Dutch sailor, 14, gets OK for solo world trip
MIDDELBURG, Netherlands (AP) – The new cushions, sunshade and bright red sail are in place. And now 14-year-old Laura Dekker has the go-ahead she needs.
A Dutch court ruled Tuesday the girl who was born on a yacht in the South Pacific is ready to embark on her dream of becoming the youngest person to sail solo around the world – meaning she could set sail in two weeks in a ketch named Guppy.
“I was so happy I almost jumped into the water,” the teen gushed, after hearing the court’s decision.
She then hopped onto her red-hulled, twin-mast yacht with a cartoon fish painted on the side and did a celebratory circle for the assembled media in the still waters of the harbor where she lives with her father on a boat.
The past year of legal wrangling and criticism of Laura and her family have been far from such clear sailing – and she faces more stormy waters when she sets off on her odyssey in her 38-foot (11.5-meter) yacht. The dramatic rescue just last month of American teen Abby Sunderland in the Indian Ocean is a reminder of the perils she will face.
“I’m not really afraid, everything is really prepared on my boat,” the young Dutch sailor said of the prospect of encountering everything from towering waves to Somali pirates.
Answering questions in Dutch and English with a confidence belying her age, only rarely did Laura’s youthful exuberance break through at a brief news conference – like when she looked back on the stress of the last year.
“Now it’s all over and, yeah, it’s really cool,” she said.
The risks the teen faces ignited a worldwide debate on how far parents should go in supporting or encouraging their children’s improbable dreams.
When Dutch child protection agencies got wind last year of the then 13-year-old’s plan they immediately went to court and had Laura placed under a guardianship order that meant she could not set sail.
After reviewing her plans, judges ruled Laura was underprepared for such a voyage. They also raised concerns about her psychological and social development if she spent two years away from her peers and from school.
One by one, Laura and her father worked to address a list of shortcomings – she organized remote schooling (study materials for the voyage were delivered last week) and got a bigger, sturdier yacht and fitted it with a battery of safety and navigation equipment. She took first aid courses, learning to suture her own wounds, put out onboard fires and cope with sleep deprivation.
On Tuesday, all the work paid off when Middelburg Family Court said there was no reason to extend the guardianship by another year.
Presiding Judge S. Kuypers said the responsibility for Laura now “lies with her parents.”
“It is up to them to decide whether Laura can set off on her sail trip,” she said.
The teen has also won over her mother, who initially opposed the voyage. Babs Mueller, who is separated from Laura’s father, recently said she now backs her daughter.
Dick Dekker brushed off criticism that he was pushing his daughter to undertake the voyage.
“Nonsense. It was Laura’s plan from the very beginning,” he said. “I just support her in it.”
An experienced sailor who was circling the globe with Laura’s mother when Laura was born on their yacht in New Zealand waters, Dekker said he didn’t think the voyage was any more risky than life in the Netherlands.
“If she rides her bike to school that is probably more dangerous,” he told The Associated Press.
But 16-year-old Sunderland’s dramatic rescue in June underscored the dangers of round-the-world sailing. A wave in the southern Indian Ocean snapped the mast off her yacht and put an abrupt end to her solo adventure. She was eventually rescued by a French fishing boat more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) west of Australia.
Laura said she watched the dramatic rescue unfold, “but it didn’t really bother me.” Her boat is bigger and more stable than Sunderland’s, she said, and she was planning to take much longer for her voyage in an effort to catch the best weather.
Sunderland’s parents faced fierce criticism for letting their daughter attempt the trip and for the costly rescue – and Tuesday’s decision ignited a fresh debate.
“I have a 14-year-old girl and I would never let her go,” said Olindo Palozzi, 47, a grocer in downtown Rome. “The court made the wrong decision, anything could happen.”
Sonja Trott, 32, the German mother of a 10-month old baby, agreed. “I think a 14-year old is not capable of making such a decision and of completely grasping the implications of such an adventure,” she said. “I think there is a huge lack of responsibility by the parents. I cannot understand how they could allow her to do this.”
If Laura finishes within two years, she would beat then 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson’s record, her lawyer Peter de Lange said. Watson spent 210 days maneuvering her 34-foot (10-meter) yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady, around the world, encountering raging storms and 40-foot (12-meter) waves along the way.
Laura has mapped out a course hopping from port to port that means she will get plenty of time on dry land and visits from family during the voyage. She has two alternative routes around Africa ready – one through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and another around South Africa if the threat of pirates is too serious.
Laura, who had a small black skull-and-cross-bones flag fluttering from her rigging Tuesday, said she was not too afraid of pirates.
“They don’t attack yachts so much,” she said. “If you are in a convoy you should be OK.”