Teenage Aussie set to sail around the world

Jessica Watson likes to travel, but she approaches the concept a bit differently. The 16-year-old Australian just left Sydney Harbor today, and she wants to take on the world. Her goal is to sail 23,600 miles alone — through some of the toughest waters in the world — and become the youngest person in history to do so.

The trek has kicked off some debate in Australia as to whether Watson’s parents are nuts for letting her attempt this (not a position that’s hard to imagine).The family claims that the kid is plenty salty and knows her way around a ship, and she’ll have radio and e-mail access. She’ll be blogging, too. In the Netherlands, a pair parents disagreed on whether to let their 13-year-old daughter, Laura Dekker, attempt the same feat. A Dutch court put Dekker in the custody of childcare authorities while the parents fought it out.

For Watson, just getting her pink, 34-foot yacht to the starting line has been difficult. Last week, she collided with a cargo ship while sailing to Sydney to make a few last preparations for her journey. And, strong winds last week prompted the sailor to push back her start date.

There are two ways to categorize these around-the-world trips: assisted and unassisted. Watson is gunning for the latter. The youngest person to do this so far is Jesse Martin, also an Australian, who was 18 when he circled the world in 1999. To qualify as “unassisted,’ the vessel can’t take any new supplies, materials or equipment on board once the trip starts. Repairs can be made, but they must use stuff already on the yacht.

The youngest circumnavigating sailor is Mike Perham, from Britain, who went 28,000 miles in nine months, but his trip counts as “assisted,” because he stopped for repairs. Zac Sunderland, from California, was a few months older than Perham when he completed the trip in 13 months, but his was also assisted.