Reporting from Sydney, Australia — Jessica Watson may have sailed on her own for 210 days, but the last hour of her trip was anything but solo.
As the 16-year-old Australian entered Sydney Harbor on Saturday after circumnavigating the world unassisted, an armada surrounded her 34-foot yacht: hundreds of racing yachts, tiny sea kayaks, dinghies, ferries, powerboats, water police vessels and one bright red tugboat that sprayed water over everyone.
FOR THE RECORD:
Solo sailor: An article in Sunday's Section A about Australian sailor Jessica Watson gave the name of its writer as Jessica Bennett. Jennifer Bennett wrote the article. —
After she wobbled onto dry land at the Sydney Opera House, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told her she was "Australia's newest hero." Other teenagers might think twice before disagreeing with their country's leader on national television. Not Jessica.
"I'm actually going to disagree with what our prime minister has just said," she told the crowd cheering her return. "I don't consider myself a hero. I'm an ordinary girl who believed in a dream. You don't have to be someone special or anything special to achieve something amazing. You've just got to have a dream, believe in it, and work hard."
But after sailing 23,000 nautical miles, facing storms and confronting waves that knocked her yacht on its side seven times — evidence of the battering visible on its solar panels — she is unlikely to shed the hero tag soon.
Rudd saluted her as a role model to young Australians and presented her with a copy of the government's "Keys to Drive" program and "one free lesson courtesy of the Australian taxpayer." A few weeks before, Jessica had told him on the phone that she needed to learn how to drive when she got home.
"You will pass your driving test with flying colors as you passed the navigation test for the world," Rudd said.
Jessica's adventure has not been without its critics, however. When she announced her plans, there was an immediate chorus of concern that she was too young and inexperienced to complete such a voyage, a criticism that seemed to be justified when she collided with a container ship as she slept during a test run between Brisbane and Sydney.
The immense media operation behind her has also come in for some scrutiny — she has 17 official sponsors. Her website is slick and constantly updated and, judging by the number of people wearing official Jessica Watson-branded caps and T-shirts at the Opera House, doing good business.
More serious has been the assertion made this month that she did not sail far enough above the equator to meet the requirements set by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.
But her managers said that since the council doesn't recognize efforts by those under 18, Jessica had never expected her feat to be counted.
She said the controversy did not worry her.
"If I haven't sailed around the world," she said, "I'm a bit lost as to what I've spent the last seven months doing."