By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 30, 2009
LONDON, Aug. 29 -- All Laura Dekker wants to do is sail alone on her yacht for the next two years until she has circumnavigated the globe. The problem? She is 13 years old.
The case of the Dutch schoolgirl who wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world has become a national talking point in the Netherlands and pitted child protective services officials against enthusiasts of open-minded parenting.
Laura, who has the backing of her parents, was scheduled to set out next week on a two-year trip aboard her 26-foot yacht, Guppy, before Dutch authorities took the wind out of her sails. On Friday, a court in Utrecht ordered state officials to take temporary guardianship of Laura while child psychologists assess her ability to cope with the trials of such a voyage. She will continue to live with her father, but the ruling means that her parents, who are divorced, temporarily lose the right to make decisions on her behalf.
Laura's case highlights questions and concerns raised by efforts to break age-related records, especially involving feats that are potentially dangerous. How young is too young? Are parents like Laura's admirably supportive or irresponsibly cavalier? Laura has said she will continue her studies by correspondence and e-mail, but how effective would such informal schooling be?
Dutch child services officials have argued that the rigors of the journey -- isolation, sleep deprivation, weather hazards -- would be simply too much for a 13-year-old.
Richard Bakker, a spokesman for the Dutch Council for Child Protection, told reporters Friday that officials "are concerned about Laura's development" and that the court's ruling would give them more time to assess her situation. He had previously suggested that Laura's maritime ambitions may be motivated by a desire to please her father.
Speaking after the ruling on Friday, Peter de Lange, the family's attorney, said he is confident the trip will go ahead in November after the court's evaluation. "I was expecting this," he said. "It is a very difficult decision for the court. All they are saying is they have to look at cases individually."
In a poll by the news Web site http://DutchNews.nl, 56 percent said the teenager should not be allowed to sail solo around the world.
"Don't let them stop your dream," David Brunberg wrote. "Be careful, be vigilant, and always, always do your best. The world is full of people who will try to tell you what is best for you."
No one appears to deny that Laura is a technically adept sailor. Born on a boat in New Zealand to accomplished seafaring parents, she lived at sea until she was 4. By age 6, she was single-handedly crisscrossing lakes in the Netherlands, according to her Web site.
When she announced that she wanted to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo, her initially skeptical father insisted that she first try sailing to England, which she did in May.
Perhaps as a sign of things to come, crossing the North Sea turned out to be one of the easier aspects of that journey.
Inspector Jim Gooding of the Suffolk Constabulary, who was on duty the day Laura reached England's east coast, said in an interview that police worried at first that she might be a missing person.
"We spoke with her, and we made contact with her father . . . who didn't seem overly concerned," he said. "We established she was a very, very competent sailor."
British child-protection authorities placed her in temporary care until her father came to collect her, according to British media reports. He then let her sail back to the Netherlands on her own.
On Saturday, 17-year-old British sailor Mike Perham finished a round-the-world solo voyage to become the youngest person to accomplish the feat. He is a few months younger than Zac Sunderland, a Californian who broke the record in July.
Laura did not attend her court hearing Friday. It was a gusty day, and, according to her attorney, she was out on the water sailing.