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Teenage round-the-world sailor takes on racing challenge

By Emily Smith, CNN
December 27, 2011 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
Jessica Watson, pictured here before her round-the-world voyage, will skipper in the 2011 Rolex Sydney to Hobart.
Jessica Watson, pictured here before her round-the-world voyage, will skipper in the 2011 Rolex Sydney to Hobart.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jessica Watson will skipper the youngest ever crew in this year's Rolex Sydney to Hobart
  • Last year, aged 16, she sailed around the world alone
  • Watson is 18 years old, with the average age of her crew 19
  • They'll take part in the 628-nautical-mile race down the south-east Australian coast

(CNN) -- While many teenagers will be focusing on opening presents and eating turkey, this Christmas Day Jessica Watson will be poring over weather maps.

After circumnavigating the globe by herself at the age of just 16, it would be easy to presume that a 628-nautical-mile race would not faze the sailor. But the Australian teen is not taking any chances when she enters the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, beginning on December 26.

Now aged 18, Watson will skipper the youngest-ever crew in the ocean race.

"We've ticked all the boxes", says Watson. "This last week is all about keeping your cool."

Watson became the youngest person ever to sail around the world non-stop and unassisted last year.

Her 23,000-nautical-mile journey came to an end in Sydney Harbor amid much fanfare. Thousands of people lined the foreshore to greet her, leisure boats sailed through the heads alongside her and she was officially welcomed home by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

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It is in the same harbor where the celebrations took place that the Rolex Sydney to Hobart will start next week. Watson will skipper "Another Challenge," one of 89 boats in the fleet this year.

Round-the-world is all about slow and steady and keeping your head together for the 200-plus days.
Jessica Watson

"Round-the-world is all about slow and steady and keeping your head together for the 200-plus days," says Watson.

This race provides a completely different challenge of leading a team, where the average age is only 19. With all competitors required to be aged 18 and over, Watson only just qualifies.

"We learned a lot in the practice run -- it's all about communicating. When the communication goes well, we sail really well," she says.

The crew of 10 -- four women and six men -- comes from both sides of the globe, with its members a mix of the best young talent from Australia and Britain.

Despite their age Watson insists they have the experience, with two already having competed in the event previously. Some of the crew come from racing backgrounds and the skipper says others have clocked up a huge amount of offshore miles in their relatively short lives.

But Watson is under no illusion about how challenging the race can be. The course takes the fleet down the south-east coast of Australia and across the treacherous Tasman Sea. The conditions are notoriously demanding. In 1998 six crew lost their lives at sea when rough weather hit.

"Our number-one goal is to finish the race," Watson says. The sailor is well aware of the race's reputation of being tough. "You train for these sorts of things," she adds. "We've done endless amounts of overboard drills."

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It's tough but we are hoping to be as competitive as possible.
Jessica Watson

Watson and her crew have been in intensive training for the race since October. For six days a week they have combined fitness work with on-the-water training. Watson says sailing down to Hobart and back last month gave them the confidence they need going into the race. "We had quite a lot of tough conditions, which we wanted, and everyone held up well."

All eyes will be on the record-holding supermaxi "Wild Oates XI," vying for her sixth title, to take line honors. However, Watson's presence ensures "Another Challenge" will also be one of the yachts that will be closely monitored by the sporting world as she heads down the coast.

The young crew will be competing in the Sydney 38 class, and while their main aim is to finish the event, they are well aware that it is a race. "It's tough but we are hoping to be as competitive as possible, we've put the hard yards in," says Watson.

The final touches of their preparations will be made on Sunday, Christmas Day, when Watson and her crew will join the competitors for the traditional barbeque lunch at the yacht club.

It may not be a normal Christmas for the average teenager, but for someone who has spent most of her 18 years on the water, Watson gives the impression she wouldn't have it any other way.

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