I don’t like record-setting attempts because, what with the obligatory hype and hubris, it becomes all about us, not the mountain, the sky, or the sea. In any event, meaningful records are getting harder to achieve.
I get even more uncomfortable when the attemptees are too young to make a mature and informed assessment of the risks versus the rewards. In Robin Lee Graham’s account of his attempt to be the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate, Dove, he describes a deep and dangerous sense of isolation during a formative time in his life when being surrounded by family and friends was so terribly important. From Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage, one gets the sense that the dream of being the youngest to circumnavigate the globe was perhaps more her father’s than her own.
Because of this, I was, at first, hesitant to write about the youngest solo-circumnavigator of record, Laura Dekker. But when she sailed right into my home harbor in New Zealand, I felt compelled to go down and see who this child of the sea really was.
The short of it? I came, I saw, she conquered. Not because she’s pretty, friendly, and bright but because I realized that, although she’s a scant 16 years old, we’re kindred spirits who share a love of the world’s oceans and the free life afloat.
“Most of the young people trying for this record see it only as a way to get fame and money,” she said. “Me, I just love sailing and the sea, and this was a good way to go out and get plenty of both.”
Dekker was born in New Zealand while her Dutch father and German mother were sailing around the world; she holds all three passports. Until she was 5 years old, she knew nothing but the sea. Things didn’t change much upon the family’s return to the Netherlands. At 6, she was given an Optimist dinghy and immediately exceeded the design brief by setting sail alone for alarmingly open waters. At 10, she graduated into a Hurley 700, a tight little pocket cruiser on which she sailed the Waddenzee and the North Sea, developing some serious offshore experience.
In 2009, then 13 years old, she sailed it alone from the Netherlands to England. The disapproving English authorities demanded that her father fly over to join her before they would issue clearance for her return trip.
In August of that year, she announced her plans from her residence, in the city of Wijk bij Duurstede, to sail singlehanded around the world on a newly acquired 38-foot Jeanneau Gin Fizz named Guppy. Despite having both her parents’ permission and support, the local child-welfare office objected. The Dutch Council for Child Care sued for shared custody with the parents, won, and immediately forbade the voyage.
Enter the world media, which was at first predominantly skeptical, if not downright critical, of her parents and plans. But accompanied by photos of a petite girl at the helm, the story made good copy.
A long and acrimonious legal battle followed. The Dekkers won back their custodial rights only to face yet another hurdle in the form of a law mandating that any captain sailing alone in Dutch waters be at least 16 years of age, effectively postponing her attempt until the entire exercise was rendered moot. Her father circumvented all this by sailing with Laura to Gibraltar, where no such restrictions existed. Frustrated with the delays, she began her record attempt from there on August 21, 2010. She was then 14 years old.
Although a simple cruising boat, Guppy was strong, had a manageable ketch rig, roller furling, and offered the added protection of a deep center cockpit. She left with all the appropriate equipment and technologies, including an Iridium tracking system.
Her support team of family and friends originally planned to meet her 14 times en route, but due to financial constraints, this was reduced to five.
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.