When the sun rose over the Atlantic yesterday, it found the familiar sails of Varuna 800 miles east-northeast of Bermuda, headed home to New York.

If all was well and she was following a regimen developed over 2 1/2 years of sailing around the world alone, skipper Tania Aebi, 21, roused herself from slumber, administered to her cats, Tarzoon and Mimine, took a morning sextant reading to determine her position and set about the business of the day, which probably meant reading a trashy novel and munching snacks while the boat steered itself.

So it has gone for most of 25,000 miles as Aebi (pronounced Abby), a former bicycle messenger from Manhattan, made her way alone to Bermuda, Panama, the Galapagos and Tahiti, then on to Australia, Bali, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Malta, Gibraltar and now home, or almost.

If she arrives at South Street Seaport in Manhattan before Nov. 10, she will become the youngest solo circumnavigator, besting the mark set by Robin Lee Graham in the 1960s, when he took five years to round the world, starting at age 16.

But the potential record is in some dispute because Aebi made the mistake of hosting a hitchhiker for 80 miles between islands in Samoa and never retraced her steps to sail the stretch alone. The Guinness Book of World Records has indicated it will not certify the voyage as a single-handed circumnavigation because of the oversight.

But what matter? On arrival, Aebi still will become the first U.S. woman solo circumnavigator, according to people who keep such records, and even if no records were set it would have been quite a feat for the slender daughter of Swiss surrealist artist Ernst Aebi.

While Aebi was at sea, her mother died unexpectedly of cancer. She fell in love for the first time, was struck by a tanker off Egypt, weathered fierce storms and frustrating doldrums, became a published author, buried her first cat and companion, Dinghy, and fixed her broken engine and watched it fail again a dozen times.

She fried in the tropics, dodged reefs, fought loneliness and boredom, lost a friend and fellow cruiser when he was killed in an accident aboard his boat, and experienced sheer terror when 26-foot Varuna was rolled by a huge wave in the Red Sea. She's dodged social brickbats, too.

"Sometimes I feel hurt that some people think I'm spoiled," she wrote in Cruising World magazine. "They think my father gave me Varuna as a gift, a plaything. He didn't. He's just letting me borrow her.

"To me, a really spoiled girl's father would buy her an apartment and fancy clothes and expensive schools, not a tiny boat in which to bash to weather for 28 days at a time in the broiling equatorial sun, or coax through alternating calms and storms.

"What does a spoiled teen-ager know of navigational difficulties, fear, solitude, self-reliance, anger and love?" wondered Aebi.

In truth, her tale smacks a bit of privilege. She was on a "rapid climb to nowhere," according to her father, when he made her an offer.

Since she wasn't interested in college but wanted to become a writer, he would buy her a boat if she sailed alone around the world and paid the expenses by writing about the trip.

It was a bold plan. Neither had much offshore experience. A year earlier, Ernst Aebi, seized by a desire to experience the sea, had ordered a new, 38-foot sailboat, picked it up in Spain and with Tania and his two other children, plus a cast of ill-prepared helpers, sailed it home to New York, learning as they went.

Tania wrote about the voyage for Cruising World and, when she described the new challenge, the magazine agreed to buy her articles and has since printed eight.

So successful have the writings been that Cruising World executive editor Betsy Holman said Aebi will be coming home to at least seven or eight book offers.

Holman said Aebi's dispatches take a good deal of editing, but to a reader worn down by years of sailing prose excesses, a youthful exuberance shines through.

Along the way she acquired a young swain, a Frenchman named Olivier, who sailed nearby for much of her journey. Admiring her boat rafted in port with his vessel, Aebi waxes starry-eyed: "Varuna and Akka rafted together made the perfect couple to my eyes -- the dainty, pretty lady and the rough, rusty adventurer."

Hauling her boat to paint its bottom in Sri Lanka, she notes that Varuna "had held up pretty well for more than half a world of ocean and looked almost new. 'Through no fault of my own,' I thought, remembering my sailing naivete' of two years ago. Like a gracious lady, Varuna led me by the hand until I knew how to take care of her properly."

A little humility, a little youth, a great challenge, and now, 1,375 miles left to go.

And what is Aebi doing as she nears her destination?

Probably daydreaming, as she wrote in a recent dispatch: "My first meal on arrival in New York, for example, or how I would decorate if I had a roomy, Contessa 32; or ideas to save the world; or often, incredibly witty remarks for past arguments."

Just another kid in a dream world, all alone, growing up.