Congratulations to Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old Australian who has rounded Cape Horn on her solo circumnavigation

Many, many congratulations to Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old Australian sailor who yesterday rounded Cape Horn in 40 knots of wind, mist and drizzle and bumpy seas.

At what should be the southernmost point of her solo circumnavigation she caught a fleeting glimpse of the remote and uninhabited Diego Ramirez islands, her first sight of land since leaving Sydney on 18th October.

Throughout her solitary Christmas and New Year Jessica Watson remained resolutely upbeat, regularly sending cheerful diaries back to her blog (here).

Her S&S34 Ella’s Pink Lady is no ocean greyhound but has proved to be a simple, easy handled and reliable choice, as was predicted by the sailing mentor who loaned her the yacht, the Tasmanian solo BOC Challenge racer and polar explorer Don McIntyre.

So far Jessica has covered 10,000 miles and her stature grows with every one of them.

Because before she left Jessica provoked another bout of controversy and debate about the wisdom of pursuing a record based on being the youngest. Inevitably it intensified after her collision with a freighter during a training run and the subsequent leak of the maritime investigation report that criticised her watchkeeping and found that she had made no course plots.

In turn, that led to a denunciation by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. All in all, it was difficult to know quite what to think about it.

I have to confess I didn’t think Jessica’s plans sounded like a good idea. If her main aim was to sail round the world, what was the hurry? Why (apart from the publicity of a record) not wait a year and extend her preparations?

On the other hand I did also wonder if the authorities had deep and seriously researched grounds for concern or if their leak of a confidential document was a useful opportunity for officials and politicians to do a spot of advance ass-covering.

So I asked a few people who’d met her and whose opinions I count. Pete Goss was introduced to Jessica when he was in Australia with his lugger Spirit of Mystery and he told me: “She’s very grounded, very mature. I was impressed. She is doing it because she wants to, not for a record.”

Goss, incidentally, is not one of those who believes teenagers should be discouraged from undertaking solo adventures, and since then I’ve talked to quite few liveaboards who have raised children on board and almost all of them were of a like mind: it entirely depends on the experience and abilities of the youngster. But, in principle, why not?

Pete told me he’d happily let his 15-year-old son do it if it he had the experience and it were his passion (it’s not). “If you start thinking about it just in terms of age it gets like European regulations: it’s can’t be a banana if it’s not a certain shape,” he commented.

So far, so good for Jessica and fingers crossed for the rest of her circumnavigation.

Meanwhile, wherever you stand on it, the debate Jessica and Mike Perham has excited is in itself valuable. At the least, these voyages give cause to re-examine society’s negative view of teenagers and young adults.

It’s become orthodox to think of youngsters as feckless and immature and to attribute ambition and precocious gifts to pushy parents and hothousing. Jessica’s voyage is yet more proof that there are exceptional individuals who, given help and encouragement, can outshine 99% of the rest of us.