SYDNEY (AP) — A 16-year-old Australian who braved boat knockdowns and seven months of solitude on a sail around the world set foot on dry land outside the Sydney Opera House on Saturday and quickly set an earthier goal — getting her driver’s license.
Jessica Watson became the youngest person to sail around the globe solo, nonstop and unassisted when she cruised into Sydney Harbour in her pink, 34-foot yacht to a rock-star welcome. She successfully maneuvered her boat through raging storms, 40-foot waves and seven knockdowns during the 23,000 nautical mile journey that critics thought she wouldn’t survive.
“Amazingly, I just enjoyed it much, much more than I ever thought I would and handled the challenges better than I thought,” Watson said. “You don’t actually have a choice — you’re in the middle of a storm, you’re being knocked down — you can’t fall apart.”
After standing on land for the first time in 210 days, the teen said she’s eager to learn how to drive a car, to eat fresh fruit and salad after months of packaged meals, get a full night’s sleep instead of catnaps and shake off her sea legs with a long walk on the beach.
“You will pass your driving test with flying colors,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd assured Watson, who laughed along with a crowd of thousands, many wearing pink or waving pink flags in honor of her yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady.
It was a lighthearted moment in an emotional day for Watson, who admitted she was overwhelmed by the attention after so much solitude. Minutes earlier, she wept with relief after stepping off the yacht and into the arms of her tearful parents, whose decision to let their daughter attempt the feat was dubbed an act of insanity by some.
“People don’t think you’re capable of these things — they don’t realize what young people, what 16-year-olds and girls are capable of,” she told the crowd. “It’s amazing, when you take away those expectations, what you can do.”
Watson, from Buderim, north of Brisbane in Queensland state, sailed out of Sydney on Oct. 18 despite protests by critics that she was too young and inexperienced for the treacherous journey. Her parents maintained that she was well-prepared and noted she has been sailing since age 8.
“She said she’d sail around the world, and she has,” a tearful Julie Watson said from a nearby boat as she watched her grinning daughter cruise past the finish line. “She’s home.”
Watson sailed northeast through the South Pacific and across the equator, south to Cape Horn at the tip of South America, across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, through the Indian Ocean and around southern Australia.
Her feat will not be considered an official world record, because the World Speed Sailing Record Council discontinued its “youngest” category.
Australian Jesse Martin holds the record for the youngest person to sail around the world solo, nonstop and unassisted, after he completed the journey at 18 in 1999.
Martin boarded Watson’s boat to take over during her cruise toward the Opera House, so she could relax and wave to fans. Watson was given a goodie bag that included chocolate cookies popular in Australia and a can of whipped cream, which she injected into her mouth before laughing and turning away from the cameras.
She was also joined on board by Britain’s Mike Perham, who completed a solo circumnavigation at 17 in 2009, though technical problems forced him to stop for assistance.
Some sailing enthusiasts argue Watson didn’t travel far enough north of the equator for her journey to count as a true round-the-world sail as defined by the record council’s rules. Watson’s managers have dismissed those claims and argued she doesn’t need to adhere to the council’s rules anyway, since they won’t be recognizing her voyage.
Watson traveled through some of the world’s most treacherous waters, and the teen battled monstrous storms. She said those times gave her moments of doubt, but generally she kept her spirits up.
On her blog, she described stunning sunrises over glassy seas, the excitement of spotting a blue whale and the dazzling, eerie sight of a shooting star racing across the night sky.
She also had fun, chatting about boys and fashion with “Silly,” a brown seabird that landed on her yacht and kept her company.
She sang at the top of her lungs with no audience to critique her and indulged her sweet tooth with chocolate cupcakes she baked in her tiny kitchen. A video she shot shows her giggling while dumping a ceremonial bucket of saltwater over her head after crossing the equator.
And though Rudd dubbed her “Australia’s newest hero,” Watson disagreed.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” she said. “I’m an ordinary girl who believed in her dream.”