Schoolgirl sailor triumphs after battle with authorities

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, The Hague

image captionLaura Dekker fought a court battle to be able to sail around the world alone

You can probably imagine the kinds of nightmares a teenager on a solo voyage round the world might suffer from: pirate kidnappings, treacherous coral reefs or perhaps scary encounters with mysterious sea creatures.

But not Laura Dekker.

The 16-year-old schoolgirl's sleep is haunted by memories of the traumatic experiences she suffered at the hands of the Dutch authorities.

For as long as Laura can remember she knew what she wanted to do.

And ever since she set her sights on sailing round the world she says Dutch social services have done their best to stop her from pursuing her dream.

Laura Dekker has become the youngest person ever to travel round the world on her own.

Journey so far

Laura Dekker was born on a boat. By the age of six she was sailing across lakes by herself.

At 13 she sailed from the Netherlands to England. As Laura has grown so have her ambitions.

By the time she turned 13 she had decided that her next challenge would be to circumnavigate the globe: alone.

Despite her parents' initial resistance they eventually agreed to support their daughter's quest.

The Dutch authorities were not so easily convinced. A court blocked Laura's plans and she was almost taken into care on the grounds that she was too young to look after herself at sea.

media captionSixteen-year-old Laura Dekker from Holland has successfully circumnavigated the globe

After an arduous court battle Laura eventually won the right to set sail on the condition that she complete a first aid course and sign up for a long distance learning scheme.

But even after embarking upon her voyage Laura was plagued by the knowledge that her family were still being scrutinised by the Dutch authorities.

Earlier this month truancy officers issued her father with a summons claiming that the schoolgirl had been failing to complete her homework on time.

But as their lawyer Peter de Lange explains, it's not always that easy when you're sailing round the world.

"There are some limitations. Laura doesn't always have access to the internet. Sometimes there are storms and she has to put her own survival first," he says.

"She is doing her best but the school knew before she set off that there would be times when she might not be able to meet the deadlines."

And yet it is perhaps no surprise that the authorities might have something to say about a 14-year-old girl dropping out of school to go off round the world on a boat on her own.

"We have a duty to investigate. The law says you must stay in school until you are 16," says Caroline Vink from the Netherlands Youth Institute.

"We also had to make sure that Laura was able to cope with the demands of such a massive challenge when she was so young; things like the lack of sleep and being on her own all the time."

"It's so difficult to judge a case like this and when you're dealing with such a determined young woman.

"We never meant to make her life difficult, only to look out for her safety. I hope she doesn't hold a grudge.

"In the end she has shown extreme strength of character both before and of course during her adventure."

Sailing away

Out at sea Laura feels free. She keeps a blog sharing her thoughts. At New Year she celebrated. Instead of the traditional fireworks Laura settled for the moon and stars lighting up the ocean skies.

As she approached the end of her journey Laura began to reflect on her experiences.

"I have navigated the whole world, bypassed difficult ports and dangerous reefs and got through the heaviest storms all the time fully responsible for myself and Guppy [her boat]," she wrote.

"Looking back I feel the Dutch authorities treated me wrong. I'm afraid the nightmares will continue to haunt me.

"At sea I feel comfortable and relaxed, especially during the long crossing of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean.

"But now it appears that the Dutch authorities have started causing problems again."

The authorities are aware of Laura's comments but Joost Lanshage from the Netherlands Bureau of Youth Care says they had no choice but to intervene.

"If Laura had drowned we'd be accused of not doing enough to protect her," he said. "Thank God she's OK and I think that's partly due to the safety measures we enforced as part of the condition for allowing her to go.

"We put together a checklist to try to ensure she had a safe mission. I'm sorry Laura is traumatised but I have no regrets about fulfilling our responsibility to this child."

And despite the trauma there are a few things Laura is looking forward to when she reaches solid ground: "Delicious fresh food, running and seeing my family again."

Back on dry land

image captionIt hasn't always been easy for Laura to complete her homework on time

Laura Dekker chose the Dutch Caribbean island of St Maarten as the arrival point because she feared the presence of social services if she returned directly to her native Netherlands.

Some Dutch newspapers had joked about child welfare officers waiting at the port with handcuffs ready to escort Laura straight back to school. It was a risk Laura wasn't prepared to take.

In a recent blog post Laura apologised to her Dutch fans saying: "Oh what a party it would have been if I'd have sailed back to the Hook of Holland".

In St Maarten Laura's biggest fear is the cacophony of journalists staked out in anticipation of her arrival.

Hundreds of crews from all over the world have set up camp on the island ready to try to catch a shot of the triumphant teenager. Most of the top US talk shows have been bidding for interviews.

But Laura is not interested in the fame that inevitably accompanies such an achievement. She would rather be at sea than on screen.

On reaching the island, the 16-year-old will spend some time with her family before being congratulated by St Maarten's prime minister.

Next stop?

Laura has already made it clear that although she loves the Netherlands she finds life too stifling there and does not wish to return.

She would rather go back to New Zealand, where she has citizenship rights on account of being born on a boat moored just off the coast.

During the course of her journey Laura swapped the Dutch flag on her boat for a Kiwi one. She claims it was because the original flag was getting scruffy and that the swap was not designed to be a symbolic disowning of the Netherlands; nevertheless many interpreted it that way.

Her parents both live in the Netherlands and would prefer their daughter to go back with them but their lawyer says it's something the family will have to discuss together and ultimately they will put Laura's happiness first.

image captionLaura says she might go and live in New Zealand

There is plenty going on to keep Laura occupied now she's back on solid ground.

She is currently writing a book and working on a documentary film about her life at sea due to be released later this year.

Laura is the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe solo. The previous title-holder was Australian Jessica Watson.

The Guinness Book of Records does not have a category for "youngest sailor" for fear the accolade would give pushy parents a potentially damaging incentive.

Nevertheless with her proud family, eager journalists and St Maarten's prime minister watching, there's no doubt the Dutch schoolgirl's achievement will go down in the history books - ones that were written at sea rather than studied in class.

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