a dream and succeeded.
The stories in media outlets like New Idea, 60 Minutues and ‘Stock & Land’ will not mention sail area or hull displacement. This story will now be turned into a ‘battler overcomes all odds’ tale, even by those who said she would never make it.
Amongst the flag waving (because there is a large nationalistic element involved) there is controversy, but the sailing world needs to sit back and listen to the public. This is an opportunity to understand what it is that allows sailing to jump out of the small niche media and appeal to a mass-market.
And it’s not a revelation. Those involved with the elite end of solo-offshore racing know that the human story is the essential element to capture the imagination of an audience who are not interested in the machine. This is an important reminder. Too often, the sport of sailing is reduced to the names of the tools. Take this example from an article about this weekend’s Audi Med Cup:
“Through the five events of the 2010 Audi MedCup season, regatta trophies are a bonus, and this is Emirates Team New Zealand’s fifth successive regatta title in a row, but the dominant Kiwi crew will be even more content to leave Portugal with a comprehensive lead of 20 points over Franco-German Circuit newcomers AudiA1 powered by All4ONE.”
While the bean-counters at Emirates Airlines and Audi will be happy with the association of their brand with a high-end event, there is nothing in this statement for a fan to get excited. One TP52 boat beat another TP52 boat. They might as well have been sailed by remote control. Here’s another one from the RORC De Guigand Bowl:
By the time Apollo had reached St.Catherine’s Point, they had caught up the entire fleet and crossed ahead of rival TP 52, John Merricks II.
I disagree with those who say that sailing needs to be dumbed down to appeal to a wider audience. Sports like American Football are complicated, yet still attract huge numbers of spectators. Instead, sailing needs to do more to create ‘rock-stars’ out of the men and women who are competing. Boats don’t sail themselves, just as Formula 1 cars don’t drive themselves.
Jessica Watson deserves to benefit from any commercial deals that arise as a result of her adventure. With a bit of luck, sailing may also benefit from people who are inspired by her actions to get out on the water. Those who seek to promote the sport to the widest possible audience need to take note.