A Teen Wants to Sail the World Alone — Is It Government's Business?

Laura Dekker, a fourteen-year-old girl from the Netherlands, was born on a sailboat in New Zealand waters. She has herself been a sailor for seven years and has made a solo crossing of the North Sea, known for its sometimes rather inhospitable waters. Following that crossing, Dutch authorities placed her temporarily in a children’s home.


Ms. Dekker now wants to attempt a solo circumnavigation in Guppy, her twenty-six foot yacht. Last August, she was prohibited by Dutch juvenile authorities from attempting her voyage. On October 31, she was ordered confined to port by the authorities, who said that she would not be allowed to sail around the world until, at the earliest, July of 2010.

Her mother and father, who are separated, disagreed about her contemplated adventure:

The teenager, born on a yacht in New Zealand waters, spent the first four years of her life at sea and had hoped to start a two-year solo circumnavigation in September when she was still 13.

Her separated parents disagreed over the ambition. Her mother, Babs Muller, said her daughter was technically capable but worried about her loneliness at sea and safety in ports. Her father, Dick Dekker, a keen sailor with whom she lived, was in favor.

According to news reports, Laura evaded authorities in December and made her way by air to the Dutch island territory of St. Martin in the Caribbean,
where she was found and returned to Holland.

Sailing solo around the world in a small boat is a big and potentially dangerous deal. However, many have done it, though probably none that young. Among other things, help is generally a long way off if needed while far offshore in open ocean, and it is physically impossible to have someone stand watch twenty-four hours per day.


Many other teens, only slightly older than Laura, have done it. They found it an exciting, difficult, and fulfilling voyage.

Ms. Dekker is now at home with her father, and the Dutch court now seems to be more sympathetic:

According to earlier media reports, Laura ran away from home because she feels the court is frustrating her attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Child protection officers are concerned about her safety and the court has said it wants to be sure Laura can cope with the two-year trip.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the judges laid down concrete conditions for allowing the trip. … They said that she should see these conditions as a chance to prove herself rather than as restrictions. For example, Laura must follow a first aid course and make a number of sailing trips abroad to prepare for her proposed round-the-world journey.

According to her lawyer, the judges want to help Laura so that she can make her world trip in three months time.

Bloody good for them! The Dutch have long been a seafaring nation, and it is refreshing to see some of that heritage evidence itself in a judicial decision.

Were the Dutch authorities initially right or wrong in preventing her voyage? Were they subsequently right or wrong in tentatively approving it subject to conditions? These are not simple questions, and it would be stupid for most “normal” teenagers to attempt such a thing. It would also be a stupid thing for most “normal” adults to try, without significant off-shore sailing experience. However, as her mother and father apparently agree, if Ms. Dekker is technically competent and her mother’s principal concern is that she might become lonely or be unsafe in ports, the initial Dutch action was not a good one. There are far worse problems any teenage girl (or boy, for that matter) can encounter in a “normal” life than loneliness at sea or safety in port.


All solo sailors who attempt a circumnavigation — without regard to age — experience loneliness, but with modern communications facilities it should be much less of a problem than it was even a few years ago.

Safety in ports? On a reasonably tight schedule in a small sailing yacht, she would not be long in port, nor would she be alone. There are many cruising sailors out there, and they are usually more than willing to help other cruising sailors. There is a sailing community with a commonality of interest transcending nationality. It is not like weekend sailing — all are a long way from home, and other cruisers become, in a real sense, family. In many cases, they remain “family” long after they “swallow the anchor” and revert to a land-based existence.

From a New York Times opinion piece:

This isn’t pure Huck Finn on Laura’s part. Huck wasn’t trying to be the youngest person to float down the Mississippi. In fact, Laura hopes to beat the record set by Mike Perham, the British 17-year-old who, on Aug. 27, finished a nine-month circuit of the globe in a 50-foot racing yacht. He broke the previous age record by two months. …

Laura Dekker’s desire, as she told Dutch television, is “to live freely.” Knowing adults everywhere will hear her youth in that phrase, and they will recall that the usual response to adolescents who want to live freely is, “grow up.”


Far too many of us “grow up” to the point that the concept of living freely seems absurd; self-reliance has become a thing of the distant past, no longer encouraged and sometimes not even permitted. Ms. Dekker is, in fact:

… proposing to grow up at sea, to face without relief the almost unrelenting challenge of the ocean. And she’s also proposing to do it in the shortest rounding she can.

A fifty-foot racing yacht such as Mr. Perham’s, complex and difficult to sail alone, is far more complicated than a yacht much less than half that length. Length is only one measurement; the beam of Ms. Dekker’s eight-meter yacht is probably between six and eight feet, compared to approximately sixteen feet for Mr. Perham’s fifty-foot yacht. A small yacht has and needs fewer electrical/mechanical goodies to break, is easier to handle, and with much smaller sails presents far less need for a “deck ape.” A smaller yacht does not sail nearly as fast and can be less comfortable.

With the technological marvels now available, even for small oceangoing vessels — most unavailable to solo sailors of the past — such as GPS, satellite telephones, internet, and the like, Ms. Dekker should be able to maintain constant contact with her family and friends back home and with new friends she meets along the way.


During our seven years of sailing in the Caribbean, my wife and I visited many ports. Some were potentially dangerous, but most were not. If there were dangers, we were advised of them before venturing out into the streets. In Puerto Cabello, Venezuela (the dirtiest, grungiest, and probably most crime-infested port we visited), strangers stopped us on the street to caution us. We took their advice and avoided the areas they suggested we avoid. We were there on September 11, 2001, and many Venezuelans stopped us on the street during the next few days (we are obviously gringos) to commiserate. We had no problems, although others did at various times, venturing into places where we had been warned not to go.

We spent as little time as possible in shipping lanes. When out in the open ocean, we very rarely saw another vessel. The same is true of most cruising sailors. We had a radar, with an alarm, to alert us to any approaching vessels, of which there were very few. There were far more in Chesapeake Bay, where I had previously sailed a lot, both single-handed and with generally inexperienced crew.

During our sailing days, we met many families with young children. They were quite different. On a cruising sailboat, they learned and matured very quickly. By the age of ten, they often had substantial duties. Our observation was that a girl or boy of fourteen, who had been home-schooled and experienced the responsibilities of managing a sailing vessel when others were asleep below, far surpassed peers lacking experience in conversing with adults as well as with other children, and in accepting adult responsibilities. When they returned to a land-based existence and attended school, they were more than likely to be several grades ahead of their peers and, perhaps strangely, well socialized.


The Dutch government deemed itself all-wise and empowered to do whatever it wished to deprive private citizens of opportunities to take risks. There is far too much of that going around, and it infects the body politic not only in the United States but in much of Europe.

Ms. Dekker should, and apparently soon will, be permitted to live her dream. Those who have not been to sea, and some who have, may well disagree with her decision and with the way in which the court dealt with the matter when she returned to Holland. Nevertheless, the nanny state can easily go too far, and we have become witnesses to it. It’s a damn shame when it happens, and a joyous occasion when it is overcome.

A young Dutch girl seems, through perseverance most of us would not likely demonstrate, to have accomplished just that. With changes in latitudes there will be many changes in her attitudes, but not in her strong will and determination. It will be a life-changing experience. I hope that her perseverance is rewarded by fair winds and calm seas. And I am envious: “So many nights I just dream of the ocean. God I wish that I was sailin’ again.”


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