A Child at Sea Laura Dekker's Quest for a World Sailing Record

Fifteen-year-old Laura Dekker aims to become the youngest woman to sail around the world. Despite efforts by Dutch youth welfare officials to prevent the teen from making her record-breaking solo voyage, she is now underway on her yacht, the Guppy. Now her parents are plagued by remorse.


By Cathrin Gilbert

The small dinghy hisses past the wooden pylons and out into the open sea. It's shortly after midnight. The girl at the helm is wearing flip-flops and denim shorts. The lights in the harbor of Kralendijk on the Caribbean island of Bonaire have already faded into the distance when there is a loud thud and the engine suddenly falls silent.

"Nothing to worry about. It happens a lot. I'll fix it," says Laura Dekker. But first she wants to enjoy this "beautiful moment." She lies down on her back and looks up at the sky, gazing at twinkling stars as the rubber dinghy rocks back and forth. All is quiet.

Despite being far out at sea, Dekker lets the boat drift with the currents for a while. Then she jumps up, jiggles the tiller, taps the engine cover with her fist and gives the cord that starts the outboard motor a few tugs. The motor comes to life, coughing hesitantly at first before roaring into action.

Dekker maneuvers the boat along the coast and into a bay, where her yacht is docked in a harbor. The Guppy is a French mass-produced ship made by the Jeanneau shipyard, which built 500 units of the model between 1975 and 1981. It's 12 meters (39 feet) long and measures four meters at its widest point, a solid boat, not particularly fast, but a good choice for a solo voyage. Dekker has painted two orange fish sticking their tongues out at each other on the bow of the ketch, a two-masted sailing vessel.

Dekker, petite with thin arms and long blonde hair, pulls the dinghy alongside the Guppy and climbs on board. The cabin interior consists of a galley kitchen, two benches and a narrow table in the middle. On the table are Dekker's diary, a pink iBook and some schoolbooks. The walls are plastered with small photos. In the sleeping room, there is a bare mattress littered with articles of clothing, stuffed animals, shoes and books. It's the sort of chaotic scene one would expect to find in any teenager's room.

A Teen's Dream

Laura Dekker is 15. There are parents who wouldn't let their 15-year-old daughter go on a trip with friends, but Dekker is sailing around the world -- alone. After setting out from Gibraltar nine months ago, she sailed to the Cape Verde Islands, then across the Atlantic to Bonaire. In the summer Dekker, after passing through the Panama Canal, plans to sail across the Pacific, past Australia and into the Indian Ocean, then on through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea and, finally, after passing through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and back to Gibraltar. She doesn't know exactly when she'll arrive. It depends on the weather. But if all goes well she would like to make it before her 17th birthday in September 2012, and if she does she will have captured the world record as the youngest woman to sail around the world.

People circle the globe on sailing yachts every year, but few of these adventures are as controversial as Dekker's voyage. Her undertaking is unimaginable for most adults. Judges, educators and psychologists spent months debating whether such a thing -- a child sailing around the world on her own -- should even be allowed.

Dutch youth welfare authorities tried to stop the voyage, writing reports and calling on experts to testify. For a time, Dekker's parents were given only limited custody of their daughter. At the height of the dispute, Dekker even tried to commit suicide.

But now she is finally underway, alone on the open ocean. Her parents, who decided to allow the trip to proceed, are filled with remorse. "I have sleepless nights," says Dekker's mother Barbara.

A Bizarre Race

Bonaire, an island off the coast of Venezuela, consists largely of grasslands and is known as a diving mecca. The yacht harbor where Dekker has docked is part of a luxury hotel. The manager offered her a free room, but Dekker declined. She prefers sleeping on her boat.

Sometimes tourists stop by to take a picture of her. Dekker is famous. When she arrived in Bonaire, television crews from the United States, Australia, Japan and Europe were posted in the harbor. Fans around the world can follow Dekker's voyage on her homepage. The Dutch papers call her "the Sailor Girl."

Dekker's boat is the smallest in the harbor. Another sailor recently asked her whether she needed help fixing her radar. "I can do it myself," she said, though she was bluffing. She doesn't want help, nor does she want people to treat her like a child.

The title of "the youngest woman to sail around the world" is no longer an officially recognized world record, because sailing groups hope to put an end to the bizarre race. Last year Abigail Sunderland, an American girl who was 16 at the time, had an accident during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe and had to be rescued in the Indian Ocean. In May 2010 Jessica Watson, an Australian girl aged 16 years and 362 days, arrived in Sydney Harbor with her sailboat, "Ella's Pink Lady." Her nonstop solo voyage had taken 210 days. Since then, Watson has remained the youngest woman to sail around the world alone.

After her arrival, Watson, accompanied by her parents, walked across a 100-meter (325-foot) pink carpet. Then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, standing at the other end, greeted her with the words: "Jess, welcome back to dry land, welcome back home to Australia. You may feel a little wobbly on your feet just now, but in the eyes of all Australians, you now stand tall as our newest Australian hero."

Perhaps Dekker will break Watson's record. It all depends on how she handles the tough demands of the voyage. Even though her boat is equipped with an autopilot system, she can never sleep for more than 20 to 40 minutes at a time, so that she can still react to hazards. Dekker has chosen a route that doesn't pass through the world's major storm zones. She is avoiding Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. Still, anything can happen. A mast could break, the radar could fail, or the boat could spring a leak, capsize, run aground or, in foggy conditions, collide with a whale, another ship or a container.

Any of this could happen out on the high seas.


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