Judges call two-month halt to girl's solo voyage


IF EVERYTHING had gone according to plan, Dutch teenage sailor Laura Dekker would now be making final adjustments on her yacht Guppy in preparation for a solo attempt to sail around the world starting next Tuesday.

Instead, like tens of thousands other high-school students in the Netherlands, she will be preparing for the start of a new school year and a return to the classroom on Monday.

Thirteen-year-old Laura’s attempts to accomplish her dream of becoming the youngest person to sail solo around the globe have been blocked amid a storm of protest which saw questions asked in parliament, the seafaring nation divided on the issue of her age and the dangers involved, and child-protection agency officials going to court in a bid to thwart her “risky adventure”.

After days of suspense, during which it was rumoured that Laura, supported by her father, was contemplating leaving the Netherlands – she also has New Zealand citizenship – in order to avoid a veto on her voyage, judges in Utrecht yesterday ordered her to be put under state supervision for two months, halting the around-the-world trip for now.

A independent child psychologist will evaluate the case in the meantime and assess her mental capacity to sail solo around the world. Judges found that Laura, who will soon be 14, would face significant mental and physical risks if she were allowed to go ahead now with the two-year trip aboard her 8m (26ft) yacht.

Dutch child protection agency officials argued that Laura was too young to weigh the dangers of the trip, and psychologists feared that such long-term isolation would be damaging at a vital stage in a teenager’s development.

Pleading for her to be allowed to go ahead, her father had said, “We would not let our child do something of which she was not in complete control.”

Laura’s plans, fully backed by her parents and involving sponsorship deals and a column during the voyage for a leading Dutch yachting magazine, hit the headlines after they applied to take her out of school for two years. The school authorities in her hometown near the city of Utrecht turned them down and the minister of state for education Marja van Bijsterveldt-Vliegenthart, responsible for enforcing the compulsory education Act, even became involved after Laura told how she planned to do her schoolwork by using self-study at the World School on the internet and e-mail. Without supervision of schoolwork by a competent adult. it amounted to truancy, said the education ministry.

Opinions on the case are widely divided in Holland, with some accusing her parents of irresponsibility, and sailor adventurers praising Laura’s quest to become the youngest person to accomplish a solo round-the-world voyage.

Thanks to technological advances, solo yachtsmen and women could now rely on navigation equipment and automatic radar and design a route to stick to waters where there are normally no pirates, it was pointed out. But others argued that it was naive to think a 13-year-old could tackle the ocean on her own.

“Can a girl of that age physically deal with the ocean?” asked Bernt Folmer, director of the Enkhuizen School of Seamanship.

“There can be huge waves and your ship can sustain serious damage. When she’s got a broken mast on heavy seas, can she make herself safe again?”

Laura Dekker was born on a yacht off the New Zealand coast during a seven-year world trip by her parents.

At the age of six, she was sailing her own Optimist and, by the age of 10 she had spent seven weeks sailing solo. Earlier this year, she sailed alone to England where she was briefly detained before authorities told her father to help her sail home.

Dick Dekker flew to England, but she eventually sailed home alone.

She did not attend court yesterday and instead spent the day sailing on a choppy local lake.

Speaking for the family lawyer, Peter de Lang said the judges’ decision offered hope because there will be a further ruling on October 26th and the possibility of her going on the worldwide trip has not been ruled out .

Yesterday’s ruling came a day after 17-year-old British sailor Mike Perham became the youngest person to sail solo around the world, completing 28,000 miles (45,000km) in just nine months.