Laura Dekker defied the odds to finish her solo circumnavigation around the world. Ten years on, she reflects on her momentous achievement
How far would you go to achieve your sailing dream? Dutch sailor Laura Dekker went further than most to become the youngest person to solo circumnavigate the world.
She faced the scrutiny of a critical media, court battles with the Dutch state, psychological testing, the confiscation of her boat and the threat of being removed from her parents.
‘I clung onto hope and just kept going, hoping something would change,’ she recalled. ‘I am quite a positive thinking person so I like to keep going, but I definitely had low moments.’
Laura Dekker and her parents were surprised by the Dutch state’s fierce opposition to her plans.
Born in Whangarei, New Zealand while her parents were sailing around the globe, Dekker grew up on the water and on boats. Sailing was just a normal part of her life.
‘To us, it wasn’t as crazy as it seemed to so many other people, especially for me, because sailing was literally all I knew. I really couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, which is part of the reason why I really wanted to keep fighting. It seemed really unfair that three judges, who had no idea about boats or sailing, needed to decide whether I was capable of doing such a thing or not,’ explained Dekker, who initially started honing her sailing skills in an Optimist and Mirror before graduating to a Hurley 700.
At 10, she made her first long-distance solo trip, from Ijsselmeer to the Wadden Islands.
The police were alerted after a friend’s mother reported her to the authorities, and her father, Dick, had to fly to England and sail with her back home.
This was just the start of unwanted state intervention in her plans, and she was placed under a guardianship order.
She upgraded her boat to a Hurley 800, but this was confiscated by the courts.
Frustrated, she wrote a note for her father, cleared out her savings account and flew on her New Zealand passport from Paris to Saint Martin to buy a 30ft Dufour Arpège.
By now a worldwide search warrant had been issued for her, and she was picked up by the island police, and returned to the Netherlands.
Undeterred, Dekker continued to search for the right boat. It was her father who pointed out the extended Jeanneau Gin Fizz advertised in the paper.
Having spent seven years on the hard, Guppy was covered in plants and mould. Dekker’s initial reaction was, ‘Really? Yuk!
‘It looked gross and neglected but Dad and I could see the potential in it. I was also a bit scared because initially I had wanted to circumnavigate in my 7m Hurley 700, which I found easy to handle. This boat was 12.30m/40ft 4in, so much bigger and I thought, could I handle it? Could I even pay for it? But the courts had decided that I needed a bigger boat so there was not much of a choice, plus she was a ketch so the sails are comparatively a little bit smaller and easier to handle, and it was a really strong boat.’
Dekker and her father relocated to Den Osse, in the south of the Netherlands – changing schools and jobs – to work on Guppy.
They had just a few months to get the boat ready if Dekker wanted to start her circumnavigation in the summer.
By May 2010, Guppy, with a newly fitted Windpilot windvane, was back in the water, and Dekker began sailing the boat in homewaters before a passage to England and back.
By July, the courts had lifted the guardianship order and she was finally free to leave.
A few weeks later, with her father on board, Dekker left the Netherlands and sailed to Portimão, Portugal to give Guppy a proper shakedown sail.
On 21 August 2010, aged 14, she left Gibraltar to sail around the world singlehanded.
‘I think I was experiencing every single emotion that you can have at the same time. I was just so nervous, but also super-happy, super-excited; I barely slept. But I was missing my family, so I was sad too,’ explained Dekker.
She and Guppy followed the trade winds, sailing to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, across the Atlantic to Saint Martin, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific Ocean, through the Torres Strait, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and then back to Saint Martin via the South Atlantic.
She made stops along the way; Customs and Immigration officials never questioned her.
Meeting new people was one of the highlights of her 17-month voyage, and saying goodbye to return to sea was often hard.
‘At the beginning, I remember I would count the days until I was on shore again. I enjoyed sailing, but I enjoyed being on land more. Halfway through the trip that just changed. I really started to love being on the ocean.’
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Laura Dekker said she was lucky with the weather during her circumnavigation.
‘I always just kept going. I always opted to keep going downwind, and then when it got really bad I hand steered because I felt that was the safest option, as the boat surfed really well.’
She said the Torres Strait, between Australia and New Guinea, was some of the most challenging sailing of her voyage.
‘I had really bad weather when I went through it, wind and thunder. My sail ripped in the middle of the strait and I had to take it down and put another one up. It was just really tiring.’
But the calms were worse, especially in the Indian Ocean.
‘I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to change the weather or the winds, and I was sometimes just going to float backwards for a few days.’
Dekker arrived in Saint Martin on 21 January 2012. She was 16, and had just sailed her last leg from South Africa to the Caribbean island in 41 days.
It was the end of her circumnavigation of the world, but she didn’t feel excited; the voyage had been about exploring the world and challenging herself and she had done that along the way.
‘It was really South Africa where I felt I had achieved everything I wanted to, where I felt l had sailed through storms and calms and I had really faced myself and seen the world. Arriving in Saint Martin felt like just another stop,’ she explained.
A hungry press greeted her, their cameras clicking away when all she wanted was a hot shower.
She was also itching to continue sailing, and after a few months she threw off Guppy’s lines and sailed to New Zealand, where she lived onboard the boat for years in Whangarei, finishing school before being accepted at the New Zealand Maritime School in Auckland.
Realising she couldn’t ‘sit still on a chair in school for five years’ she left, got her Yachtmaster Ocean ticket and travelled and delivered boats.
She began working with a marine electrician at Whangarei Girls High, running wilderness expeditions, and it was this which planted a seed that would become the Laura Dekker World Sailing Foundation, offering teenagers sailing adventures.
With the support of her partner, Sander Vogelenzang, she designed a boat, but the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic quashed their plans.
Instead, they bought a second-hand Robert Perry-designed Scorpio 72 in France and began changing the interior and installing new systems, rigging and sails.
Their first trip across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back lasted six months. Since then they have taken 40 8-16-year-olds on Atlantic circuits and Europe trips, allowing them to learn to sail, build confidence and develop key skills like problem solving.
Some are onboard the yacht – also named Guppy – for six weeks, others for six months, taking in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, the Caribbean before sailing back to Europe via the Azores.
‘They do need to come with the idea that they will learn and change. From day one they have to do everything themselves from cooking and cleaning to joining watches. It is hard work but when you see the changes in them, especially those students who were with us on the first trip, it is so rewarding to see what it has done for them.’
Dekker, Vogelenzang, and another adult sailor make up the crew, alongside students.
The couple’s young sons, Tim and Alex are also onboard.
At 27, and a mother, would Dekker allow her children to circumnavigate the world solo at the age of 14?
‘I really don’t know. I had this opportunity and it has absolutely made me the person I am today, so I can’t really say no, but it does depend upon the child. The only thing I can say is that I will definitely raise them to follow their dreams and their goals, and let them fall on their noses and do as much as possible themselves while I’m still able to catch them if they don’t manage.’
If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
Laura Dekker has certainly faced her challenges, and few could argue that the resulting experience has been anything short of extraordinary.
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