A journey to fame that passed through hell

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“Go ahead, ask your questions. I’m listening,” Laura Dekker said, taking a sip of red wine while signing and inscribing another book. “Life is a journey, not a destination,” she wrote on the frontispiece.

Now 18, Laura Dekker was just 15 when she set off to sail around the world alone.

Her presentation at a sailing club in Hamburg was packed after the release of the German edition of her book.

Children and adults came to listen to the youngest person to sail around the world alone and get their picture taken with Dekker afterward. She’s young, she’s pretty, and she’s smart. A star — reluctant, perhaps, but genuine.

She speaks excellent German with a lovely Dutch accent, adding a dash of self-deprecating humor. “My family and I are not exactly normal,” she said, opening her talk. Given her history, it was a gross understatement, but the line hit the spot and turned her audience into friends who listened with rapt attention. To further loosen them up, she used a transparent inflatable globe as a prop to show her route and stops.

Casually clad in a blue-and-white cotton sweater and jeans, Dekker is surprisingly slight for someone who sailed around the world by herself. Hanging out with her companion Daniel, a 30-year-old German she met on a bus in New Zealand, she’s still a teenager, laughing and grimacing playfully. But when she speaks, she’s earnest and mature beyond her years.

She just turned 18 and is an adult before the law now, with privileges and responsibilities like everyone else. But unlike the rest of us, she has sailed 50,000 nautical miles, mostly by herself. And she endured more than her fair share of torment to arrive where she is today.

Jousting with the enemy

Image after image appeared on the overhead screen, showing exotic places and a teen’s life on the high seas sailing a 40-foot ketch named Guppy. But her chautauqua barely touched on the events that occurred before her voyage, which tested her in ways the 30,000-mile trip never did. She still holds Holland in contempt, which seems odd at first but not once she has finished telling her side of the story.

Born Sept. 20, 1995, Dekker was one of the “Fab Five” that included the Sunderland siblings Zac and Abby, the Brit Mike Perham and Australian Jessica Watson, who vied for the title “youngest ever” to single-hand around the world. With the exception of Abby Sunderland, who had to be rescued after dismasting 2,000 miles west of Australia, all of them held this informal designation for different periods of time. Dekker, who started her trip Aug. 21, 2010 — a month removed from her 15th birthday — finished Jan. 21, 2012, at the age of 16 years and 4 months on the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean, supplanting Watson, who was nearly 17 when she completed her voyage in May 2010.

Dekker is a commodity in a society mesmerized by youth and extreme adventure. Yet sailing around the planet solo, as daring as it seemed, was not her most remarkable feat. Before she could go, she had to challenge the Dutch government, which tried to stop her in every way it could. Dekker won, but it was a pyrrhic victory. She hadn’t reached 16, the mandatory minimum age to leave school in Holland, so the school board insisted she continue to attend classes. The story quickly made headlines and split public opinion. When is young too young?

When she dug in her heels, the authorities played hardball and put her under the supervision of a court-appointed guardian. The fact that other teens in other countries were allowed to circumnavigate as long as they did their schoolwork held no water. And Abby Sunderland’s shipwreck June 10, 2010, further stoked emotions.

Prodigious and strong-willed

Dekker's voyage took 17 months to complete.

Dekker started sailing while in her mother’s womb. Her parents — Dick, a shipwright from the Netherlands, and Barbara, who left home in Germany at 16 to seek a life of adventure as a street performer — were sailing around the world on a boat Dick built as a teenager. They happened to be in Whangarei, New Zealand, when Dekker was born, and she retains citizenship there. Her parents’ attempt to immigrate failed, so they continued their voyage, and little Laura was shaped by life at sea. What seems strange and hazardous to office workers was perfectly normal to her.

After her sister Kim was born, Dick and Barbara returned to the Netherlands, but their marriage foundered, and they separated. Dekker lived with her perfectionist father, who started work on a larger boat, while her sister moved in with Mom. Dekker sailed whenever she could, dominating her age group in the Optimist. She worked odd jobs, doing tricks on a unicycle, cleaning houses and delivering newspapers to earn cash for a bigger boat, which she bought with her father.

At the ripe age of 10, she began to explore the Ijsselmeer and the Dutch waterways, with only her dog Spot as crew. At 13 she set her sights on a trip around the world, and as a tune-up she sailed across the English Channel alone after a friend backed out at the last minute. At the other end, the police waited and called her father. When he arrived, they released her into his custody. “Well,” Dick told his daughter, “if you managed to sail here, you might as well sail back.” And she did, into the teeth of a 30-knot blow.

This adventure didn’t blunt her enthusiasm, so the Dekkers acquired a larger boat, a Hurley 800. When they informed the Dutch school board about her intentions, the crap hit the fan. The family was in the headlines, and not just because a 13-year-old had declared her intention to sail around the world but also because she had been raised differently and didn’t fit the mold. She was an outlier and dangerous to a system that masquerades as progressive (Dutch coffee shops, anyone?) and pretends to encourage individuality but is built on conformity and assimilation.

Then a ray of hope: A sponsor offered to help with the fitting out. “I had to take the boat to a large yard. It all sounded so good,” Dekker writes in her book. “It was the last time I saw my Hurley. … Turns out that the sponsor was not a sponsor but someone who cooperated with … the authorities.”

Fighting fire with fire

As in a chess match, she planned her next move. “Knowing that my phone and my computer were under surveillance by the [Dutch secret service], I had to switch to a different PC with a different e-mail address,” she writes.

Posing as a 17-year-old under a different name, she found a suitable boat on Saint Martin. Secretly she emptied her piggy bank, snuck out of Holland and managed to get on a flight from Paris to Saint Martin, which technically is a domestic flight, as the island is part-French.

She met the broker and inspected the boat, but police apprehended her and put her on a flight to Amsterdam under escort. From the airport, she was taken straight to court, but the hearing was adjourned until the next day, and she was told to leave with another man. “Why with him, not with Dad or Mom? I found out soon enough,” she writes, describing what followed as “harassment.” But it was worse than that, much worse. “I was abused sexually and mentally,” she explained when asked to clarify. “My lawyer is still trying to take action, trying to get more evidence against them, but it is [still] very difficult fighting against a government.”

In the book, she puts up a brave front. “They wanted to break me, hoping that I’d give up,” she writes. “But the more they tried, the more I wanted to get out of this corrupt country.” Consequently, her demeanor became guarded, dismissive sometimes, wary of pedophiles and con artists who floated in on the tide of publicity. Later, she replaced Guppy’s Dutch flag with that of New Zealand.

With negative headlines piling up, potential sponsors jumped ship. Still, the Dekkers acquired a run-down ketch-rigged Jeanneau, Gin Fizz, and started to restore it for her departure, not knowing when — or whether — the day would come. In early August 2010, Dekker’s luck changed. Authorities granted her permission to leave. She immediately de-registered and left Holland on Aug. 4 under great fanfare and with her father on board. They sailed to Portugal, shaking down the boat while dodging bureaucratic chicaneries along the way.

Eventually they reached Gibraltar, where Dekker’s solo voyage commenced. The girl they call Zeilmeisje (sailing girl) finally got her wish and her big adventure, but her father’s problems with authorities continued long after she cast off.

Done with the trip, but not finished

Becoming the “youngest ever” to complete a solo circumnavigation, Dekker says, was not what motivated her at first, although she’s proud to have done it. Had she finished at 18, few would have cared. “[Being the youngest] helped get people off my back,” she chuckled, meaning sponsors — “in-kind sponsorship only, for when cash starts to flow, problems aren’t far behind,” she explained — and media that had pushed expectations sky-high.

She repeatedly said she would love to have stayed longer in many places but had to press on. So after she had closed the big loop, she quickly saddled Guppy again to continue halfway around the planet and spend more time in the Pacific islands, perhaps echoing Bernard Moitessier, who ditched a likely win in the first Golden Globe race to seek salvation in French Polynesia.

She returned to Whangarei, her birthplace and adopted home, to live on Guppy and do good as an ambassador for the organization Y for Youth. Her plans? She’d like to get certified as a dive master and a delivery captain. “I don’t know,” she added after a pause. “I want to continue to sail and travel. That’s my life.”

It is a journey that taught her about friends and foes, pleasure and pain. There’s no need to worry about exact destinations. Visit www.lauradekker.nl for more.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

December 2013 issue