Laura Dekker: Breaking records
What happens when you fulfil your wildly ambitious dream by the age of 17? Laura Dekker gained fame, admiration and notoriety following her circumnavigation of the globe aged 16. But what happened next?
Extended periods of travel can be illuminating but also traumatic. There is a tendency to return to normal life with a bit of a bump even if you’ve only been away for a nice holiday. Imagine that how Laura Dekker feels: she set off from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean on January 20, 2011 with the aim of circumnavigating the globe alone. She was fifteen. 518 days later, she returned to Sint Maarten, still only sixteen. She still holds the record for being the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe.
It’s a remarkable feat achieved amid a huge media furore which kicked off when the Dutch government tried to put a stop to her attempt on the grounds that she was too young to be out sailing the oceans without parental supervision.
A series of court cases culminating in Dekker dramatically disappearing to Sint Maarten in 2009. It would not be until the following year that she was finally cleared to undertake her record attempt aboard her 38’ Jeanneau Sun Fizz, Guppy.
Now, all this is history and very well documented. The question that interested me was what happened next? How does someone that young come to terms with such an enormous life changing achievement? Thankfully Laura, still only 21, was happy to chat.
“The immediate aftermath is easy enough to explain” she reflects: “I felt fine when I arrived back. I mean the publicity and attention was definitely quite overwhelming, but I had a plan and that was to sail Guppy to New Zealand which was where I was born [Dekker’s Dutch parents had also lived an itinerant boaty life and were mid way through a round-the-world voyage when Laura was born].
“I wanted to see my birthplace and explore the country, so I stayed in Whangerei [in New Zealand’s North Island], travelled around and earned a bit of money working on a dive boat. I felt fine. I did a few talks and wrote a book.
“The talks were incredibly nerve wracking initially, but over time I found they helped me make sense of what I had done and why I had done it.”
Which brings us to the bigger question of precisely what did motivate a 15 year old girl to sail around the world.
“I still don’t fully understand, I just always knew it was what I wanted to do. I knew there was a world out there so why sit in school? School, modern life, in fact, can give you the idea that you have to do set things. It sends you down predetermined paths that you don’t necessarily have to follow.
“Perhaps travelling with my parents had made me realise you didn’t have to follow those set paths. Breaking the record was not my original goal. I mean, it’s cool that I have the record but it was never about that for me.
“Somehow I just knew it was time to go and discover who I was. I was a bit young, but everyone has that moment, don’t they?”
During her time in Whangerei she met Daniel Thielmann and the pair travelled extensively, eventually marrying in 2015. The couple have a shared love of sailing and the sea, although Laura freely admits she is the more passionate sailor.
The couple are currently living in Bonn in Germany where Daniel is from.
They are working on their next project. The pair are working towards either building or acquiring a larger yacht that they can take youngsters sailing.
“The plan is not so much to teach sailing, although that would be part of it, but to help children to develop some life skills and show them that they are capable much more than they are taught at school.
“A boat is an amazing place to learn about yourself. The thing is that you can’t simply step off when the going gets tough. You have to find a way to get through things and work things out for yourself. That is one of the big things I learnt from my circumnavigation and it’s such a fulfilling feeling and gives you so much confidence.”
One upshot of this new project is that Laura has put Guppy up for sale in order to raise funds. “It is going to be tough selling Guppy. The boat has been my home for so long, so that is going to be difficult but the time feels right.”
She also feels like a yacht is a good place allow youngsters to escape from some of the modern distractions such as phones and the internet.
“I didn’t have any major sponsors on Guppy, so everything was very simple. That meant limited contact with the outside world which was a good thing as It meant I couldn’t just call my dad if I had a problem. I had to deal with it myself.
“I also came to love the days without people around. The internet is the exact opposite of that. It brings you close to people even when you are alone and it can drive you a bit crazy. It’s definitely a distraction and something I have struggled with. I only got my first smartphone this year. My mum bought it for me.”
The other big question I really wanted to ask was that, now she was older, what did she think about her parents letting her sail off on her own?
“It’s funny. It’s not like they ever encouraged me in any way. When I started talking about a round the world trip, they sat me down and said ‘you really need to think about things, plan it out’. They never said it would be fun or easy, they were just supportive and they were supportive in a loving way. They were concerned, they just did their best to also be supportive. When I came back to them with a sensible plan, they were willing to take me seriously.”
Of course, the ultimate question is would she let a child of her own undertake such a trip? “I mean, I don’t think you can ever answer that question if you don’t have a child. I think the natural initial reaction of any parent is ‘no’.
“What I will say is that my parents allowing me to go on the trip was one of the biggest gifts I have ever been given. The fact they tried to understand meant so much.”
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