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Aussie teen, 16, arrives safely at port to become youngest -- male or female -- to ever sail solo around world

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

SYDNEY -- An Australian teenager became the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world after a seven-month journey that was completed Saturday.

Thousands cheered as 16-year-old Jessica Watson maneuvered her pink 34-foot yacht into Sydney Harbour, the finale to an adventure in which she overcame 40-foot waves, homesickness and critics who said she'd never make it home alive.

"She said she'd sail around the world and she has," a tearful Julie Watson said as she watched her grinning daughter cruise past the finish line from a nearby boat. "She's home."

Watson docked at the city's iconic Opera House, bursting into tears and gasping in relief as she stepped off her yacht and into the arms of her parents. She hung onto her father and brother as she walked slowly and tentatively along a pink carpet rolled out in her honor -- her first steps on land in 210 days.

"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," Watson told the raucous crowd, many wearing pink clothes and waving pink flags in honor of her yacht, Ella's Pink Lady. "It's amazing when you take away those expectations what you can do."

Her parents' decision to let their daughter attempt such a feat was highly criticized.

"I don't think any of us would ever doubt Jessica Watson again," said New South Wales state Premier Kristina Keneally, who was waiting at the Opera House to welcome the teen.

"I'm completely overwhelmed. I just don't know what to think and what to say at the moment," Watson said, her voice trembling, in an interview broadcast live on a screen outside the Opera House. "It's all a bit much but absolutely amazing."

Watson, from Buderim, north of Brisbane in Queensland state, sailed out of Sydney on Oct. 18. She traveled 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.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd greeted Watson at the Opera House with a grin and a hug, dubbing her "Australia's newest hero" -- a description Watson dismissed.

"I'm actually going to disagree with the Prime Minister," she said, as the crowd laughed. "I don't consider myself a hero. I'm an ordinary girl who believed in her dream."

Australian Jesse Martin holds the current record for the youngest person to sail around the world solo, nonstop and unassisted, after he completed the journey in 1999 at the age of 18. He boarded Watson's boat and took over as she cruised toward the Opera House, so she could relax and wave to the fans -- many wearing pink clothes and waving pink flags in honor of her pink yacht.

Watson's feat, however, will not be considered an official world record, because the World Speed Sailing Record Council discontinued its "youngest" category.

Though she sailed nearly 23,000 nautical miles, some sailing enthusiasts have also argued that Watson didn't travel far enough north of the equator for her journey to count as a true round-the-world trek 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.

The route took Watson through some of the world's most treacherous waters, and the teen made it through monstrous storms and suffered seven knockdowns.