Dutch girl (16) fulfils dream as youngest to sail round the world


THE CHANGE of flag on her modest sail boat said it all.

Dutch schoolgirl sailor Laura Dekker, who has fulfilled her dream to become the youngest round-the-world sailor, arrived late on Saturday on the Dutch Antillean Island of St Maarten in the Caribbean, a year and a day after starting her epic voyage and breaking all the records she set out to surpass.

But the red, white and blue flag representing the Netherlands which had fluttered above the mast of her 30-year-old yacht Guppy on her departure had been replaced by the flag of New Zealand. Born at sea on a yacht in New Zealand waters, Dekker has joint Dutch and New Zealand citizenship.

Raising the New Zealand flag was a deliberate gesture, she later acknowledged, a sign of her anger and frustration at how she was treated by the Dutch authorities, who, she claims, did everything to destroy her dream.

It was 16-year-old Dekker’s way of letting Dutch social services know what she really thought of them, highlighting the controversial battle over this particular bid to be the “youngest around the world”.

At the age of 13, Dekker, supported by her father, had been about to set out to sail solo around the world, but at the last-minute alarm bells had sounded and Dutch child welfare officers were called in. A major controversy ensued with international media exposure for Dekker amid scrutiny of her sailing skills and psychological state, parental control and other matters – leading to questions being asked in the Dutch parliament.

There was much soul-searching over the wisdom of parents allowing children to follow their dream, considering the dangers involved. In the end, Dekker virtually became a ward of court. Then, just before her 15th birthday, she went back to court in the Netherlands and she and her lawyers convinced judges she was capable of sailing around the world unaided, could physically deal with all the pressures involved and had enough expertise and sufficient mental stamina to follow her dream.

Dekker’s arduous court battle was a complicated one. After the authorities decreed that she should remain under the scrutiny of the youth welfare services when she was 14, she fled her home in a village near the city of Utrecht and, after an international police alert, turned up on the island of St Maarten – which has become the symbolic start and end point of her round-the-world voyage.

Earlier this month, truancy officers had issued Dekker’s father with a summons claiming she had been failing to complete her school work. In fact, during her year at sea she managed to accomplish most of her class work, it has been confirmed.

The Dekker family’s lawyer Peter de Lange said: “Laura is doing her best, but the school knew before she set off that there would be times when she might not be able to meet the deadlines.”

Disappointed she will not earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records, which has scrapped records for youngest sailors to discourage dangerous attempts, Dekker – who has written a book about her adventures over more than 27,000 nautical miles – said in her blog she was far more haunted by memories of Dutch social services threatening to lock her up again and again to stop her bid to sail around the world than she was scared of the threat of pirate kidnappings, treacherous seas or being shipwrecked.