Just when it appeared that the brouhaha over teenage solo circumnavigators might die down, a Dutch court earlier this week cleared the way for a 14-year-old girl to head offshore alone.
Laura Dekker, who lives in the Netherlands, was granted permission by the courts to depart on her round-the-world journey, which she hopes to do over the course of two years, finishing in September 2012, when she turns 17. The decision comes shortly after the attempt by 16-year-old U.S. sailor Abby Sunderland to become the youngest solo circumnavigator was cut short by her dismasting in the Indian Ocean in June. Dekker says she can be ready to sail in about two weeks, according to news reports.
Not surprisingly, reaction from the sailing community has been less than enthusiastic.
"I think sending a 14-year-old daughter - as a father of three daughters - is completely irresponsible," US Sailing president and noted sailing commentator Gary Jobson says. "She can't possibly have the experience to do this. We've learned from Abby Sunderland that lots of things can happen."
Dekker is thrilled about the chance. "I'm so happy, just really, really happy," the young sailor said at a press conference held at her marina shortly after the court decision. "I didn't know what would happen next, but now it's all over."
Although Dekker's mother originally opposed the voyage, she has also given her blessing for the trip. Dekker's parents are separated.
Dekker has been working toward this goal for more than a year. At 13, the girl who was born at sea on her parents' boat declared that she wanted to sail the world alone. Concerns about her age prompted Dutch child protection authorities to go to court to stop the voyage. The court placed Dekker under a guardianship order, which it lifted this week. Dutch authorities had hoped to place her under supervision for another year, which would have delayed the circumnavigation.
Dekker has been nothing if not headstrong in her desire to set off alone around the world. Last December, after the initial court decision, she ran away to the Caribbean, where she planned to buy a boat, according to news reports. She was discovered and sent home.
Dekker sails a 38-foot Jeanneau Gin Fizz ketch that she has named Guppy.
Dekker's father, an experienced sailor, says his daughter's journey is no more dangerous than life in the Netherlands.
"If she rides her bike to school, that is probably more dangerous," he told reporters.
U.S. solo sailor Brad Van Liew says he's glad the decision has reverted from the courts to the parents, but he's uneasy about the notion of 14-year-olds tackling the Southern Ocean alone.
"I wouldn't be letting my kid do this at 14 years old," says Van Liew, who has an 8-year-old daughter and is preparing to enter a solo around-the-world race in October. "It's good they've decided to let the decision be up to the family. And the family might be making a pretty scary decision. But I don't know Laura Dekker. I don't know her maturity level or her experience. I don't know her motivations or her personality. ... I just hope she's going into this with wide-open eyes."