SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian teen-ager sailed into Sydney Harbor to a rapturous welcome Saturday to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe that will take her into the history books.
Accompanied by a flotilla of supporters’ boats, Jessica Watson, 16, sailed through the harbor entrance around 2 p.m. (0400 GMT), at the end of a controversial seven-month journey.
Watson is the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world. She returned home three days short of her 17th birthday.
However, her voyage is not expected to qualify officially as a record because of issues about her route and young age. Her backers, including her family, have also come in for harsh criticism, with some experienced yachtsmen opposing the voyage.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proclaimed her “Australia’s newest hero” after thousands watched her yacht Ella’s Pink Lady dock at the Sydney Opera House. Her arrival was delayed by choppy seas and a torn sail.
Watson said she was just an “ordinary girl who believed in her dream.”
She sailed around the southern part of the earth, a distance of around 23,000 nautical miles, past the tips of South America and Africa, before making her way along Australia’s southern coast and around the island state of Tasmania.
Watson, unsteady on her feet after months at sea, stepped into the arms of her family and walked up a pink carpet to be welcomed home.
She said it had been a tough journey and spoke of storms and having to ask cargo ships to steer clear of her yacht. Watson said she had been “terrified” of sailing when she first tried it but that it felt strange to be leaving her boat.
“Stepping off it seemed like the strangest thing to do because obviously I have spent the last seven months doing everything possible to stay on board,” she said.
Among those who welcomed her home was Jesse Martin, another Australian who completed a global circumnavigation at the age of 18 in 1999. Martin kept in touch with Watson during her voyage.
Watson’s yacht collided with a ship while on a practice run last year, prompting the government of her home state of Queensland to ask her to cancel the voyage.
Earlier, authorities in the Netherlands had made another 13-year-old girl a ward of state in order to stop her from attempting a similar voyage.
However, Watson’s decision to carry on despite criticism attracted high-profile sponsors and made her a celebrity. Her website (www.jessicawatson.com.au) and an online blog written from the yacht have attracted a substantial following.
She said she is planning to write a book about her voyage.
Editing by Paul Tait