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Round-the-world teenage sailor Jessica Watson gets hero's welcome in Australia

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed 'our newest Australian hero' Jessica Watson home Saturday after the round-the-world teenage sailor arrived in Sydney.

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / May 16, 2010

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Watson sails past the finish line at the entrance to Sydney Harbour in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, capping off a nearly 23,000 nautical miles voyage. Watson crossed the finish line of her round-the-world journey Saturday, becoming the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world.

Rob Griffith/AP

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Sydney, Australia

After seven months at sea, and a tumultuous welcome home, 16-year-old Jessica Watson now has to complete a book and a television documentary. So no one complained Sunday when the Australia schoolgirl, the youngest person to sail around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted, had a sleep-in, then spent the day with her family.

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Ms. Watson was hailed as “our newest Australian hero” by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, among thousands of people who turned out to greet her at the Sydney Opera House Saturday.

The crowd cheered when the teenager, still a little unsteady on her feet, declared: “I’m going to disagree with the Prime Minister. I don’t consider myself a hero. You don’t have to be someone special to achieve something amazing.”

Proving the critics wrong

Before she set off last October, many claimed she was too young and inexperienced for such a challenge.

The criticism intensified when she fell asleep and crashed into a cargo ship during a test run. Her parents, Julie and Roger, were condemned as irresponsible for allowing her to attempt the trip.
But when her yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady, cruised into Sydney Harbour – 2 1/2 hours late, thanks to a torn mainsail and a strong southerly which blew her off course – the national mood was one of jubilation.

Hundreds of boats turned out to escort Ms Watson across the finish line.

Hero's welcome

Setting foot on dry land for the first time in 210 days, she collapsed into the arms of her parents.
The premier of New South Wales state, Kristina Keneally, told her she had inspired the nation.

“You have reminded us in a spectacular way that life itself is a risk, and those who don’t risk never win,” said Ms. Keneally.

Despite her achievements, Watson’s journey will not be recognized as an official world record, because – in an effort to discourage ever more youthful sailors from such a risky endeavor – the World Speed Sailing Record Council has abolished its “youngest” category.

Last year, the Dutch courts prevented 13-year-old Laura Dekker from attempting to circumnavigate the world solo.

Doubts have also been cast on Watson’s route, with some experts suggesting she did not venture far enough north of the equator to qualify as having sailed around the world.

Watson, who turns 17 on Tuesday, shrugged them off, saying: “For me, it was never about the record.”

Book contracts and scholarship deals

The schoolgirl – who has book contracts and sponsorship deals worth at least $885,800 – covered almost 23,000 nautical miles as she traveled north-east through the South Pacific and across the equator, then south to Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, then across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, then finally through the Indian Ocean and around southern Australia.
During her months at sea, she struggled against homesickness, loneliness, and boredom.

She also battled wild storms. On one occasion her mast was pushed 180 degrees into the water.
Her youth was underlined by Mr. Rudd’s birthday present to her: a free driving lesson.

Until Tuesday, she will be too young to drive a car.

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