Teenagers Zac Sunderland and Mike Perham both earned the title of “youngest solo circumnavigator” this year, but two other young sailors with the same ambitions are having problems getting to the starting line.
On Sept. 9, 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson was training aboard her Sparkman & Stephens 34, Pink Lady, when it collided at 2 a.m. with a 63,000-ton bulk carrier about 17 miles offshore.
Watson was not injured, but the boat sustained minor damage to the hull and rigging, Watson wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a court has blocked — at least temporarily — a 13-year-old girl’s plans for a solo voyage around the world that has the approval of one of her divorced parents, but is vigorously opposed by the other.
In the Australia incident, Watson was testing herself with a 10-day run from Mooloolaba to Sydney — approximately 500 nautical miles — in preparation for her planned departure later in the month when the accident took place. Watson notified her parents immediately via satellite phone, and the local marine police and maritime services assisted her back to shore.
Details of the collision, which reportedly occurred within a shipping lane in calm conditions, are not clear. Watson says on her blog that she can’t comment on specifics while three different agencies investigate the accident.
“The biggest thing is I came through the whole thing feeling confident,” Watson wrote on her Web site (www.jessica watson.com.au). “I won’t play it down. It was a pretty scary incident, and it was great to know actually what to do.”
Watson had planned to begin her trip at the end of September, sailing eastward around the great capes and finishing by April before she turns 17. She has taken a leave of absence from her studies at Cairns School of Distance Education, a Queensland-based home-schooling institution, and plans to resume her studies after the trip.
Repairs to her boat were being made at a marina in Queensland. Watson says she is confident it will not delay her plans to the point of threatening her goal. “It just makes me more determined,” says Watson. “I’ve been training for this thing for so many years, it just gave me confidence. Sort of like, ‘Wow, I can actually handle this.’ So it’s good.”
In the Dutch case, 13-year-old Laura Dekker had intended to embark Sept. 1 on a two-year voyage aboard her 26-foot sailboat named Guppy, according to a report from Reuters. As training, she had reportedly sailed solo from the Netherlands to England earlier this year. Dekker was born on her parents’ boat in New Zealand and spent her first four years at sea, according to news reports.
The court ruled Dekker could continue living with her father, Dick, who approves of the trip, but during the next two months she would become the responsibility of Dutch child care officials while her case is evaluated by a child psychologist. The second ruling of the court was scheduled for Oct. 26, which would fall after Dekker’s 14th birthday, according to a report from Fox News.
Dekker’s mother, Babs Muller, is outspoken in her opposition to the voyage. “She can sail like the devil — that’s not the problem,” Muller told the local newspaper De Volkskrant. “But I see problems when she stays in Third World ports, and in the psychological challenge of being alone at sea. She is not yet grown up.”
Dekker’s parents were divorced in 2002. Muller has limited access to her daughter under terms of the divorce settlement, according to Reuters, and did not say anything publicly before for fear of straining her already limited connection with her daughter.
“It breaks my heart that I may lose contact with her,” says Muller, in De Volkskrant. “But I would rather have a living daughter whom I do not see than a dead daughter.”
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This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.