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Jesse Martin Interview

Outbound around the world, an 18-year-old Martin waved goodbye off the southern coast of Australia in 1999.
You may not have heard the name Jesse Martin, and if you have, you’re probably scratching your head to remember where it came up. At the age of 18, Martin quickly added his name to the pantheon of solo-circumnavigators celebrated in the sport, becoming the youngest person to complete a non-stop sailing voyage around the globe. That was in 1998 and 1999 when the young Australian piloted his 34-foot S&S sloop Ariel of Lionheart from Melbourne in South Australia east across the South Pacific Ocean, around Cape Horn, north to the Azores, back south to the Cape of Good Hope, and east across the Indian Ocean once again to Melbourne. It took him 11 months to manage this feat, and just a little longer to attain sailing stardom.

Now Martin has written a book about his trip ‘round the planet (Lionheart, A journey of the human spirit), which reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies even before it was releasaed in the US earlier this year. And he's established a fledgling enterprise wherein he and four other young sailors are exploring the globe aboard a 53-foot ketch to make personal discoveries. SailNet caught up with Martin while he was in New York earlier this summer promoting his book via various appearances, including a short stint on “Late Night with David Letterman.” We conducted the following interview via phone:

SailNet: We understand that you started sailing at 14, can you give us an overview of your sailing background before the solo trip?
Jesse Martin: I learned at that age because—me, my father, and my brother—we wanted to do a trip. We got on a 14-foot catamaran from Cairns and sailed to Cape York for two months. We camped on the beach and explored. When we saw the larger boats at anchor, I knew I wanted to do this kind of sailing with a little more comfort. After that trip I went back to school, but pretty quickly I did a couple of deliveries from Sydney to Brisbane. Then I did three and half months from Belize to the Tuamotus on board an Adams 40.

Halfway homeMartin enjoyed a brief ship-to-ship visit with his family as he rounded the Azores. He refers to the encounter as both the highlight and low point of his 11-month circumnavigation.
SN: In your book you mention that school didn’t really hold an appeal for you. Do you regard your trip around alone as some kind of rebellion, or was it for you the natural course of action in your life?
JM: I suppose it was natural in the fact that I read about it and I wanted to do it. The idea of being in independent and away from school was important. School wasn’t letting me be independent.

SN: So what books, or what sailors inspired you?
JM: Tania Aebi, she was probably the first. It’s more like the dream and her book was like that. David Dicks a Western Australia guy who sailed around the world when he was 18. I read his book. And I read Kay Cotee’s book. I read Chay Blyth and Robin Knox- Johnston too, and Naomi James.

SN: Can you tell us about your boat, Ariel of Lionheart?
JM: She was an S&S 34. I bought her about three hours south of where I live in Australia. It wasn’t luxurious, but considered bulletproof. I knew that David Dicks completed his trip in an S&S 34, and Jon Sanders had done his single and double-handed circumnavigations in the design. The boat I eventually chose turned out to be an oldie but a goodie. My worries during the trip were not with the actual boat, but with the equipment, like my power-generating facilities, communications gear, and my biggest worry, the mast and rigging.

"I didn’t do any celestial at all, really. I worked out a few fixes on my own, but I actually forgot the almanac so I couldn’t really do it."
SN: We know you had several knockdowns during the trip, but what do you identify as the low points, and the highlight of that experience?
JM: The halfway point was probably both for me. The Azores, that was my antipodal point, I had to sail up there and back to make it a proper circumnavigation, and that’s where my family flew out to see me. When I left the Azores that was one of the low points. The climax and the anticlimax all together, sort of. The reason that it made it worse was that I was anxious to see my family but they were waiting for two weeks because I got slowed up getting there by light winds. And then we only got to talk for half an hour because they had to go get on a plane and go home, but I ended up staying in that area for about five days.

SN: What forms of navigation did you rely on for that trip?
JM: I had an installed GPS that was on most of the time. I had to switch it off and back on when I got knocked down. I didn’t do any celestial at all. I worked out a few fixes on my own, but I actually forgot the almanac so I couldn’t really do it.

The 53-foot Kijana makes the perfect home for small group of adventurous, traditionally inclined sailors. Martin says the name translates from Swahili as 'young people.'

When you go back to Australia, you’ll rejoin Kijana. We understand that you’re sailing aboard this boat on a two-year adventure. Can you tell us about the trip in general? What’s the purpose and who is on board?
JM: Well, we started out in March, and what we’re doing is based on the desire to sail around the world and go to exotic places and have some adventures and kind of indulge in a rebelling against the modern way of things. The boat—a 54-foot ketch designed by Peter Culler—is an older design, sort of traditional, it’s strip-planked and it has tanbark sails and we’re using celestial this time. The places were visiting are mostly a little more traditional, the people there live by traditional means. It’s really about young people doing what they want. Doing things that require resilience, but learning from the experience.

SN: So you’ve got your brother Beau on board, and who else?
JM: Beau I knew would want to come. I know he can hack that kind of lifestyle. He's the photographer and chef. We’ve got Josh [Schmidt] who is our video cameraman, and Mika Tran is a writer. They’re from a youth organization called Reach and they’re both very connected with themselves so that they can express what’s going on here. Then we chose Nicolette Fendon from her video after we advertised for applicants. She’s from Minnesota. [SailNet learned that both Mika and Nicolette chose to leave the boat in mid July.]

SN: What kinds of things are you doing on this trip so far?
JM: Well, for instance, while I’m away, the boat is anchored off a small deserted island just off the rugged coastline of Northern Queensland. There’s really nothing there, just nature, but the crew is exploring and gathering observations. Further along we plan to visit aboriginal families, and live with them. When we get to Papua New Guinea, we plan to visit some of the 700 tribes that inhabit the area and trek into parts of the rainforest that have never been captured on film before.

SN: How do you pay for this kind of adventure? Are you sponsored?
JM: This is my trip. I have a partner back on land. He helps us to make all this work. He and I have invested in it to buy the boat. We’re doing the education kind of things on the website and in the local paper, and Telstra has paid for us to keep people in touch. But there’s no cash sponsorship behind it. We’re hoping to sell documentaries. I mean we’re in a little bit of debt to make this happen.

Martin (far left) poses with Kijana's core crew, including Mika, brother Beau, and Josh (left to right).
SN: Is there anyone out there doing this kind of sailing that inspires you?
JM: Not particularly. I don’t really follow the racing side of it. I haven’t raced, and I don’t really have any interest in it, so I probably couldn’t name any of those people. But B.J. Caldwell is someone I’d name. He sailed around in a 26-foot Contessa, but he stopped everywhere.

SN: What was it like to be on David Letterman’s show?
JM: It was OK. I guess it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was pretty casual. It wasn’t hard.

SN: So, beyond the Kijana trip, where will life take you?
JM: I’d like to take a bit of time off. I’ve been working full time since the last trip to get this one underway. It would good to have the time to let things happen.

To see what’s happening these days on board Kijana, log on to the project’s website at

Suggested Reading:

Summer Reading List by SailNet

The Voyaging Life by Beth Leonard

Cape Horn Charter Opportunities by John Kretschmer

SailNet Store Section: Books

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