Round-the-world girl sailor pounded in violent storm

SYDNEY, Jan 24, 2010 (AFP) - An Australian schoolgirl bidding to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world admitted Sunday that a brutal storm which upended her boat in giant waves has made her question her trip.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Watson faced the toughest conditions to date on her non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation when she endured hurricane-force winds and waves up to 10 metres (33 feet) high in the South Atlantic Ocean Friday.

AFP file photo taken October 7, 2009 shows sixteen-year-old Australian sailor Jessica Watson aboard her yacht on Sydney Harbour

The Queenslander was left bruised and feeling "like I've aged a good 10 years" while her yacht, Ella's Pink Lady, suffered minor damage during the eight-hour storm which tossed the boat beneath crushing waves.

"It was certainly one of those times when you start questioning exactly why you're doing this," she wrote in her blog.

"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."

Watson left Sydney in her bright pink yacht more than three months ago and during the storm passed the 11,000 nautical mile mark on her voyage.

The tempest was the first time the schoolgirl had experienced a "knockdown" -- when the mast goes below horizontal and dives into the sea.

Watson, who was strapped into a seat below deck throughout the ordeal, said she spent the storm "with my whole body clenched up holding on, various objects flying around the cabin and Ella's Pink Lady complaining loudly under the strain."

"We experienced a total of 4 knockdowns, the second was the most severe with the mast being pushed 180 degrees in to the water," she wrote.

"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."

Watson, who said gusts had reached speeds of up to 65 knots before she lost her wind instruments in a knockdown, said the storm made it too dangerous to be on deck and she relied on her electric autopilot to hold the vessel on course.

"We didn't come though completely un-scathed though, as there's plenty of minor damage, but luckily nothing bad enough to stop us," she said.

Watson said the solid, inch-thick stainless steel frame that supported the boat's solar panels had been bent out of shape and the starboard solar panel distorted while there were a few tears in the mainsail.

Down below, the cabin was "a disaster zone, everything is wet or damp," she said, adding that the toilet had fallen apart and her stove refused to light.

She said by Saturday, the swell had dropped to a more comfortable three metres and dolphins were swimming beside her boat.

The Queensland schoolgirl's supporters believe her 23,000 nautical mile journey, which she hopes to complete in eight months to break the record set by fellow Australian Jesse Martin, then aged 18, in 1999, is the maritime equivalent of conquering Mount Everest.

She rounded South America's challenging Cape Horn earlier this month and is now making her way east towards the Falkland Islands and the Cape of Good Hope before tackling the vast Southern Ocean and returning to Australia.

When Watson left Australia on October 18, controversy raged over whether she was too young and inexperienced to undertake the challenge after she smashed into a massive coal freighter during a test sail in September.

Source: AFP

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