Teenage sailor Laura Dekker nears end of solo world voyage

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From Panama to Bali and from Darwin to Durban, Dutch teenage solo sailor Laura Dekker has done it all. The 16-year-old is due to arrive at the Dutch Caribbean island of St Maarten this weekend. It was from there, one year ago, that she set out on her solo voyage around the world, hoping to become the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. Unfortunately she has not sailed into the record books.

She will be met by her parents and St Maarten’s prime minister. A party in her honour has been arranged on a yacht in the harbour. Her father, Dick Dekker, reckons about 1,000 people will turn out to welcome her. (Continues below)

British sailor Michael Perham’s memories of the day he arrived back from his solo round-the-world voyage are still fresh. He was 17:

“It was definitely one of the best days of my life. That's for sure. You know, I can remember every minute of it. It was just incredible. Many, many years of preparation and training and hard work had gone into it, and to finally cross the line and relax, and say OK, it's over now - it was just the best feeling in my life.”

Laura’s arrival will mean the end of the controversy sparked two and a half years ago when she revealed in an interview that she wanted to be the youngest girl to sail solo round the world. She was just 13.

Sailing is in Laura’s blood. She was born at sea off New Zealand while her parents were sailing round the world, and she already had many solo voyages under her belt. None of this mattered to the Dutch authorities. They intervened, arguing that Laura was simply too young to make the hazardous journey. Doubts were raised about whether her father was acting in her best interests. She was placed under the supervision of the Dutch youth care agency.

In a desperate attempt to escape the ensuing media attention, Laura fled to St Maarten at the end of 2009. She was tracked down after two days and flown back to the Netherlands, where she was monitored even more closely by the youth care agency. Finally, in July 2010, she was given the official green light to set sail.

Perham doesn’t really understand why such a fuss was made about Laura:

“You can name a hundred [reasons] why someone shouldn't sail around the world, but you can name a thousand why someone should.”

Perham was 17 when he successfully completed his own voyage in 2009. He is the youngest person to have sailed solo round the world, according to the Guinness World Records.

There have been earlier attempts to beat Perham’s record. Australia’s Jessica Watson came tantalisingly close when she finished her non-stop solo trip around the world in May 2010. It later transpired that she was just short of the minimum distance of 21,600 nautical miles.

In the meantime, Guinness World Records have decided to abandon the category of “youngest” in its list of world records. Their argument is that they do not want to encourage, discourage or support inappropriate record attempts by minors. On those grounds, they therefore refuse to acknowledge any achievement by the youngest person to sail around the world.

The official body for sailing records – the London-based World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC) – takes a similar position and does not recognise the categories “oldest” or “youngest”. As a spokesperson put it “For us, it’s all about speed, not age.”

Perham believes lack of official recognition does not diminish Laura’s achievement:

“She's sailed around the world as a teenager. I mean, that definitely makes her a pretty cool character in my opinion. She's gone out there and proved that young people can do some amazing stuff, and for me that's more than enough.”

He’s not worried about losing his title and is already pursuing a new record: travelling across the globe by car and by plane. “Nobody’s done all that yet.”

Hero’s welcome
17-year-old Jessica Watson received a genuine hero’s welcome in Sydney. Around 5,000 people were on the quayside cheering when she docked, including the prime minister. The relationship between Laura and the Netherlands is less warm.

After all the controversy surrounding her trip, the young yachtswoman has let it be known that she’s had enough of her homeland. She says she doesn’t want to return to the Netherlands, but plans to move to New Zealand. During her long journey, she made her point by hoisting the flag of New Zealand to replace the Dutch tricolour.