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

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The Independent Online

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...