A girl, a boat, a dream

SOLO MISSION: Laura Dekker sailed by herself from the Netherlands to England when she was 13.
DAVID WHITE / Fairfax NZ
SOLO MISSION: Laura Dekker sailed by herself from the Netherlands to England when she was 13.

Laura Dekker is the youngest person to have circumnavigated the globe. She talks to Bess Manson about her remarkable mission.

Circumnavigating the world solo was never about setting a record or finding fame for sailor Laura Dekker. It was about one girl and her boat on an adventure into the big blue.

It was about fulfilling a dream that had been gestating from the moment she first sailed a boat alone at age 6. Then her father, Dutch sailor and boat builder Dick Dekker, gave her Tania Aebi's sailing memoir Maiden Voyage for her 8th birthday.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Laura Dekker in the galley of Guppy, based in Whangarei.
DAVID WHITE / Fairfax NZ
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Laura Dekker in the galley of Guppy, based in Whangarei.

The dream would have been spurred on by the solo voyages she made in her boat for weeks at a time at the age of 10 up and down the rivers of the Netherlands and around the islands of the North Sea.

But it was when she sailed by herself from the Netherlands to England at age 13 that she realised she was ready to take on the world.

Her father didn't even know she'd gone. Eventually, he got a call from British authorities asking him to come and collect her. He told them if she could sail there by herself, she could sail home by herself.

WATER BABY: Laura Dekker spent every day on the water, from a young age.
Supplied
WATER BABY: Laura Dekker spent every day on the water, from a young age.

But New Zealand-born Dekker, who was raised in the Netherlands, says it was thanks to her father's knowledge of boats and encouraging her independence that she was able to accomplish her dream of sailing around the world solo by the time she was 16. Dekker tells the story of her epic adventure in a book released this month, One Girl One Dream.

"My dad taught me everything about sailing from a very young age," Dekker, now 19, says from her base in Whangarei.

"I never really played with other kids after school. Every day I would come home and Dad would teach me about boats, navigation, storms, everything.

"When I did those trips as a kid, Dad was happy because he thought it was a really good experience for me, though he did insist I take my dog Spot who is really protective."

It was always in her head that she was going to sail around the world. "When I did that solo trip across the North Sea from Holland to England, I knew I was ready. I knew I could do this.

"Subconsciously, from that day on I started preparing, reading, learning all I needed to know."

Dekker didn't know what all the fuss was about when she decided to do the circumnavigation solo. It was just the way it worked out, she says matter-of-factly.

"I couldn't go with my parents because they were working. None of my friends wanted to come with me so I decided I would just go alone.

"When I was told I would be the youngest to sail solo around the world, I thought that would be pretty awesome, but it wasn't the most important thing to me and that helped me focus on just sailing - the thing I love.

"It never occurred to me that this was going to be a particularly special voyage to anyone else or that it would be a record-breaking voyage. I didn't even think it was very crazy that I was going as a 13-year-old kid."

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Laura Dekker in the galley of Guppy, based in Whangarei.

Dekker and her dad and eventually her mother, German-born Babs Muller, might not have thought it was crazy, but the Dutch authorities did.

When they heard of her plans in 2009, they tried to stop her.

Dutch social workers intervened and the child welfare authorities brought the case to court where a Dutch judge ruled that she was too young to sail alone.

Dekker then ran away, leaving a note for her father, with whom she lived, and took a plane to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. How she managed that at 13 without being stopped is anyone's guess.

She was picked up by police once there and brought home.

Dekker eventually won a 10-month court battle after promising judges she would sail a bigger boat with advanced navigation equipment, take courses in first aid and coping with sleep deprivation, and enrol in a special correspondence school.

At 14 she set sail on Guppy, the 11 -metre, two-masted ketch she calls her "dear friend", from Gibraltar in August 2010.

Just 43,500 kilometres stood between Dekker and her goal.

"It was great to leave without any fuss after all the negative media attention on me," she says.

"I was feeling a jumble of emotions. I couldn't believe I was on my way. But I was also coming out of this media hype and suddenly I'm alone. It was the strangest feeling, finally being on my own."

What follows in her 300-plus-page book is a remarkable diary of adventure on the high seas and a journey of self discovery.

Dekker's entries on the exhilarating battles to keep Guppy afloat in a storm, the flying fish that kept her company, the dolphins following in her wake and the warm days spent on deck playing her guitar as she watched another unforgettable sunset are enough to make you want to take to sea.

Dekker's journey took her across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans via the Panama Canal, through the treacherous Torres Strait and around the roaring forties at the tip of South Africa before arriving back at Saint Martin on January 21, 2012.

At each port, customs needed convincing that she was travelling solo. To her astonishment and relief, she had no problems with officials trying to thwart her passage.

She sailed in the company of giant jumping stingrays, whales, sharks and dolphins.

Dekker stopped en route in places like the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Darwin and Cape Town. The journey, she says, was a whole lot more than just sailing.

"The trip was as much about seeing the world as it was about sailing. It was a perfect mixture of discovering new cultures, meeting all these people and then being able to go to sea, watch the waves and think about all these experiences I'd had."

She learned to dive in the Canary Islands, surf off the Galapagos Islands and canoe in the mangroves of Bonaire.

Dekker relished her time at sea, alone with her thoughts. She enjoys her own company.

She didn't talk to herself during the voyage but she did talk to Guppy.

"Guppy is a true friend," she says of her boat, as though it were flesh and blood.

"Even when I'm away, I think about Guppy every day. I know she's just a thing but she is also my first home and she was a big part of my dream coming true. So I have this really strong connection to her. The fact that she is such a tough boat makes me love her even more. I am so proud of her for what we have achieved together. I always talk about us in the ‘we' because we were really in together."

 

The longest this self-confessed loner spent at sea was 48 days during her voyage across the Indian Ocean between Darwin and Durban. She'd often lose track of time. When you're busy sailing, battling the elements, watching the waves, the sunsets and sealife, it hardly matters what day it is.

Dekker says her love of being at sea grew throughout the voyage.

"You're out there using nature to get where you want to go . . . You're nothing out there. The wind and the waves are so strong they can do anything they want. The fact that you're there trying to harness these great powers to go somewhere was such an awesome thing. Whatever came up was a challenge and not scary."

The trickiest part of her voyage was the Indian Ocean and the seas around South Africa. There were hairy moments and moments she feared death.

A whale almost upturned Guppy on one occasion. Once she battled 65-knot winds and Guppy was surfing down 8-metre-high waves.

But the greatest danger is to panic, she says.

"If you panic then you lose track of what you have to do to keep the boat going, so I really tried to avoid those feelings."

Despite the challenges, it was during that 48-day crossing that she was happiest, she says.

"I was very much at peace. I felt a connection to everything around me. I had time to be at one with the sea."

Dekker also relished "arriving" - pulling into port at various destinations and embracing the company of locals and fellow sailors.

"I did love arriving at places. That was the best feeling, to see land again, see people, eat fresh things, but mainly to have the feeling that you got here on your own. To have done so much to get there makes it all the more special."

Dekker was born in Whangarei in 1995 during her parents seven-year sea voyage around the world.

They returned to the Netherlands when she was 5 and a year later her parents separated. Her sister Kim, now 16, stayed with her mother. Laura was raised by her dad.

She didn't have much contact with her mother growing up. She was happy with her father but she missed the "softness" of a mother, she says.

"If you're sick, your mother will put you to bed and make you food, and my dad was, like, ‘You'll be fine, off you go to school'."

As a solo parent, he found it tough raising a child. They lived on a boat and didn't have a lot of money.

Dekker did the cooking and cleaning. If she did her chores her father would give her the freedom she longed for and the knowledge she craved about sailing.

Her determination, she says, is in the genes.

"My dad is a sort of person who if he wants to do something, he'll just do it, no matter what it takes. He's a genius when it comes to building boats and he can mend anything.

"He is a loner and doesn't like to talk to people too much. I love my dad for that."

Her father always supported her dream to sail around the world. Her mother was not so happy. "She never told me not to go, she just said, ‘I would prefer if you didn't but I do want you to be able to realise your dream'. My sister told me Mum didn't sleep much while I was at sea," Dekker says.

Looking back, she can understand why there was such rampant opposition to her solo voyage.

"I can understand now more than I did back then why the Dutch authorities were against my trip, but in general I think kids can do a whole lot more than adults think they can but they won't do these things because they are told they can't.

"I was lucky that I had parents who helped me achieve my dreams and didn't put me down.

"I had this dream and I never looked at it as something crazy. I was shocked that people thought it was insane and that my parents were insane. Everyone was suddenly telling me it was crazy and impossible. My parents were given a really hard time. People called them bad parents. People said they should be put in jail, that they shouldn't have been able to have kids at all. I can't even imagine how it must have felt for them. I felt like it was my fault and on top of this I was still fighting for my dream.

"It was painful for me to see my parents get such a difficult time when they hadn't done anything wrong. In my eyes they were the most awesome parents for helping me achieve my dreams."

WATER BABY: Laura Dekker spent every day on the water, from a young age.

There is no love lost between Dekker and the Netherlands. Apart from a core group, people didn't show support for her till she finished her trip, she says.

She has no time, either, for the authorities. She believes they hacked into her computer and those of her family. She also believed they were capable of sabotaging her trip.

Dekker was so disenchanted that during her journey, after meeting a bunch of Kiwi sailors, she decided to ditch her Dutch flag for the New Zealand one.

She knew she was home when she cruised back into Whangarei in the middle of a storm in September, 2012.

She still lives on Guppy in Whangarei's Quayside Town Basin.

She does public speaking and has engagements all over the world. Next month she is a guest at a "Brilliant Minds" seminar in Spain. It must feel pretty good speaking under a banner like that.

Her message during these presentations is clear: kids are capable of so much more than adults think.

"They don't want their children to grow up and I can understand that, but I hope that more parents will stimulate their kids and their dreams. The most important thing is to get to know your kids. My dad knows me so well because he was with me every day, teaching me.

"And I want to tell kids that they shouldn't be afraid of trying. I saw a quote the other day that said: ‘Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will', and I think that's so true. If you don't try you're going to wonder all your life, what if?"

Dekker's outlook on life was shaped by her voyage.

The most important thing she learnt was to appreciate the little things and to not always want more.

"I learnt to be happy with what I have. I met people on my journey who had nothing and yet would invite you in to share their dinner.

"They were the most friendly and happy people who were happy with what they had.

"I also didn't have the normal things people have on my trip - a fridge, a flushing toilet, a hot shower - and because I didn't have them, I learned to live without them and I was happy. It made me realise as a human being you don't need much. It might make life more comfortable to have all these things, but you really don't need them to be happy."

Dekker has taken to overland travel and recently traipsed around North America in between speaking engagements with her boyfriend Daniel - a Russian/German whom she met in New Zealand.

More sea adventures are on the cards, though.

"There are lots of missions in my head but it takes time for a mission to develop. It took years for my solo circumnavigation to happen - years of preparation - but there are definitely plans in my head that I know will happen."

A lot can be achieved by one girl in her boat on the big blue.

LAURA'S FIVE ESSENTIALS FOR HER SOLO VOYAGE:

* Tools, GPS, maps, sails, wind vane – all the practical and necessary things

* My guitar

* My books

* My camera

* Pictures from family and friends

* Music on my iPod

LAURA TALKS:

Palmerston North, Monday, November 3, 6.30pm, Palmerston North City Library. For tickets, contact Paper Plus on 06 59 4635.

Wellington, Wednesday, November 5, 6pm, Sailing Academy, Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club. Email books@thechildrensbookshop.co.nz or phone 04 939 6702.

Christchurch, Friday, November 7, 6pm, The Children's Bookshop, Christchurch. Phone 03 366 5274 for further information.

The Dominion Post