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Laura Dekker completes solo circumnavigation at 16 years and 123 days

by Nancy Knudsen on 22 Jan 2012
Stepping onto shore at the end of her circumnavigation - photo Telegraph UK .. .
This week (Saturday 21st January) Laura Dekker, 16-year-old Dutch/New Zealander solo sailor, quietly sailed between islands in pleasant seas into the Dutch island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, completing a solo odyssey around the world in a year and a day.

There were merely dozens, not thousands, of people at the wharf to greet her, including members of her family. Her father Dick Dekker, who has supported her quest throughout, made his third appearance, after being in both Darwin and Capetown to meet her and ensure her safety.

Laura has cut more than six months off the unofficial record set in 2010 by Australian teenager Jessica Watson, who was days away from her 17th birthday when she completed her own non-stop voyage.

There was no sign of Dutch officials at the wharf however, after fears were raised that the authorities may not yet have lost interest in her. Truancy officers reportedly issued her father a summons to appear before them late last year, after a newspaper quoted her admitting that she hadn’t been able to pay full attention to her correspondence course because she had to concentrate on sailing through a series of storms.

Constantly dogged by the Dutch government and child welfare agencies since she was thirteen and sailed the English Channel solo, Laura has learned many things, many of them about sailing, but also about the difficulties that one faces once the bureaucracy has you in its sights.

Laura, born on a boat in New Zealand during a sailing circumnavigation by her parents, spent all her early years living on a boat and sailing back to the Netherlands.

While her parents are divorced and her mother, Babs Muller was not, at first, in favour of allowing her to undertake the circumnavigation, she admits her daughter's skill. ‘She sails like a devil’, she says.

Her grandfather agrees, ‘She’s a stoic’, he says.

The lawyer for the family, Peter de Lange, is more explicit: ‘She will keep a cool head in the most extreme of situations, and she has tremendous will power and ambition’.

‘Her wish to do this was something that came from her heart and soul and no one was going to stop her,’ he added after the completion of the voyage.

Of course, Dekker's record as the youngest sailor to complete a round-the-world voyage will forever remain unofficial, because Guinness World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council will never verify the record, saying they no longer recognise records for youngest sailors in order to discourage dangerous attempts.

The teenager covered more than 27,000 nautical miles on a trip with stops at ports including the Canary Islands, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Bora Bora, Australia, South Africa and finally St Maarten, from where she set out on 20 January 2011. She spent many long sojourns at sea, the longest being 47 days to cross the Indian Ocean, a distance of 6000 nautical miles.

Laura's voyage most resembled that of Zac Sunderland, seventeen-year-old American sailor who, in a 36ft Islander cruising boat, for a short period became the youngest solo sailing circumnavigator in 2009 (eclipsed by Britain's Mike Perham) and is still America's youngest circumnavigator.

Zac intentionally stopped along the way in many ports unlike Mike Perham, who set out to complete a non-stop circumnavigation but was forced to stop for technical reasons.

Dekker also undertook a cruising journey, stopping along the way to wait for the seasons and use the time to conduct repairs and maintenance on her 38ft ketch, a Jeanneau Gin Fizz called Guppy.

Australia's Jessica Watson completed a 210-day non-stop solo voyage around the world in an S&S 34 cruising boat (mainly in the southern hemisphere making it slightly shorter than records require) at the age of 16. She was greeted by many thousands of people on her return, including Australia's Prime Minister, and has since been made Australia's Young Australian of the Year - among many other accolades.

Abby Sunderland, younger sister of Zac Sunderland, at the age of 16 attempted a similar non-stop voyage in an attempt to beat Jessica's record, but had to be rescued in the middle of the south Indian Ocean when her Open 40 racing boat, judged by many to be unsuitable for such a journey, was dismasted during an Indian Ocean storm.

Dekker's stated intention is now to keep sailing through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific once again - to settle in either New Zealand or Australia, as her experiences with the Dutch authorities have left such a bad taste in her mouth.

She has repeatedly expressed her love of being at sea alone, and many a reader has commented to Sail-World that she is reminiscent of Bernard Moitessier, French solo sailor who could not face the publicity associated with his round-world exploits and kept on sailing to Tahiti where he spent the rest of his life, never returning to France and fame.

Keep reading Sail-World Cruising for more information about the different journeys undertaken by recent teen sailors including this remarkable, and intensely private, young sailor.

In the meantime here is a rather shaky amateur video of the yacht as it ties up in Sint Maarten

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