How Young is Too Young to Sail a Pink Yacht Around the Globe?

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Jessica Watson sails home to Australia

REUTERS / Daniel Munoz

The rest of the world is just starting to learn about the big news from Down Under this past weekend. On Saturday, 16-year-old Jessica Watson sailed into the waters of Sydney, Australia, returning home after a 23,000-nautical-mile journey around the globe.

As she pulled into port, Watson became the youngest sailor to circle the globe non-stop on her own.

The photos of her homecoming – where she was greeted with a pink carpet in honor of her pink yacht that survived several violent storms in some of Earth’s most turbulent seas – are breathtaking. But not nearly as provocative as the attacks that have been leveled against Watson and her parents, with many critics questioning the sponsors and commercial interests tied to this underage journey, and why a sailor so young would be allowed (and encouraged) to sail off on such a dangerous quest.

It was apparently a controversial venture right from the start. Watson hit the water Oct. 18, with her family being criticized for allowing such an inexperienced sailor to head out to open sea all alone. Watson’s parents countered that the teenager had been sailing since the age of 8, and that she was ready for the journey, which would take her through the South Pacific and across the equator, before heading south to Cape Horn at the tip of South America and across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa.

The World Speed Sailing Record Council has discontinued its “youngest” category, which means that Watson’s sail will not be considered an official world record. But as the crowds gathered Saturday to welcome her home, and as everyone from politicians to other sailors who had attempted the same feat celebrated the 16-year-old’s achievement, it sure must have felt plenty official. For at least one sparkling afternoon, young Ms. Watson was the toast of a nation.

Next up, Watson says it’s time to tackle that whole driving thing. She has yet to earn her driver’s license.