SYDNEY - An Australian teen who has spent seven months at sea in a bid to become the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world is just a few hundred nautical miles from her goal today.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Watson has likened the excitement over her return to the anticipation of Christmas.

Watson is expected to sail past the finish line at the entrance to Sydney Harbour tomorrow, capping off a nearly 23,000 nautical mile voyage that many thought she wouldn't survive.

"Have I mentioned how excited I am? It's like the day before Christmas except I don't ever remember getting this excited about Christmas," Watson wrote on her blog yesterday. "Two more sleeps till a hot shower, fresh food and, and, and, everything else!"

Thousands are expected to line the harbour to cheer on the teen as she cruises into port in her pink 10-metre yacht. Watson plans to dock at the Opera House, where she will be greeted by her parents, a throng of media and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Watson, from Buderim, north of Brisbane, sailed out of Sydney on Oct. 18, despite protests from critics who said the trek was far too treacherous for someone so young. Her parents stood by their decision to let their daughter go, arguing that she had been sailing since she was 8 and was well-prepared.

Watson herself said she wasn't surprised by the criticism.

"As long as it's sensible and good advice, you listen to it all," she told The Associated Press last June, a few months before she set sail. "The one thing I won't accept is when someone calls this reckless. This is years and years of planning and preparation. We haven't just jumped into this."

Watson battled 12-metre waves and multiple knockdowns during her journey, which took her 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.

She has stayed well-fed thanks to a steady supply of prepackaged meals (lamb chops were a favorite), dried fruit, candy and the occasional cupcake, baked on her stove.

Earlier today, she told her parents via the online video chat program Skype that she was eager for a "fresh salad and pavlova".

People around the world have followed Watson's adventures on her blog, which she has regularly updated from the computer on board her boat. She has used a satellite phone and Skype to keep in touch with her family and management team in Australia.

"It just constantly amazes us - we just can't get over how much she's captured people and taken them along with her journeys," Watson's mother, Julie, told Australia's Ten Network, one of Watson's sponsors.

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

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 recognising her voyage.

Sixteen-year-old American Abby Sunderland of Marina del Ray, California, launched her own solo round-the-world bid in January. In May, she had to pull into port in South Africa for boat repairs, ending her nonstop attempt. She still plans to try to complete her voyage.

Though Watson is excited for her homecoming, she said she was sad that her adventure was ending.

"I'm going to miss being out of range of my annoying brother! I'm going to miss doing things at my own pace and singing at the top of my voice without clearing the room," she wrote on her blog.

"I'm going to miss the kick I get from overcoming challenges by myself, flying along in the dark. A new sunset every night and the time I always take to watch it."

- AP