Saturday, 22 May 2010

Youngest round the world sailor returns home

Sixteen year-old Jessica Watson returned home after a 210 day, 23000 miles solo around the world voyage at sea to become an instant heroine, earlier criticism mostly forgotten. Australia came out to welcome Jessica and her boat “Ella’s Pink Lady” back into Sydney harbour in droves; media helicopters buzzed overhead, people had filled up beaches, Sydney’s waterfront and the Opera House. There was even a sky-writing plane that wrote ‘Jessica’ across the sky. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Kristina Keneally came out to receive Jessica, even as she was delayed by two hours struggling with a torn mainsail and heavy swell. The Prime Minister hailed her as the country's "newest hero".

The 16-year-old became the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Jessica is still too young to buy the champagne that was popped to herald her record; in any case, all that the tired but overwhelmed teenager wanted to do was sink into a "big, non-rolling bed and eat some fresh food". Her parents helped Jessica as she disembarked, a little wobbly at the knees. "As a little girl, people don't think you're capable of these things, they don't realise what young people, 16-year-olds and girls are capable of. But it's amazing what you can do," said the girl who has yet to finish school- and is looking forward to getting her driver’s license!

There is still some saying that the record is not official. For one, they say, Jessica did not sail enough to the north of the equator, as the World Speed Sailing Record Council indicates, to make this a true round-the-world voyage. The Council had withdrawn the ‘under 18 category’ after worldwide criticism and controversy about young teenage sailors being exposed to risks at sea.

To most Australians, however, Jessica is the real thing. Jessica is not fazed by all the controversy either. "Call me immature, but I've actually been having a bit of a giggle over the whole thing. If I haven't been sailing around the world, then it beats me what I've been doing out here all this time!" she wrote in a blog when at sea. She also said that she was overwhelmed by the welcome in Sydney, and that it was a "mega mega under-exaggeration" to describe her return as "the most amazing day". Among the highlights of her trip, she said, was the sighting of a blue whale.

Jessica has been sailing since she was eight, but she ran into a lot of criticism, as did her parents, when she sailed out of Sydney Harbour last year. Many said she was too young; many were concerned about her safety, especially after she had collided with a ship on a practice run earlier. Nevertheless, she embarked on a remarkable voyage through the South Pacific, across the equator, south to Cape Horn, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, then through the Indian Ocean and around southern Australia.

The teenager is now a celebrity. A book, True Spirit: The Aussie Girl who Took on the World, is to be published later this year, and some are already calling for Watsons Bay, the last bay she saw as she left Sydney on October 17 last year, to be renamed ‘Watson’s Bay'. At that time, there were only a handful of spectators who had come to see her off.


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