New Zealand Explorers: Laura Dekker

Explorers Oceans
Laura Dekker.

When minors do extraordinary things, controversy follows. That rule was no different for Laura Dekker. Bucking opposition from the authorities because of her age, in 2012 she became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. She was 16 years old.

For her entire life, Dekker has been around the ocean. While her unconventional parents (a Dutch boatbuilder father and a German circus performer mother) were on a seven-year sail around the world, Dekker was born off the coast of Whangarei, New Zealand.

She spent her first five years almost exclusively at sea. Eventually, her family returned to the Netherlands. Dekker lived with her father after her parent’s divorce.

Being in her father’s care helped Dekker’s fledging sailing career. In those early years when it was just the two of them, Dekker’s father was building a 20m Norwegian fishing cutter. She was eager to help, and her father obliged.

Receives her first boat, age 6

Those moments together were more than father-daughter bonding. They were inspirational for Dekker’s future. Soon, she began building a boat for herself. Then for her sixth birthday, Dekker received a boat of her own.

Dekker, before her voyage. Photo: Corne van der Stelt

That first boat was an Optimist dinghy, designed for children’s use. As Dekker developed her skills on the ocean, her father sailed beside her in a windsurfer. Before long, she was sailing solo.

At nine years old, Dekker began competition sailing. She assisted her father in a 24-hour sailing race on board his friend’s Hurley 700. When the race was over, she convinced the boat’s owner to let her borrow it in exchange for cleaning and maintenance.

The Hurley 700 gave Dekker a chance to learn how to handle a boat more aligned to her ability than the smaller ones she was assigned because of age. The boat also fell within the 7m size limit which Dutch law imposes on minors.

Never short of ambition, Dekker and her dog Spot took that boat on a seven-week voyage around Holland and the Wadden Islands. When she returned, Dekker put four years’ worth of savings from odd jobs into a boat of her own.

By then, Dekker was 11 years old and owner of a Hurley 700. In it, she sailed around the Netherlands, spending all her free time either on the water or maintaining the craft. But Dekker had her sights set on an ambitious voyage. She wanted to sail alone around the world.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the idea as she. Her father tried to discourage her by suggesting that she first sail to England. The English Channel is particularly challenging for sailboats. Surely that would deter her, he figured.

Run-ins with child services

This was the first of Dekker’s run-ins with the authorities.

Leaving Maurik, she arrived first in Maassluis, then across the English Channel. Strong winds delayed her arrival into Lowestoft, but she eventually made it.

English authorities were stunned that a 13-year-old was left to sail alone on such a voyage. They placed Dekker in a children’s home but released her when her father arrived to collect her. He returned her to her boat and she sailed home alone.

Undeterred by the English Channel as her father had hoped, Dekker remained fixated on sailing around the world. Eventually, her father relented, offering to strengthen her skills before departure.

“He just taught me everything he knew about making the boat safe,” she said. “He would sit down with me every night and tell me it would not be fun. Mum was worried but didn’t say no.”

Dutch authorities had other ideas.

Perhaps injudiciously, Dekker wrote of her plans in her local newspaper. That’s when Child Welfare stepped in.

Eight court cases try to stop her

Over the next 10 months, eight court cases brought by the government and Child Protection Services argued that she was too young to risk her life.

First, they placed her in the shared custody of her father and Child Protection, to prevent her from leaving. Then they combed through her upbringing for signs of mistreatment as a minor. When they didn’t find anything, they released her back into her father’s custody.

“They thought it was dangerous,” Dekker said after the court battle. “Well, everywhere is dangerous. They don’t sail and they don’t know what boats are, and they are scared of them.”

Dutch maritime regulations prohibit a captain younger than 16 from sailing a boat longer than seven metres in Dutch waters. To avoid this, Dekker set off on her east-west journey from Gibraltar in 2010. She was 14 years old.

Dekker en route in the Guppy.

Away she goes

Sailing a 12m red ketch also named Guppy, which was adapted for solo circumnavigation, she first sailed the Caribbean, then through the Panama Canal and over to the Galapagos Islands. Then further across the Pacific: to Tahiti, Fiji, and through the Torres Strait to Darwin, Australia.

There, further controversy followed when she admitted that the hard work of sailing prevented her from keeping up with her studies. School officials said that she should be in a classroom.

Next, she spent 48 days crossing the Indian Ocean non-stop. Monstrous winds swiveled her boat from bow to stern. Although shaken when she arrived in Durban, she remained committed to her goal.

On her last leg across the South Atlantic, Dekker struggled against high seas and heavy winds. In 2012, at the age of 16, she completed her circumnavigation in St. Marteen. She was the youngest person ever to do so. The journey took her 17 months.

Laura Dekker reunited with her family after her world voyage in 2012. Photo from Latitude 38

Hard times

At times, she doubted herself, especially when eight-metre waves washed over Guppy, flooding the cabin. Or when vermin infested her dry food supply. Or when sharks circled the little boat. As her father warned her, it wasn’t fun. But her willpower pushed her through.

Although Dekker is a record holder, Guinness World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council would not verify the claim. They no longer recognize records for very young sailors in order to discourage dangerous attempts.

Abby Sunderland — a 16-year-old American sailor –- had attempted the same goal two months before Dekker. Sunderland was rescued in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Australian Jessica Watson completed a 210-day solo journey. She was a few months older than Dekker.

Dekker in 2019, age 23. Photo: Stephan Redel

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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