Dutch officials try to stop global sail by 13-year-old girl

Authorities threaten to remove girl from parents' custody if she tries to break world record for youngest circumnavigation of globe.

Corne van der Stelt/AP
Thirteen-year-old Laura Dekker poses on her sailing boat in the Netherlands in this photo taken, May 19.

Would you let your 13-year-old daughter sail around the world alone?

Dutch authorities are threatening to remove Laura Dekker from the custody of her father if he lets her set sail on Sept. 1.

Laura, who lives on a yacht in the Netherlands, wants to break the world record for the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe.

The current record is held by Mike Perham, who completed his round-the-world voyage today. He’s 17 years old. It took Mike 9 months to complete the trip.

I empathize and admire Laura’s ambition. As a teen, the book “Dove” was one of my favorites. It chronicles 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham’s around-the-world voyage that began in 1965 in his 24-foot sloop, Dove. In 1974, the book was made into a movie.

Since then, Graham has inspired a host of teen sailors – including Zac Sunderland.

Last month, the Californian Zac completed his high-seas adventure. I was among many who followed his 13-month trek on his blog.

Until today, he held the record as the youngest – at 17 – to sail around the world alone. (Graham took five years and got married along the way). Zac’s sister, Abby, will be 16 in November when she plans to follow in her brother's wake on her own solo global odyssey.

What does Abby’s father think of his daughter alone on the high seas?

"I wouldn't let her go at 13, or at 14 or at 15," Laurence Sunderland told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a strength factor and they need to be mentally grounded in what this entails. It's not a frivolous thing. The ocean is terrifying and you have to be prepared for all the adversities that it throws at you."

But he says that Abby has been training and is well prepared. Sunderland, the Los Angeles Times notes, is a shipwright and routinely transports vessels for clients, often with the help of his kids.

And what about Mike Perham – who just finished his global trek and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean alone at age 14 – would he let Laura go?

He told The Daily Telegraph:

If I was asked whether an average 13-year-old girl should sail around the world I'd immediately say no. But Laura isn't average and that's what I feel has caused this little storm (...) What people will fail to see is that she's an accomplished sailor already and has a lot of sailing experience…
"How young is too young? Age is only a number. It's what makes the person that is important."

Laura says this is her dream. She was born off the coast of New Zealand during a round-the-world-voyage by her parents. She had her own sailboat by age six. At 11, she spent seven weeks at sea alone. She sailed solo from the Netherlands to England last spring – a journey of about 175 miles. When British authorities called her dad, Dick Dekker, and told him to come get her, he refused, insisting she was capable of sailing home alone.

Dutch authorities have already turned down her father’s request that she be exempted from the law requiring her to attend school until the age of 16. He proposed that she learn via the Internet during her two-year journey.

In a recent written report to Parliament, education deputy minister Marja van Bijsterveldt-Vliegenthart said "a solo voyage around the world would not be in the best interests of the child."

Laura’s case is now before a Dutch judge. Child protection authorities are seeking temporary custody if she tries to set sail.

And in an editorial yesterday the Dutch daily De Volkskrant wrote that the young sailor was unwittingly putting herself in significant danger and didn't have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that awaited her.

Yes, Californian Zac Sunderland successfully dealt with threats of pirates and storms and much bigger ships that didn’t see him. Mostly, though, he fought fatigue. It’s hard to keep a course when you’re asleep.

As a parent of two daughters, I had trouble giving permission to my 13-year-olds to go to parties. Would my wife and I have let either of them go on a solo hike across America, let alone the world? I doubt it.

But I admire Laura’s courage and capacity to dream big. I’m probably the helicopter parent that I would have hated as a teen. I spent my childhood summer days roving on foot or bicycle, miles from home, completely unreachable, exploring the woods and the town dump.

What would you do? Would you let your daughter sail solo around the world?

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.