“I was born on a boat in New Zealand. I lived my first five years at sea. And ever since, all I've wanted is to return to that life.” So begins Maidentrip, a remarkable new documentary about Laura Dekker, the 17-year-old sailor who, in 2012, became the youngest person to sail around the world alone. The film debuted on Sunday at South by Southwest in Austin, before a crowd of about 300 people, and will make the rounds on the festival circuit this spring.
Laura’s story sparked an international controversy in 2009, when she announced her plans to attempt a solo circumnavigation. She was 14 at the time and quickly became embroiled in a contentious, 10-month court battle with the Dutch government, which deemed the voyage unsafe for the teen and tried to remove her from her father’s custody. Laura and her father prevailed, and in August 2010, she set sail from the Netherlands in her 38-foot ketch, Guppy.
Maidentrip documents her 17 months alone at sea. There was no chase boat, support staff, or film crew. Laura shot all of the footage aboard Guppy herself, using a Sony Handy Cam she rigged to the boat. The effect is an intimate, arresting portrait of the young sailor, who for much of the film stares wide-eyed into the camera, as though she can’t quite believe she’s doing it, either. Though you never see the camera, it takes on its own personality, a kind of default crew and confidante for the solo skipper.
Director Jillian Schlesinger, 29, who’d read about Laura in The New York Times in 2009 and approached her with the idea of making a documentary about the trip, wanted the project to feel organic and unscripted. “I wanted to let her tell her own story, and give her a voice, in a way that the sensational mainstream media hadn’t,” says Schlesinger. “Doing something so extreme with so much passion is an art, and that’s how I approached it with Laura. I was really interested in finding out why, as a 14-year-old, she wanted to do this. She had no interest in being famous. She really just loves to sail.”
Schlesinger, who makes her living writing and producing TV promos, spent three years working on Maidentrip. It's her first film. Like Laura’s voyage, the project became her own epic quest. "I always had a dream of making films,” she says. “There are a million reasons not to follow your dream, but as Laura once said to me, ‘You don’t have to know that you can do something. You just have to try.’”
Schlesinger met Laura en route nine times during the course of the 17-month journey, collecting footage, giving her topics for recording unscripted voice diaries, and occasionally shooting dry-land video. In the Galapagos, Laura convinced her to hop a sailboat with a Canadian family for an unplanned “race” across the Pacific. “After wasting a lot of money changing plane tickets, I finally learned not to make firm plans when I met up with Laura, so I’d bought a one-way ticket,” recalls Schlesinger, whose father dropped out of school to sail to Central America. “Sailing across the Pacific started out as a joke. It was daunting to think about being away from the world for three weeks, but I knew it would be compelling to film Laura at sea. In the end, though, we never saw her. We left later than she did and even though we were in a faster boat, she was busting ass to the Marquesas. She got there a day ahead of us.”
No surprise. Laura was born to sail. When she was five, she and her parents returned to the Netherlands, but later divorced. Laura moved in with her dad, who worked in a boatyard, so she could keep sailing. She got her first dingy when she was six, sailed throughout Holland during the summers, and made her first solo crossing, to England, when she was 13. In the film’s early, archival footage, we see a small smiling sailor dwarfed by her life jacket, sailing a tiny dingy with her dog, Spot.
But out on Guppy on the open sea, Laura grows up fast. She cuts her hair, dyes it red, learns to cook and eat ravioli without spilling it when huge swells hit, starts to swear, celebrates her 16th birthday in Darwin, Australia, with her dad, who flies in to help her repair her sails after a wind-battered crossing, and wrestles with her own identity as a sailor and a daughter. In one poignant scene in French Polynesia, she replaces her Dutch flag with the flag of New Zealand, country of her birth. “I don't have any real connection to Holland anymore," she says. "I don't want to go back. I don't really have a home. Home to me is Guppy."
Though she shares a deep love of sailing with her father, and both he and her mother meet up with her along the way, the farther she gets from home, the more her family recedes. The overwhelming impression you get from Maidentrip is of a young girl bobbing happily alone on the enormous ocean. Except for a few moments, when she sets out from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic and is so homesick she can't eat for two days, and later when she passes through the Panama Canal—a point-of-no-return where the voyage "just started to get serious"— Laura seems utterly at home at sea, at peace with her solitude, fiercely independent, and unflappable in the face of stiff challenges.
When a storm approaches in the Atlantic, she raises an eyebrow at the camera and starts cursing, "Shit, shit!" But then the first waves slap her bow, and she shouts, "Woohoo! That was so beautiful! Really super awesome!" She grows increasingly comfortable with long crossings—47 days on the Indian Ocean—and less interested in going ashore. "Now I've really started to like the long passages more, just because they give you so much time to think," Laura says in one of her voice diaries. She rounds the Cape of Good Hope in huge swells and a storm that most seasoned sailors would sit out. Not Laura. "I didn't feel anything but focused. Being scared was totally gone. I didn't feel that I was hungry or tired. I was just doing it."
By the time she cruises into St. Martin, in January 2012, bypassing Holland to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe—27,000 nautical miles in 519 days—her transformation from girl to self-reliant solo captain is complete. "I wanted the storms. I wanted the calms. I wanted to feel loneliness," she says. "And now I know all these things. It's the end of the dream I had as a kid, and it's the beginning of my life as a sailor."
When we last see Laura, she has taken on a crew and is bound for New Zealand, where she lives now, working at a dive shop, racing, studying for her captain’s license, and plotting her next big voyage. There’s talk of a circumnavigation of the Americas, an Arctic Ocean passage, for which she’ll need a steel boat.
It’s impossible to watch Maidentrip and not want to immediately start scheming your own audacious adventure. Laura’s unscripted optimism is contagious. Last night, my four-year-old daughter sat rapt at our kitchen table, watching parts of a movie in which a girl only 10 years older than she is accomplishes the impossible dream. As a mother and adventurer, I can only hope that some of Laura's daring and passion rubs off on Pippa. To raise adventurous children, as Laura's father learned when she and Guppy set sail, means that someday, you have to let them go.