Laura Dekker: the teenager who sailed round the world for humanity
Says Miss Dekker:
“There were moments where I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing out here?’, but I never wanted to stop.”
Ms Dekker set out on January 20 2011.
Other young women have made the round-the-world trip but Laura Dekker is the youngest. In June 2010, Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old American sailor, had to be rescued in a remote section of the Indian Ocean during an attempt to circle the globe. Earlier this year Jessica Watson, from Australia, completed a 210-day non-stop voyage aged 16.
Laura Dekker was younger. Her story is a triumph of humanity against nature and officialdom. One of the biggest obstacles Laura Dekker had to navigate was Dutch bureaucracy.
Laura Dekker is not like most other teens. She was born on a boat – the daughter of two round-the-world sailors. At 13, Laura sailed on her own from Holland to England. She knew that she wanted to sail around the world on her own. But the Dutch authorities said she was too young. At 14, she said she was ready. The courts disagreed.
Laura’s German-born mother, Babs Muller, who divorced Laura’s father, Dick Dekker, when the girl was six, said in 2009:
“If it were up to me, Laura would not be allowed to go… I see problems when she stays in Third World ports, and in the psychological challenge of being alone at sea. She is not yet grown up.”
But Dirk Dekker had custody. He was happy for his daughter to make the trip. Muller soon changed her mind.
In August 2009, a Dutch court in Utretch overruled parental consent. Judge M. Oostendorp noted:
“She would be confronted with difficult situations that will challenge her mentally and physically.”
The Utrecht court ordered Dutch authorities to take temporary guardianship of Laura until psychologists could determine whether Laura was able to undertake such a difficult voyage. She continued to live with her father.
In October 2009, a Dutch judge told Dekker that she must put her ambitions on hold until July 2010 after a two-month investigation cast doubt on her ability to safely cope with the rigours of the journey.
In December 2009, the Times reported:
Laura, 14, who was stopped by a court in October from attempting a solo voyage, was found on Sunday in St Maarten, in the Dutch Antilles. Utrecht officials linked her flight to distress at being prevented from fulfilling her ambition. Officials from the Utrecht child welfare office were accompanying Laura home as police tried to find out how she managed to take an ocean flight when she was under guardianship of the court.
Mariska Woertman, a family spokeswoman, said: “She is doing well under the circumstances, but we have not had time to talk yet about the reasons why — what exactly has been going on over the past few days or weeks … We just have to wait until she is back home and speak to her about that.”
According to Dutch media, Laura left a letter for Dick Dekker, her father, with whom she lives. She was also said to have withdrawn €3,500 (£3,100) from her bank account. It was unclear whether she knew anyone on the island or whether, as Dutch media speeculated, she hoped to start a sailing voyage from there.
Elly Laanen, chairwoman of the Utrecht child welfare office, said at that time:
“You can say that her dream was broken into pieces and all the attention that this caused is, in my opinion, never good for a girl of 14.”
In July 2010, a Dutch court ended state supervision of Laura, saying that she had met all the conditions imposed by child welfare authorities and that the journey would pose no risk to her social and emotional development.
It left the final decision up to her parents. They approved.
On August 4, 2010, Laura Dekker set sail for Portugal. Her journey had finally begun.
But the Dutch wonks still wanted control. While she was away, truancy officers handed her father a summons. They said Laura had not done her homework.
The Dekkers’ lawyer is Peter de Lange. Says he:
“There are some limitations. Laura doesn’t always have access to the internet. Sometimes there are storms and she has to put her own survival first.”
Caroline Vink from the Netherlands Youth Institute adds:
“We have a duty to investigate. The law says you must stay in school until you are 16. We also had to make sure that Laura was able to cope with the demands of such a massive challenge when she was so young; things like the lack of sleep and being on her own all the time.”
How could they they ensure that? Go with he on her solo journey? Vink added:
“It’s so difficult to judge a case like this and when you’re dealing with such a determined young woman. We never meant to make her life difficult, only to look out for her safety. I hope she doesn’t hold a grudge. In the end she has shown extreme strength of character both before and of course during her adventure.”
Says Laura Dekker:
“I have navigated the whole world, bypassed difficult ports and dangerous reefs and got through the heaviest storms all the time fully responsible for myself and Guppy [her boat]…Looking back I feel the Dutch authorities treated me wrong. I’m afraid the nightmares will continue to haunt me. At sea I feel comfortable and relaxed, especially during the long crossing of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean. But now it appears that the Dutch authorities have started causing problems again.”
Joost Lanshage from the Netherlands Bureau of Youth Care then adds:
“If Laura had drowned we’d be accused of not doing enough to protect her. Thank God she’s OK and I think that’s partly due to the safety measures we enforced as part of the condition for allowing her to go.”
Oh, puh-lease. Can you take credit for the success of something you tried to stop? He adds:
“We put together a checklist to try to ensure she had a safe mission. I’m sorry Laura is traumatised but I have no regrets about fulfilling our responsibility to this child.”
The vested interest group must do what it does.
Sadly, the Dutch party has to wait because Laura Dekker thought better of sailing to the Hook of Holland. Fearing the authorities, she instead ended her journey at St Maarten. She now says she plans to live in New Zealand. No guesses as to how she will get there…