Alvah Simon's blog - Child of the sea

03:08, Sep 25 2012
Laura Dekker
"Most of the young sailors trying to set that [youngest solo circumnavigation] record only see sailing as a way to achieve money and fame," says Laura Dekker.

Citizen of the world...child of the sea

I don't much like record setting because, what with all the hype and hubris, it becomes all about us, not the mountain, the sky, or the sea. In any event, meaningful records are getting harder to achieve. "I was the first person to goat-cart across the Gobi desert from west to east on a yogurt diet!" Well, good for you.

I get ever more uncomfortable when the attemptees are too young to make a mature and informed assessment of the risks versus the rewards. In Robin Lee Graham's book Dove (an account of his attempt to be the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate) he describes a deep and dangerous sense of isolation and loneliness during a formative time in his life when being surrounded by family and friends was so terribly important. In Tania Aebi's book, Maiden Voyage, one gets the sense that the dream of her being the youngest to circumnavigate was perhaps more her father's than her own.

Because of this I was, at first, hesitant to write about the recently arrived young sailor, Laura Dekker, who made global headlines not just for her record setting solo-circumnavigation completed at the age of 16, but because of the Dutch court's attempt to stop her in spite of having her parent's permission. All the legal, moral, and social issues therein became a real can of worms, and didn't the press just love that?

But the fact that after the ink in the record books had dried and all the hoopla had settled down, young Laura simply carried on sailing told me that there might be something different here. And indeed there is.

Laura was born in Whangarei, while her German mother and Dutch father were sailing the world. Thus she now holds Kiwi, Dutch and German passports. Until she was five she knew nothing but boats and life on the sea. After their return to Europe it was not much different. She sailed the stripes off her little Optimist, and on her 24 foot Hurley 700 she explored the Wadden and North Sea alone. At the ripe old age of 13, she made a solo voyage from Holland to England. Ironically, the English authorities demanded that her father fly to England to accompany her home. She not only developed the true skills of sailing and seamanship, but the outlook and maturity to go with them.

When I found her on her 37' ketch "Guppy" in the Whangarei Town Basin she said, "Most of the young sailors trying to set that record only see sailing as a way to achieve money and fame. Me, I just love sailing and I love the sea. And that was a way to get plenty of both."


And plenty she has. With more miles under her keel than the average admiral her seamanship skills would rival those of the crustiest old salt.

Nevertheless, she is so petite you are inclined to worry about her. Worry not. She handles the 7- ton Guppy with a breezy confidence. The vessel is a little worn around the edges, as most real mile-makers are, but is seaworthy and simple enough to sail on her own.

As to the being way out there all alone she says, "I do not often get lonely, and I never get bored. There is always so much to do - cooking, navigating, reefing and furling sails."

People are always asking her about her education, often in a disapproving way. She has completed correspondence courses but admits that her attention is often diverted by her duties at sea. But talk about an educational field trip - geography, oceanography, ethnology, mathematics, and a language lab to boot!

After the completion of her record-setting sail, the fact that she carried on west instead of returning to Europe was recently described by a breathless TV journalist as "Laura chose New Zealand over her parents." No she did not. She simply chose to carry on doing what she loves and does best - sailing.

In this regard she thinks much like any person five to ten years older would. "I love my parents. But they have their life and I have mine."

But she is not necessarily alone or without support. Although calling ourselves a "cruising community" may be a misnomer due to our itinerant and mobile nature, we are, nonetheless, kindred spirits who share a deep love of the sea. She has made many friends out there who have helped her in many ways.

Young though she may be, Laura Dekker is not a dabbler, she is a dedicated sailor, and I suspect we will see her here, there, and everywhere for many years to come.

Alvah Simon

Boating NZ