Meet Laura Dekker, the Youngest Person to Sail Solo Around the World
Dekker began her journey when she was 14 years old and finished when she was 16.
When Laura Dekker was 13 years old, she decided to do something fun for Spring Break without telling her parents.
Dekker decided to sail from Holland to England by herself. “I left in the morning when my dad was working, and I made sure that I was far out at sea by the time he got back home,” she told The Profile in an interview.
When Dekker arrived in England, she was greeted by police who put her in handcuffs and drove her to London. When they called her dad to come pick her up, he had a surprising reaction.
“He was proud that I had actually done it and he had seen how I prepared the boat and that it wasn't just a reckless action,” she says. “And he complimented me for that, which was cool.”
Following this trip, Dekker had a new goal: Sail around the globe.
But plans of her ambitious journey leaked to the press, and she was caught in a firestorm of public criticism. A Dutch court blocked her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, placed her under the guardianship of child protection authorities, and had her undergo regular psychological checks.
“They actually took the responsibility of my parents over me — they took that,” she says. “And there was a time where I had to live with foster parents. So I wasn’t allowed to be at home. For me, it wasn’t a fight of whether I could sail or not. This was so much more than that.”
After a year of battle, another Dutch court lifted the guardianship order and put the responsibility of the decision back in the hands of her parents. "With this decision, the responsibility for Laura lies with her parents," the presiding judge said. "It is up to them to decide whether Laura can set off on her sail trip.”
So at age 14, Dekker began her 518-day journey around the world. She began in August 2010 and finished in January 2012. In that period, she took on massive waves, extreme weather, dangerous reefs, cramped living conditions, and total solitude. But she gained something too — self-confidence.
At age 16, she became the youngest sailor ever to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe.
“For me, [that trip] was really the beginning of my life,” she says. “And honestly, everything I have now has everything to do with that trip. It changed my life very significantly.”
In this conversation, Dekker, now 28, talks about what prompted her to take on a voyage this challenging, how she navigated (and eventually won) her fight with the Dutch government, and how she plans to use the lessons she learned as a young sailor to parent her own kids.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Below is an excerpt, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview below.)
After sailing from Holland to England and back, you decided you were ready to sail around the world alone. Is it because it gave you the confidence to say, ‘I know I’m young, but I know I can do this?’
DEKKER: I never really felt like, ‘I know I can do it.’ It was more of I just knew I had to do it. It was very clear in my mind that that's what I needed to do for myself. Because also in that time, I did get more and more unhappy in school and in just everyday life.
I have always have had a really good relationship with my dad, so we were close, but I really didn't like this whole high school thing where people were just trying to be popular and party.
Yes, I know I'm rebellious, but I think in a completely different way than most of the teenagers in my school. This age — 13, 14, 15 — is so hard. And people are so mean to you, especially if you're kind of an outcast or a weirdo, which I was.
So I was not happy at all. I didn't feel like I had anything that I was going to miss. So for me, it was just — I don't want to say an escape — but it was very clear for me that that's what I needed to do.
Like I was either going to waste my entire teenage years in school being completely unhappy or I was going to go and do what I wanted to do. So for me, that's the real reason.
It wasn't for a record or whatever. It was that I just had to do it. I just knew in my mind that was the solution to figure myself out.
So in 2010, you were 14 years old when you set sail. Were you nervous about doing it alone?
Oh yeah. I was really nervous. I remember the first week that I was out at sea, I was one big nervous wreck. I wasn’t even able to sleep.
I was super happy, and I felt on top of the world, but I was also nervous. I was double-checking everything. I went from chart and checking the radar, and then the sails, and the wheel in front me, and then back to the chart. I would just go around checking everything in circles without resting.
So while you were on the boat, were you able to communicate with anyone externally?
No. I had a satellite phone for emergencies, but I wasn't using that. I used it once. And it was really not an emergency. But it was one of those moments where I just went blank and was like, ‘I don't know what to do.’
How did you cope with being alone for so long?
Especially with everything that happened the year before I set sail, I was just so happy to be left alone. I didn't want to have to deal with anything or anyone in the world. I was happy at sea.
And that kind of reflects in the journey in the beginning where I was still a bit nervous and really, really wanted to see other cultures. So I stopped a lot and spent a lot of time actually getting to know the locals and getting into those cultures.
But as the journey went on, I just did longer and longer passages until I actually went from Australia in one straight line to South Africa and then South Africa - Caribbean, which are really long hops. So yeah, I really love that I was alone, so it didn’t feel lonely at all.
You are a mom now. Would you let your kids undertake a similar endeavor?
This is such a tough question. I would honestly sh*t my pants. I really hope they won't.
Because it's so hard. In saying that, I know the gift that my parents have given me in allowing me not just to sail around the world but also in allowing me to chase my dreams always.
If I said, ‘I'm gonna go do this,’ my parents didn't go, ‘Oh, that's dumb idea.’ They were like, ‘Okay, cool. What do you think are the consequences of doing it?’
If my kid would come and say, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ instead of saying, ‘Well, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched,’ I really would have to know that I need to say, ‘Okay, that's great. What are the steps to achieve that? And can we do that together?’
They might never become that astronaut, they might never go and do something as crazy as I have done, but I really, really want to encourage them to be themselves and to actually do what they love to do.
And that starts with this age. My oldest is five, and he has dreams, he has goals, and he has things he wants to be, and I just need to be there to encourage that. To be there for him.