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Latest teen solo sailor draws criticism

18_lauradekker_01With the Netherlands court system no longer standing in her way, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker began final preparations for her attempt to sail solo around the globe.

Dekker arrived in Portugal aboard her 38-foot ketch in mid-August after a 10-day shakedown cruise with her father. Her manager, Peter Klarenbeek, told the media she planned to leave within a week to begin her circumnavigation.

Dekker, who turns 15 Sept. 20, would become the fifth teenager in two years to set out on a solo circumnavigation. The series of voyages by sailors so young has prompted worldwide debate and criticism.

Gary Jobson, president of US Sailing and the father of three daughters, calls Dekker's proposed circumnavigation "completely irresponsible."

"She can't possibly have the experience to do this," Jobson says. "We've learned from Abby Sunderland that lots of things can happen. About $2 million was spent rescuing Abby. Now you're expecting the government and people to rescue these young people when they have trouble. Living vicariously through your child with something like this does not feel right to me."

Dekker would leave within a few months of 16-year-old Sunderland's failed solo circumnavigation attempt, which ended with the California teen's dismasting and rescue in the Indian Ocean in June. The other three recent young adventurers - Abby's older brother Zac, Australian Jessica Watson, and Michael Perham of the United Kingdom - made it around the globe.

Dekker hopes to complete her voyage over two years, finishing in September 2012, when she turns 17. She will be sailing a cruiser's route with multiple stops, avoiding the major Capes.

In early August, Dekker and her father, Dick, left the Dutch harbor of Den Osse on Guppy, her Jeanneau Gin Fizz, bound for Portugal, where her voyage was to begin.

"We want to be sure the boat is completely ready, so this is the last test sail," Dekker told reporters before she left the Netherlands. "From Portugal, I will start officially by myself and sail towards the Canary Islands."

U.S. solo sailor Brad Van Liew, who is preparing for the Velux 5 Oceans solo around-the-world race in October, says Dekker is taking a responsible route, but he believes she is too young for such an undertaking.

"I have an 8-year-old girl, and by the time she's 14, if she wanted to sail around the world I'd be pretty strong against it, no matter what her personality is," Van Liew says. "No way you can accumulate the experience levels from a mechanical point of view and many others if you have problems, which you are likely to have."

Dekker, who was born on her parents' boat off New Zealand, announced last year - at age 13 - that she wanted to begin the trip, but Dutch child protection agencies went to court to prevent it. She was placed under a guardianship order that was lifted this year at the end of July.

"Since I was eight years old I wanted to sail around the world, and when I was 10 I was really sure I wanted to sail off, but my parents didn't approve it," Dekker told the media.

The headstrong teen set off last December by plane for the Caribbean, where she planned to buy a boat, according to news reports. She was discovered on St. Martin and sent home.

Jobson says it is wiser to attempt a circumnavigation between the ages of 18 and 21. But if Dekker sails off as a 14-year-old, he encourages her to be cognizant of weather patterns and have plenty of reliable communications equipment on board.

"Sending Abby out into the Southern Ocean in winter - June is winter - that was bad and ill-conceived," Jobson says. "So a lot of communication [devices] and good weather routing are fundamental, as well as a sound boat."

"She's doing a route from a sailing point of view that is not as challenging as spending a lot of time in the Southern Ocean," Van Liew says. "Maybe that's a difference that will be sufficient to allow her to be successful and not get hurt."

Further information about Dekker's planned trip is available at www.lauradekker.nl.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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