27,000 miles, 500 days – and she's just 16. One girl's epic solo voyage

With Laura Dekker set to become the youngest person to sail around the globe single-handed, Tony Paterson finds out why the Dutch authorities put their oar in to make sure she did her homework on board

A crimson-hulled yacht called Guppy will cut across the Caribbean sea this morning and steadily roll along towards the Dutch island of St Maarten. Alone on board will be the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe solo.

Click HERE to view Laura Dekker's voyage

If all goes to plan, 16-year-old Laura Dekker will arrive in St Maarten having completed a round-the-world voyage lasting more than 500 days and spanning around 27,000 miles. The Dutch teenager, who set sail from Gibraltar for St Maarten in August 2010, officially began her around-the-world mission from the Caribbean island in January 2011 on a voyage which has taken her via Australia and the Cape of Good Hope.

When she returns, she will be more than seven months younger that the Australian Jessica Watson, who in 2010 completed a non-stop circumnavigation, mostly in the southern hemisphere, just before her 17th birthday.

Laura's excitement about the end of her odyssey is clear in the latest update on her blog: "Still 280 miles to go. I hope to sight the first islands tomorrow. It's a beautiful sunny day. There's less wind than yesterday but Guppy is still going fast enough to get in by the 21st. I'm still not used to the idea of being the youngest circumnavigator."

This milestone in yachting history would normally be an occasion for outpourings of Dutch maritime pride and celebrations in St Maarten and in Holland. But Miss Dekker has effectively shown the Dutch two fingers.

When her 38ft fibreglass ketch is escorted into harbour by other boats thronged with well-wishers, the yacht will not be flying the red, white and blue Dutch tricolour. Instead, Guppy will have the New Zealand flag hoisted from the ensign staff at her stern.

In her blog dispatches from the middle of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, Laura has also made it clear that she has no intention to return to Holland after her voyage. Instead she plans to go to New Zealand, where she is a citizen by dint of the fact that she was born in its territorial waters during her parents' circumnavigation on the family yacht during the mid-1990s.

Both gestures are a deliberate snub to the Dutch authorities. Laura claims they have traumatised her with an interfering "nanny state" approach to her education and welfare which almost drove her to abort her sailing ambitions and put her into a child care home.

The issue still unresolved is whether young teenagers should be permitted to undertake solo earth-girdling sailing voyages – albeit with sophisticated modern navigation and rescue equipment – of the kind once pioneered by the likes of Sir Robin-Knox Johnson and Sir Francis Chichester.

Both Guinness World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council obviously have serious doubts. The two organisations announced recently that they will no longer recognise "youngest sailor" records to avoid encouraging them.

Miss Dekker's latest run-in with the Dutch authorities came as she was battling heavy seas on her Atlantic crossing. Laura wrote in her blog that she had to concentrate on keeping the yacht safe, seaworthy and sailing while the weather was poor. However, the Dutch authorities responsible for overseeing her welfare took this as a sure sign that she was neglecting her school work.

When Laura's father, Dick, refused to make an appointment with the Dutch authorities to discuss the alleged school work problem, truancy officers announced that they intended to raise the issue with social workers.

The Dekker family was outraged – and Laura's response has been to replace the Dutch tricolour with a New Zealand flag. "She's had enough of the Dutch authorities," complained her lawyer, Peter de Lange, this week. "She was almost put into care and now this."

The school work row was the latest in a series of clashes with the authorities that have dogged Dekker ever since she first announced her plans for a solo circumnavigation at the age of 14 in 2009.

Dutch social workers intervened in May that year after being tipped off about her sailing exploits by police in Britain. Dekker had just completed a solo voyage across the North Sea from Maurik in Holland to Lowestoft in a 21ft sailing sloop.

Even for a girl who was born on a boat and owned her first sailing dinghy at the age of six, this was no slight achievement. But the UK authorities demanded that Laura's father accompany her on her return voyage.

Back in Holland, the child welfare authorities took the family to court, where a judge ruled that at 14 Laura was too young to sail alone. Laura then famously fled Holland by taking a plane to St Maarten. Yet on arrival she was arrested and sent back to the Netherlands where she was almost put into a care home.

The public debate about the rights and wrongs of her pioneering project raged until July last year when child court judges finally relented and allowed Laura to embark on her voyage, with the condition that she continued her education online.

Yet the young sailor still had to be accompanied by her father on the first part of her trip from Holland to St Maarten because teenage skippers were illegal in several of the countries they stopped off in.

Laura nevertheless claims that the ordeal she suffered at the hands of the Dutch welfare state has haunted her throughout her voyage.

In a blog written on Wednesday she complained: "It was a frightening and traumatic experience. I often have these terrible memories. They usually last for hours and I can't escape them. I'm afraid the nightmares will continue to haunt my life. After circumnavigating almost the whole world, I really feel the Dutch authorities were totally unfair."

Despite Miss Dekker's decision to hoist the New Zealand flag and assert the fact that she is a citizen of that country, the controversy surrounding teenage solo circumnavigators seems destined to continue in Holland and its foreign dominions. Laura could be in for a traumatic conclusion to her record-breaking voyage. As her lawyer, Mr de Lange, put it: "Who knows, maybe they'll be waiting for her with handcuffs at the finishing line."

Laura's blog: On the high seas

19 January 2012

With only 280 nautical miles to go I expect to see the first islands sometime tomorrow.

25 December 2011

Cooking a five-course meal at sea is something of a challenge... I'll just have to fall back on a very simple Christmas dinner made out of canned food...

27 November 2011

This last leg to Cape Town was really tough. On the last night coming in I reefed the mainsail three times and we rounded the Cape of Good Hope in five-metres high breaking waves... The 35 knots wind that were forecasted soon turned to 40 knots, then to 45 knots and finally to 50 knots with at times 55-knot gusts!

23 August 2011

I still have 280 nautical miles left to go to Darwin, and so it will be another mega milestone on my journey...

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker