SYDNEY – A 16-year-old Australian steered her bright pink yacht out of Sydney Harbor on Sunday to start her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world.
Jessica Watson's plan to make a 23,600-mile journey through some of the world's most treacherous waters sparked a debate in Australia about whether someone so young should be allowed to try such a potentially dangerous feat.
Watson and her family insist she is an experienced and capable sailor who has studied navigation, electronics and maritime safety procedures. Although she will sail solo and unassisted, she will be in constant contact with her support team via radio, e-mail and a blog.
After hugging her parents goodbye on shore, Watson sailed her pink, 34-foot yacht out of Sydney under gray skies and slightly choppy conditions. She smiled and waved to scores of well-wishers who lined parts of the shore, and boats that gathered on the harbor.
"I think a lot of Australians are nervous for Jessica. I'm nervous for her," Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters. "But my words at this stage, given that she's determined to go, would be to wish her the best of luck and to urge her to keep safe."
Watson's plans suffered several setbacks before she finally left. Last month, her yacht collided with a cargo ship as she sailed toward Sydney to make final preparations — an accident that triggered some calls for her to abandon the attempt.
More recently, strong winds in Sydney delayed her planned departure last week.
The first leg of Watson's journey will take her past northern New Zealand, then Fiji and Samoa. In a trip expected to last about eight months, she plans to pass around the southern tips of Africa and South America.
Andrew Fraser, a spokesman for Watson's team, said she was relieved and upbeat to be getting under way. He dodged questions about whether the trip was too dangerous for someone so young.
"Let's have this conversation in eight months," he told reporters.
Briton Mike Perham, 17, in August laid claim to being the youngest solo round-the-world sailor after completing a 28,000-mile trip in nine months, though he stopped for repairs, which counts as an "assisted" trip.
Perham is a few months younger than Zac Sunderland, from Thousand Oaks, California, who claimed the youngest solo crown in July when he completed a similar trip in 13 months, though Sunderland's trip was also in the "assisted" category.
"Without assistance" means a vessel may not receive any kind of outside help or take on board any supplies, materials or equipment during the attempt. A craft may be anchored or beached during the attempt, but any repairs must be made without outside resources, materials or help.
The unassisted mark is held by another Australian, Jesse Martin, who was 18 when he completed the journey in 1999.
Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered 13-year-old Laura Dekker to be placed in the custody of child care authorities while her parents argue over whether she should be allowed to try to become the youngest sailor to circle the globe.