05/21/2010 02:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sailing Solo: My Tenth Graders' Take On Jessica Watson's Voyage

A 16 old Australian named Jessica Watson recently completed an around-the-world solo sailing voyage. Apparently, there has been some grumbling from certain quarters about her route not exactly meeting the official circumnavigational standards, but no one can deny that she is a tough kid.

Jessica sailed 23,000 nautical miles non-stop in 7 months, unassisted. Her 34ft. vessel was knocked over several times. Alone she battled forty foot waves and the less visible challenges of fear, loneliness and exhaustion. She received a hero's welcome on arrival back in Sydney and, among other things, said she looks forward to getting her driver's license. They should just give it to her.

I asked my tenth graders, exactly Jessica's age, for their reactions. What struck them most was the fact that her parents had allowed her to make the attempt. They were impressed with Jessica's feat but tended to see the Watson's decision to support Jessica's plan as irresponsible, at least at first. Interestingly, I didn't hear a single, "Gee, I wish my mom and dad would let me do that."

Since they were obviously focused on the risks involved, I asked what they thought would have happened if Jessica had died in the attempt? Would there have still have been a story? Probably, they concluded, led by a chorus of loud recriminations and claims of gross parental negligence.

We all agreed that fingers would have been pointed and people would have demanded to know who had signed off on such an obviously dangerous voyage. There would have been pressure to prosecute Jessica's mother and father for recklessly endangering their daughter's life. Someone might even have gone so far as to suggest that a law be passed, so that a thing like this couldn't happen again. "Safety first" has become the 21st century mantra.

We watched footage of Jessica's return and discussed the role of chance in her seven month odyssey. She could have been slammed by a rogue wave and disappeared somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, but freak accidents can happen on land or sea. In the event, she not only survived, she thrived. Her ability to meet the technical, meteorological and emotional challenges of her 210 day trip certainly makes the case for her extraordinary skills as a sailor, not to mention her maturity and strength as a person. No one could be remotely that lucky.

The story we read noted that among those waiting to greet her was a fellow Australian, a boy, Jesse Martin, who completed his around-the-world solo at 17. One of my students, a girl, wondered whether Jessica's trip would be drawing as much attention, if she too were a boy. She picked up the not so subtle insinuation that as a girl Jessica somehow deserved more credit for her feat and, paradoxically, her parents more blame for letting her try it. Sexism persists. Of course, we need to have certain standards, a legal driving age, for example, but whenever possible why not simply judge people on how well they perform?

In sailing, as in many other areas, technology is a powerful leveler. Winches and pulleys make differences in peak physical strength relatively insignificant. Psychological and physical endurance on the other hand matter a lot. In the world of ultra-long distance running and swimming, for example, women draw closer to men as the races lengthen. In a seven month marathon of the sort Jessica undertook, girls may even have an advantage.

Jessica was clearly prepared. She accepted the risks as the price of the adventure, and she didn't limp home, she bounded. She also gave my students a lot to think about.