The Kid is Alright

Guinness World Records didn’t recognize Laura Dekker’s accomplishment as the youngest teen to sail solo around the world. Who cares? Her journey was more inspiring than any other nautical teen quest.

Laura Dekker

Completing the journey     Photo: Courtesy of Solozeilster

LAURA DEKKER IS A REBELLIOUS TEEN, but she took her battle against authority a little further than the usual cry for unlimited texting or a later curfew. Instead, she fought the Dutch government and a world of naysayers—including a worried mother—who thought that sailing solo around the world was not a safe thing for a 14-year-old girl. After receiving her parents’ blessing, she took Dutch authorities to court and won the right to leave port alone at the age of 15.

Late last week, Dekker calmly sailed her 38-foot sloop, Guppy, into Simpson Bay, Saint Martin, closing the circle on a competent and seamanlike one-year circumnavigation that is her most eloquent response to anyone who doubted her resolve and skill. Her voyage took her from the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, island-hopping across the Pacific to Australia, then to South Africa, and back across the Atlantic. It was an epic adventure, no matter what her age. As a sidenote, she has now become the youngest person ever to sail a boat solo around the globe.

That sounds like a big deal, but it is not an achievement that you will find Guinness or World Sailing Speed Record Council officially recognizing. As a parade of teens took to the seas over the past decade, amid dire warnings that record-hunting and over-ambitious parents were pushing their kids into dangerous voyages, both organizations announced that they would not sanction youngest-ever sailing records. When 17-year old Abby Sunderland's 40-foot racing sloop was rolled and dismasted in the southern Indian Ocean in June 2010, and a remote high-seas rescue was required to return her to her family, that decision seemed wise, even if it isn't totally clear why record-keeping organizations should be making judgments about what is safe or unsafe. Heck, I can imagine all sorts of things going wrong for anyone who wants to pogo stick for three weeks without stopping.

For the unofficial record, Dekker completed her circumnavigation at the age of 16 years and 4 months. That beat Jessica Watson, who was three days shy of her 17th birthday in May 2010 when she became the unofficial youngest after completing a solo circumnavigation. And Watson took the title from Mike Perham, who was 17 years and 5 months when he completed a global voyage in August 2009, in turn taking it from Zac Sunderland (Abby's older brother), who was 17 years and 7 months when he finished his own circumnavigation just six weeks earlier. But, hey, who's keeping track?

In any case, each voyage was very different—different boats, different routes, different durations. Watson went solo and nonstop, which is a true endurance feat. But Dekker's journey was different and impressive for another reason. She stopped because she wanted to see the world. Her trip never really seemed to be about setting a record or besting Jessica Watson or anyone else. Instead, Dekker seemed to be there—and this is refreshing—for the pure adventure of sailing and exploring the seven seas on her own. She did not court or seek media attention. She did not have to relentlessly and cheerfully blog or shoot video to promote a sponsor. She just went sailing, because that is what she wanted to do instead of hanging out at a mall.

Dekker, Watson, and Abby Sunderland all said they were sailing to fulfill a dream, but at least on some level Sunderland and Watson were interested in marketing and profit. Abby Sunderland's father, Laurence, was reported to have been interested in a reality TV show deal. Watson is now a brand in her native Australia, with a bestselling book to her credit, product sponsorships, and, most recently, a fully sponsored entry in the grueling Sydney-Hobart Race.

There is nothing wrong with the modern blogging, tweeting, painfully self-conscious and attention-seeking sponsorship model of adventuring. Adventures are expensive, and sometimes you do what you have to do. But Dekker pulled off a voyage that is unusually pure. It was about the experience of sailing around the world, for the simple joy and challenge of it, and not the rewards that might come after—though no doubt marketers and publishers will be chasing after her. Maybe her voyage will help inspire otherseven teens—to think about adventure as a private and personal experience, rather than as a feat to commercialize. That's an important and admirable achievement, even if it's never entered into a record book. 

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