The Voyage of Laura Dekker

In August 2009, a thirteen year old girl, Laura Dekker, announced her plan for a two-year solo ocean sailing voyage around the globe to begin the following year. Solo sailing voyages around the world had been done before. However, it was Laura’s goal to become the youngest person to sail alone around the world.

Laura achieved her goal. Her accomplishment is documented in the film Maidentrip (2013), mostly filmed and narrated by Laura during her voyage.

Laura’s story has ideological significance in the human quest for freedom. It illustrates what can be achieved by a very young person who is born free and has lived free of repression by parental or state authority.

Laura’s father is Dutch and her mother is German. Laura was born on September 20, 1995 in the seaside town of Whangarei, New Zealand during a seven-year sailing voyage by her parents. Laura has Dutch, German, and New Zealand citizenship. Laura has a younger sister also born on that extended sailing trip.

Laura lived the first five years of her life at sea. Her parents returned to Holland after they finished their years of sailing. Laura was six and living in Holland when she acquired her first boat, a small sailing dinghy 7’ long intended for use by children. Laura learned to sail it by herself.

In 2002 when Laura was seven her parents divorced. After that she lived with her father and saw her mother occasionally. Laura’s sister went to live with their mother.

At age ten Laura acquired a 23’ long Hurley 700 sailboat. She named it Guppy (after the tiny tropical fish). She used this boat for solo sailing during her summer vacations from school; her trips included sailing the sea just off the coast of Holland, and the North Sea, between Holland and England.

In May 2009, at age 13, Laura made a solo crossing of the North Sea from the Netherlands to England, where local authorities requested that her father come to accompany her on her return voyage.

In August 2009, when she was not quite fourteen years old, Laura announced her plan for a two-year solo sailing voyage around the globe. By then Laura had acquired a seagoing 38 ft. ketch (two-masted sailboat) that she also named Guppy. It was badly in need of repairs and refurbishing which Laura and her father did.

The boat was equipped for long-distance sailing. The on-board equipment includes an Iridium tracking system. Iridium is an American company that operates a system of 66 active satellites used for worldwide voice and data communication from hand-held satellite phones and other transceiver units. The Iridium network is unique in that it covers the whole Earth, including poles, oceans and airways. From her boat Laura could communicate worldwide via Iridium by radio and mobile phone and a supporting team in Holland could monitor the course of Laura’s voyage.

Laura carried on her boat a sextant and charts of the oceans, tools for celestial navigation in the way that sailors did before the advent of satellites and GPS navigation. She learned to use sextant and charts because she wanted to be able to determine her location in case her computer crashed. Note: The United States Navy re-instituted instruction in celestial navigation with sextant and chart as a backup to GPS navigation in case of computer hacking by cyberattacks that disable GPS navigation. 1

The local authorities at Laura’s place of residence in Holland intervened, opposing Laura’s planned trip on the grounds it was child endangerment, even though both parents supported Laura’s plans. Laura later commented about the Dutch authorities that “they thought it was dangerous. Well, everywhere is dangerous. They don’t sail and they don’t know what boats are, and they are scared of them.”

During the film Laura says she is glad she left Holland for the voyage, because in Holland people only want to make money, get married, buy a house, have kids, then die. She says that life would be too boring for her. Once the voyage is well under way Laura says, my life starts with this trip.

The case received widespread international attention concerning the degree that a government might intervene when a minor engages in risky behavior that is supported by the parents. After half a year of legal dispute with the authorities, a Dutch court decided that the decision should be left with Laura’s parents provided she was not permitted to depart until her 15th birthday. A month before Laura’s 15th birthday she set sail from the Netherlands. The first leg of her trip was sailing 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to a stop at Gibraltar, then on 800 miles (1,300 km) to her next stop at the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa. Next Laura sailed 2,000 miles (3,200 km) west across the Atlantic Ocean to St. Maarten, an island of the Netherlands Antilles in the northeastern Caribbean Sea.

Laura DekkerLaura Dekker on board her boat Guppy

From St. Maarten Laura headed further west towards the Panama Canal. On approaching the Panama Canal Laura says this is where I can turn around and go back to Holland; if I continue on I will be committed to the whole trip around the world. She goes forward.

After her transit of the Panama Canal, Laura sailed through the equator south to the Galapagos Islands near the Equator, and from there west to Tahiti, and then to Darwin, the northernmost city in Australia. From Darwin, Australia Laura sailed 6,000 miles non-stop across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town, South Africa. From Cape Town Laura sailed northwest through the South Atlantic Ocean, crossing the equator northbound to the Caribbean Sea where she completes her trip at St. Maarten.

Although Maidentrip is very professionally done, most of the film consists of motion picture footage taken by Laura of herself on the boat and of the seas through which she sailed, including some photos taken during stormy conditions as well as some scenes in her stops along the way. In Dutch and English (with subtitles in English for both spoken languages) Laura narrates her experiences shown in the film.

Laura explains that her goal was not just to achieve the youngest solo circumnavigation of the globe, but to enjoy some of the landfalls along the way. So she stopped and spent time on land at various ports of call. The film includes footage of Laura exploring in the Canary Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, and other beautiful places on her trip.

In Tahiti, French Polynesia, French customs asked the day and hour of her departure. Laura replied to a skeptical customs official that she travels by sailboat and will depart when the wind is favorable.

The entire round trip from St. Maarten and return took 519 days. During that time Laura sailed 27,000 nautical miles (31,000 statute miles and 50,000 km) through both hemispheres and across the world’s three major oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian oceans.

While visiting Darwin, Australia Laura is shown buying a New Zealand national flag to fly on her boat. She comments that she will make New Zealand her home and not return to live in Holland because, other than the Dutch language, she has nothing in common with the people of Holland.

Maidentrip is available from Netflix.  CTLR readers should consider this post an endorsement of the film as well worth seeing for both entertainment and inspiration. To view images of Laura Dekker, go to http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=laura+dekker+images&qpvt=laura+dekker+images+&FORM=IGRE

After completing her circumnavigation of the globe at St. Maarten, 519 days after she started, Laura continued on, this time with a friend named Bruno, to a second transit of the Panama Canal and from there another 8,000 miles to her chosen home in New Zealand.

Laura now lives on her boat in New Zealand. She is studying for a captain’s license. She has traveled to Europe where she has been interviewed on television. In 2014 flew from Tahiti to New York with a friend named Daniel, to take an automobile tour of America. [Note: Laura and Daniel married in May 2015, four months before Laura’s 20th birthday.  http://blog.jetsettingmagazine.com/news/laura-dekker-married ]

Laura has established an attractive blog where she reports on her travels in English and Dutch. The English language blog pages appear at http://www.lauradekker.nl/English/Home.html

 

Notes:

  1. See “In the era of GPS, Naval Academy revives Celestial Navigation,” by Tim Prudente, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-celestial-navigation-20151025-story.html
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6 Responses to The Voyage of Laura Dekker

  1. This well-written summary of a very unusual story of sailing around the world by a mere fifteen year old girl certainly re-enforces one’s understanding and belief in unhindered entrepreneurial endeavor. Her preparations had to be very careful and precise.

    No mention was made of the world-wide open-seas piracy that abounds today nor of her contingency plans for any such confrontation. That factor alone now is enough to discourage many adult private sailors.

    I am impressed by the singular courage and determination of this independent young woman, and I feel inspired that seemingly insurmountable enterprise can be performed by positive, individual planning, absent political lack of vision and negative interference.

    • fgmarks says:

      David: Laura Dekker did not sail along the Somali coast of Africa or through the Strait of Malacca, the two most notorious areas for ocean piracy.

  2. Richard Boren says:

    It is inspiring to see that a young person has accomplished something. I find it inspiring to see anyone, at any age, accomplish something. This particular person has hardly known anything else for her entire life. It’s like growing up on a ranch and learning how to ride and rope, so it’s hard for me to make too much of it.

    When I first read this post I had a very negative reaction, and it is still mostly negative for these reasons:

    1. Sailing a smallish boat in open ocean is dangerous. Just how dangerous it is, I don’t know, and it may not be as dangerous as it looks to me. However, doing it alone increases the danger. The potential for physical exhaustion and injury is large, as is the potential for lethal mental errors due to fatigue.

    2. Allowing a child to undertake the risk is irresponsible. Our brains are not fully formed until our mid-20’s. At 15, a child has no real concept of life and death and often feels indestructible. I discount completely any concept of a child being “mature for their age.” The lure of fame, especially in our social media world, is huge. And there’s also money from book deals, endorsements and so forth. It’s all heady stuff for a child.

    3. It serves no useful purpose. It is a stunt. It is showing off. Stunts and showing off are common causes of death. We know she can sail the boat from point A to point B. Once that is done with skill, it is a purely mechanical process to continue to points C, D, E and F. The idea of a “record” is a purely human construct, arbitrary and without meaning. Next we’ll have a 14 year old, then 13. Will this open the door to making solo circumnavigations by children commonplace? No.

    4. But does such an achievement need a “useful purpose?” No, not really. But what if someone DIES in the pursuit? What if Laura Dekker had DIED? What would her parents have felt? I hope not some platitude about “doing what she loved.” And as to those parents, one has to wonder to what extent their approval of her voyage represented living out their own desires vicariously, or even trading on her fame. There is a lot of that in the world. Further, her voyage served as a validation of their own unorthodox lifestyle.

    5. Suppose there had been big trouble at sea. A major search and rescue effort would have been undertaken, and at whose expense? Not Laura Dekker’s or her family’s. I object to using stolen tax money to bail out people who choose to take risks, both physical and financial.

    Please don’t see this as the reaction of an old sourpuss. Laura Dekker seems like a nice kid. I’m glad she is a proficient sailor. It’s just that in my mind the story should have ended there, and I shouldn’t even know who she is.

    • fgmarks says:

      Dear Richard: Thanks for your thoughtful, well considered comment. What Laura Dekker did was dangerous. Another teenage girl, the American Abby Sunderland of Southern California tried a solo sail around the world starting when she was sixteen. Abby Sunderland lost her boat, and very nearly lost her life, in a storm in the Indian Ocean a couple of thousand miles west of Perth, Australia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abby_Sunderland Abby Sunderland was rescued at the expense of the French and Australian governments. Her older brother, Zac Sunderland, made a successful solo sail around the world between ages of 16 1/2 and 17 1/2.

      It is not a purely mechanical thing for a sailor to make a long ocean voyage. Each day may bring new weather, wind, and ocean conditions to cope with. Ocean trips powered by wind and sail are risky. Probably that is why the first insurance known to history was innovated in the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago to provide reimbursement in case of loss of a ship at sea.

      It WAS a dangerous trip. Laura comments on the video that there is danger everywhere and that people are scared of sailing on the ocean because they have not done it and don’t know how to.

      After reading and considering your comment I watched Laura Dekker’s movie again. It seems to me after two viewings and pondering what you said, that at age 15 Laura was a mature adult in every way necessary for making the decision to sail. She comments in the video that when she came to the Panama Canal after about two months at sea she thought here is where I can turn back and go home, or go through the canal and proceed as I planned. She proceeded.

      People like Laura Dekker and the Sunderlands are different from the rest of us. This was emphasized by reading about Zac Sunderland’s meeting a 75-year old man who was making his eighth solo world circumnavigation. Yes, such people are different than most and I am glad there are such people even though I, myself, would not sail a sailboat alone the 25 or so miles from the Los Angeles harbor to Catalina Island, a trip made by hundreds of sailors every year.

      What these people have in common is the same spirit that motivated Ferdinand Magellan, Meriwether Lewis and George Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition and Edmund Hilary and Tensing, the first two people to climb to the top of Mt. Everest.

  3. agree with Richard Boren says:

    I agree with Richard Boren!

    She should have “died” and then everything would have been different. In most countries parents are liable till their kids are 18. I would never allow my kids to do something like that! And YES I’m a sailer too and have done passages. There is risk and then there is risk of life and no help anywhere close by.
    IRRESPONSIBLE by the parents.
    After the trip, she did talkshow appearance and talks for money. The got even some prestiges Sailing award from her own country. Would she have died, would her parents gotten an award for letting her sail and die alone?
    I am appalled by young kids doing stupid stuff for attention and money of any kind!

    • fgmarks says:

      If you would read her book, One Girl, One Dream, you would find that she had all the knowledge and skill necessary for her voyage. While at sea she made repairs on sails and to the auxiliary motors. She was prepared to do celestial navigation; she had charts of all the seas she was sailing and knew how to use them. She chose to have this skill in case her computer crashed, making GPS navigation unavailable. In both the documentary film, Maidentrip, and her book she said she sailed because she wanted to know if she could do it; if she succeeded, it would show that she could.

      Whose business was it that she took this trip? It was no business of the Dutch government. It was really no business of her parents. Why are young people treated as if they have no right to make decisions for themselves? This attitude underpins compulsory public school. Laura did not want to go to school any more. Her voyage shows that she had already learned more than most people who go all the way through school and university. She did all the filming at sea for the movie. She kept a diary in the form of a blog. She made a book out of her diary. What more could any 21- or 22-year old college graduate do? Many could not do what she did in making the movie and writing the book.

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