She said she could do it and she did. Dutch/Kiwi teenager Laura Dekker sailed into St. Martin on Jan. 21 as the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator at 16 years, 123 days. She is the latest in a wave of wunderkinder who, at an age when most of us were learning to drive a car, have made their mark sailing around the world alone.
A year and a day after setting off from the Caribbean island on her east-west circumnavigation, Dekker sailed her red-hulled 38-foot Jeanneau ketch, Guppy, into Simpson Bay, where a flotilla of pleasure craft escorted her to a wharf crowded with cheering well-wishers, among them her parents, sister and grandparents.
“I sailed around the world and I am still surprised that it just feels so incredibly normal,” Dekker wrote in her blog (www.lauradekker.nl) two days later. This is what she and her father, Dick, had said all along: For her, this was normal, like a 12-year-old prodigy coaching his MIT classmates in solving quadratic equations, except that sailing around the world, of course, is a lot more dangerous than doing math.
Dekker soloed 27,000 nautical miles via the Panama Canal, across the Pacific to Australia, through the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic to St. Martin, with stops in the Galapagos, the Marquesas; Fiji; Tahiti; Darwin, Australia; and Durban and Port Elizabeth, South Africa, among others. Her longest passages: 47 days from Darwin to Durban and 41 days from Cape Town to St. Martin. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Dekker sailed under bare poles in 50-knot winds with 15-foot seas breaking over Guppy’s decks.
“With her now-bare masts, Guppy was still heeling heavily as we were heading for the harbor [at Cape Town] and I was blinded by all the water washing over and the rising sun shining straight into my eyes,” Dekker blogged in late November. “Don’t ask me how, but I did manage to maneuver Guppy through the breakwaters, and with its smaller waves I could see that I was now right in with … the Volvo Ocean Race boats!”
In Cape Town, she hobnobbed with the Volvo crews, toured their sleek racers and crewed on the New Zealand team’s yacht, Camper, in one of the in-port races, an experience she says might have been the highlight of her circumnavigation. “It was breathtaking as the boats went through the water at 21 knots!” she says on her blog after pressing forward on Guppy over thousands of miles of ocean at speeds of 5-8 knots.
Dekker was born on a boat in the port of Whangarei, New Zealand, during a seven-year circumnavigation by her parents — Dick, a Dutch citizen, and Babs Muller, a German — who now are divorced. Dekker spent the first four years of her life at sea. She learned to sail an Optimist dinghy at age 6 and graduated at 10 to a 22-foot Hurley, which she sailed solo on weeks-long summer cruises on the Wadden and North seas. Three years later she soloed in May across the North Sea from the Netherlands to England, which so worried British authorities that they called her father in the Netherlands and asked him to accompany her on the return voyage.
After this solo feat, Dekker announced her intention to sail around the world. The plan drew fire from the Dutch Youth Care Agency, which went to court to stop her from attempting a circumnavigation — she was just 13 — and make her a ward of the state. They succeeded in delaying her departure by a year, but failed to remove her from her father’s custody, even after she ran away to the Netherland Antilles in December 2009 — only to be returned home by police two days later.
The court gave her a year to take first-aid and sleep-management classes, get more solo practice and begin online high school classes that would continue during her circumnavigation. In August 2010, a month short of her 15th birthday, she set off from Gibraltar on Guppy, waited out hurricane season in the Canary and Cape Verde islands, arrived Dec. 18 in St. Martin and set off from there on Jan. 20 for her circumnavigation.
Dekker joins an elite circle of teens that have set their sights on capturing the title “youngest circumnavigator.” The previous record-holder, Australian Jessica Watson, completed her circumnavigation in Sydney in May 2010 on a Sparkman & Stephens 34 three days before her 17th birthday. A month later, Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old U.S. sailor aiming to dethrone Watson, was rescued in the Indian Ocean after her Open 40 was dismasted. Her brother, Zac, had held the record briefly, finishing a circumnavigation in 2009 on a 36-foot Islander sloop at the age of 17 years, 223 days. English teen, Michael Perham, broke his record six weeks later, finishing his voyage in a 50-foot racer at the age of 17 years, 164 days.
Although Dekker is now the youngest sailor to solo around the world, her achievement won’t be reported in sailing’s record books — Guinness World Records or the World Sailing Speed Record Council. After recognizing Perham as “youngest circumnavigator,” the record keepers abolished the category as even younger sailors began to challenge the age record, raising alarm about the wisdom of encouraging teenagers to undertake what is clearly a dangerous enterprise.
On her blog, Dekker says her single-minded determination to circumnavigate solo was never really about the record. “I did it just for myself,” she says.
Now she feels vindicated. “After sailing around the world, with difficult port approaches, storms, dangerous reefs and the full responsibility of keeping myself and Guppy safe, I feel that the nightmares the Dutch government … put me through were totally unfair.”
But she also is pleased by what she has accomplished. “Reaching the end of my circumnavigation, I look back with joy at the adventures of the past year.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.