Her critics wrote her off before she even set sail, but teenage round-the-world yachtswoman Jessica Watson was yesterday nosing along Australia's southwest coast, on course to return to Sydney seven weeks ahead of schedule.
Watson, who crossed into Australian waters at the weekend, is expected to enter Sydney Harbour early next month, in time to celebrate her 17th birthday on May 18. However, first she has to navigate the treacherous Southern Ocean, including the notoriously wild waters of the Great Australian Bight.
If all goes well, the Queenslander will become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo and unassisted, breaking the record of another Australian, Jesse Martin, who was 18 when he completed the journey in 1999.
Many were sceptical about Watson's prospects, particularly after she fell asleep and collided with a cargo ship during a test run from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney. But the schoolgirl has confounded her critics, and is now on the home stretch of her 4600km journey, having set off last October.
At the weekend her parents, Julie and Roger, flew out with her siblings, Tom, 14, and Hannah, 12, to welcome her yacht, Ella's Pink Lady, back to Australia. The family have kept in touch with her by phone and email, and Tom said they still engaged in long-distance ribbing. "I just tell her that I'm going to have some nice fresh lettuce for tea," he said, referring to her yearning for fresh produce.
The family said the only time they had feared for Watson's safety was during a 12-hour storm which forced her mast underwater four times in the Atlantic.
In her latest blog, Watson described her arrival back in Australian waters as "one of those really special moments", which she celebrated with a meal of Vegemite and crackers. She said: "It's weird being so close, but still having so many miles to cover."
Her manager, Andrew Fraser, said: "The key thing is getting Jess back and making sure she gets back safely ... There's still a lot of work to do. The Southern Ocean is fairly nasty ... [so] we're hoping the weather will be kind to her."
A book chronicling Watson's journey is expected to be published soon after her return, and a television documentary - based on footage of the trip, its lead-up and its aftermath - will be shown on Channel Ten.