Youngest Solo-Circumnavigator Laura Dekker
Citizen of the World, Child of the Sea: For teenager Laura Dekker, being at home and around other kids wouldn’t cut it. Staying out there would.
Dekker faced all the typical challenges of weathering storms, enduring calms, crossing shipping lanes, navigating reef-strewn waters, and facing long, lonely passages at sea. From Sint Maarten, in the Caribbean, she sailed to and transited the Panama Canal.
With short stops for rest and repair, she made her way through the Galápagos Islands and French Polynesia, then to Fiji, Vanuatu, and Darwin, Australia. From there, she set out on her toughest leg, crossing the boisterous Indian Ocean to Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She covered 5,500 nautical miles in 47 days. She made her way down the notoriously dangerous South African coast, sailing around Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope to put in at Cape Town.
Because she arrived at the same time as the crews in the Volvo Ocean Race, there were plenty of sailing journalists and cameramen on hand. With the lion’s share of her journey behind her, and an increasing likelihood of the record being broken, the story gained new traction with the press.
She would try to keep on that record-setting pace on her last and longest leg, the nonstop crossing of 5,600 miles from Cape Town to the Caribbean.
On January 21, 2012, Dekker triumphantly tied her bright-red Guppy up to a dock in Sint Maarten to the applause of a welcoming crowd and the whirr of cameras. Despite all the opposition and delays, at 16 years and 123 days old, she became the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe alone.
That said, she isn’t the official record holder because Guinness World Records decided that it would no longer sanction or certify these youngest-ever sailing solo attempts, believing them to set a dangerous precedent.
There had been public concerns regarding Dekker’s education after she admitted in an Australian interview that the demands of sailing often kept her from her correspondence courses.
To assuage those concerns, she stated that she’d return to school in the Netherlands when the voyage was done. But eyebrows were destined to be raised again when Laura announced that she intended to keep on sailing to New Zealand, a land that had taken on mystical proportions for her.
“I don’t have a lot in common with kids back in Europe,” she said. “I’m a sailor. What would I do back there on land?”
So Guppy’s decks now would be Dekker’s school desk, and the world her constant classroom.
No longer needing to adhere to “singlehanded” criteria, she was now able to invite different friends to join her on her latest, slower voyage through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific.
On her arrival in Whangarei, north of Auckland, the media once again took notice. One journalist, looking for a catchy spin, opined that Dekker had “chosen New Zealand over her parents.”
“No, of course not,” she said about that. “I love my parents. But I have my own life to live.”
At 16, this nautical gamine is on her own emotionally and financially, but she’s a mature, focused, self-reliant young adult with a wealth of worldly experience. If sailing carried the same cultural cache as music, for example, Dekker would’ve been considered a child prodigy, and she and her parents would have been encouraged to sacrifice normalcy to achieve exalted heights rather than be shackled by the courts and pilloried by the press.
Apparently this streak of talented precocity runs in the family, for Dekker’s younger sister will begin her career as a circus trapeze artist next year at the advanced age of 14.
“So where to now?” I asked.
“Well, I need some money,” she said. “So I’m looking for a job.”
CW contributing editor Alvah Simon, himself a circumnavigator, is the author of North to the Night.