Teenage kicks the Dutch way: sailing round the world at 14

As Laura Dekker's boat finally set sail yesterday for the start of a voyage that could one day lead her to be crowned as the youngest person to sail solo around the world, it was her lawyer Peter de Lange who provided the most succinct explanation as to why a 14-year-old would undergo such a task. "Laura has salt in her veins," he said.

For the past 12 months, the teenager has been stranded on dry land following a bitter legal dispute between her family and Dutch child welfare services who refused to let her leave the country.

But yesterday the schoolgirl finally set off from Den Osse harbour for the start of a two-year odyssey which will see her journey for months on end without support or company through some of the world's toughest seas.

Her court case provoked a debate over whether someone so young should be allowed to take on such a daunting challenge. Supported by her father Dick – and belatedly by her mother after she dropped her initial opposition – Laura argued that she was an accomplished sailor who could tackle a solo global voyage and keep up with her studies at the same time.

Welfare officers in the Netherlands disagreed, launching a legal bid to stop her from undertaking the voyage and even threatening to take her into care.

But last week, in a dramatic reversal of fortune for the young sailor, a court in the Netherlands struck down a supervision order which had barred the teenager from going abroad, arguing that the ultimate responsibility for Laura lay with her parents.

Speaking to reporters yesterday next to her 38ft yacht Guppy, the teenager dismissed any concerns for her safety, even though she will have to travel through pirate-infested waters and battle tropical storms on her own.

"I am not really afraid," she said. "I am very happy. I want to see the world and it would be great to become the youngest [person to circumnavigate the Earth]".

For the opening stages of her voyage to Portugal she will be accompanied by her father. "We want to be sure that the boat is completely ready, so this is the last test sail," Laura explained. "From Portugal I start officially by myself, sailing towards the Canary Islands."

Part of the reason the court lifted the supervision order was because she made a series of adjustments, opting to travel in a larger boat, taking first-aid courses as well as practising solo runs across the North Sea and undergoing sleep-deprivation exercises.

She will not try to circumnavigate the globe in one go, opting instead to take regular stops to meet her family. She will also avoid the ocean during stormy seasons. Her route will take her across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, past Malaysia and Thailand, around the southern horn of India and through the Gulf of Aden, a stretch of water notorious for piracy.

Her voyage is part of a trend that has seen younger and younger participants attempt to snatch the record. Last year the 17-year-old American Zac Sunderland became the youngest sailor to sail around the world – only to have his record broken six weeks later by the British sailor, Michael Perham, also 17 years old. In May, the Australian sailor Jessica Watson reduced the age record once more, completing a circumnavigation in less than seven months, just shy of her 17th birthday. If Laura is to beat Jessica's record she will need to complete her circumnavigation by no later than 16 September 2012.

Teens up to the challenge

Zac Sunderland

American sailor who last year became the first person under-18 to sail solo around the world. His 16-year-old sister Abby had to be rescued last month as she made a similar attempt.

Michael Perham

Sailor from Hertfordshire who took away Sunderland's record after just six weeks. Still the youngest man to hold the record.

Jessica Watson

The Australian crossed the finish line in May 2010, only a few days short of her 17th birthday. She is now the record holder for youngest solo sailor.

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