August 25, 2009
Teen wants to sail around world solo
THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Laura Dekker wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world, and her parents believe that's a great idea.
But the Dutch Council for Child Protection is so concerned about the dangers of the marathon voyage, it has asked a court to grant it temporary custody of Laura, who is 13, so it can do what her parents refuse: Halt the trip.
Judges at Utrecht District Court will announce Friday whether they will scrap Laura's record-breaking plans. In the meantime, the legal battle has ignited a wide-ranging debate in this traditionally seafaring nation about the role parents should play in their children's risky adventures.
The rat race to become a so-called "super child" -- the youngest to accomplish some grueling feat -- can be fueled by ambitious parents, laser-focused children with talent, or youngsters with a deep need to please or be praised, psychologists say.
Dutch social workers fear that could be an issue in Laura's case; she lives with her Dutch father, who is divorced from her German mother.
"Laura has divorced parents and it is very normal for a child of this age to be very loyal to the parent [he or she] is living with," Child Protection spokesman Richard Bakker told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "How much does she identify herself with her father, who is a good sailor?"
Laura and her father appeared at a court hearing Monday to discuss the council's request, but the mother did not show up, Bakker said.
Record-breaking attempts by children can become memorable personal triumphs, but also run the risk of turning to tragedy -- with the inevitable recriminations for having allowed it to happen.
In an editorial Tuesday, the Netherlands daily, De Volkskrant, warned that the young sailor was unwittingly putting herself in significant danger.
"She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her," the paper wrote.
Besides the physical hazards, experts also warn that being alone for so long at such a young age could hinder the child's emotional development.
"A 13-year-old girl is in the middle of her development and you don't do that alone -- you need peers and adults," said Micha de Winter, a professor of child psychology at Utrecht University. Adults can choose to be alone, he said, "but for children it is not good.
"Particularly the absence of parents at such a crucial time of the child's development . . . the risks are serious."
Laura was born in New Zealand as her parents sailed around the world, and spent the first four years of her life on the ocean. She was not available for comment Tuesday.
Yet speaking recently to a Dutch children's news show, Laura said she had been sailing solo since she was 6 and began dreaming of sailing around the world when she was 10.
"I asked my parents if I could -- please -- start now," she said.
"In the beginning, they asked if I was sure I really wanted to do it," she said. "They have sailed around the world so they know what could happen and that it's not always fun, but I realize that, too. But I really wanted to do it so my parents said, 'Good, we'll help you.' "
The trip means Laura would have to drop out of high school and teach herself while at sea or in port. Dutch authorities have to give permission for such a plan but say such home-schooling must be supervised by an adult.
Laura's lawyer, Peter de Lange, said authorities should just let her chase her dream in her 26-foot boat, named Guppy.
"There is no legal debate about her [sailing] skills," he told The AP. He said both of her parents tried to discourage Laura before she won them over.
Laura hopes to set sail in September and plans to take two years, resting in ports to avoid bad weather.
Zac Sunderland, a 17-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif., set the youngest solo record last month when he completed a 28,000-mile trip on his 36-foot boat in 13 months.
British sailor Mike Perham, who is a few months younger than Sunderland, is expected to snatch that record away when he completes his own round-the-world voyage in the coming days, docking in the southern English city of Portsmouth.
Sunderland believes adults should trust more in the abilities of teenagers.
"There's so much more potential to what young people can do. Go out there and do your own thing," he told a crowd of well-wishers as he completed his voyage July 16.
Sunderland also said he was humbled by meeting people who live in poor conditions around the world.
As for physical dangers, the American teen admitted he was tracked by pirates while sailing from Australia to the Cocos Islands, and had to call Australian authorities in to scare the hijackers off.
"I had this boat following me all over the place and circling," Sunderland said.
Laura Dekker is the latest in a long line of children seeking to put their name in the record books, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The Guinness Book of World Records would not comment specifically on her case but said it stayed away from many such records.
"[We have] a standard policy that does not sanction, endorse or encourage attempts by minors (people under the age of 16) on records which are dangerous or potentially life-threatening," Guinness spokesman Damian Field said.
In 1996, 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff died along with her father and a flight instructor when her plane crashed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as she attempted to become the youngest person to fly coast-to-coast in the United States.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash occurred because the girl's flight instructor took off in bad weather in a bid to keep up with "media commitments" about the record-breaking flight.
The child-pilot phenomenon ended with her death, as Congress quickly passed a bill banning record-setting attempts by unlicensed pilots.
A Nepalese boy, Temba Tsheri, lost five fingers to frostbite in an aborted attempt to climb Everest in 2000. A year later at 16, he became the youngest climber at the time to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain.
In India, where breaking records is a national obsession, a 4-year-old boy, Budhia Singh, became a national celebrity when he attempted to run a 43-mile marathon in May 2006.
But his coach was later charged with torturing the child after Singh's mother said she discovered scars on her son's body. The coach was shot dead last year before the case reached court.
Winter, the child psychologist, said parents need to step up and warn their children of risks they are taking.
"As adults, you have a very important responsibility to oversee more aspects than just the [child's] dream," he said. "I'm not saying children shouldn't have dreams, but sometimes dreams are just dreams."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
46 years ago I've been in England for the first time, alone, but I was 14 then and didn't sail solo but used the ferry
A 13-year-old girl who wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world has been put under the temporary care of state authorities by a Dutch court.
Laura Dekker spent the first first four years of her life at sea with her parents - and they support the quest.
But the Dutch Council for Child Protection has been granted custody of Miss Dekker for two months while she is assessed by an independent child psychologist on her capacity to undertake the risky voyage.
The teenager was not in court but her father listened to the decision from the three judges this morning.
'Sailing Means Everything to Her'
At the age of 13 most girls care about school, boys or make-up, but not Laura Dekker of the Netherlands. Last week, a Dutch court stymied her plan to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo. SPIEGEL spoke to Dekker's lawyer, Peter de Lange, about her ambition.
SPIEGEL: A family court in Utrecht has temporarily banned Laura Dekker from sailing around the world solo, out of concern that she may endanger her health and development. What are you going to do about this?
De Lange: We have until Oct. 26 to answer a catalogue of questions -- about the route, the boat, the safety measures and risks involved -- given to us by the court. We will prove that the plan has been well thought out. Laura is happy that the court has not categorically banned her trip and has merely delayed its start.
SPIEGEL: Laura will be under state supervision until the end of October, during which time she will also be observed by a child psychologist. Her parents still say they would permit her to circumnavigate the globe on a solo sailing trip. Why?
De Lange: The court has clearly stated that it does not consider Dick Dekker to be a bad father. Initially her parents didn't want her to sail, but Laura eventually convinced them that it was her big dream. Her parents then set the condition that Laura had to take care organizing the boat, the money and sponsors herself.
SPIEGEL: But Laura is still a child -- at least that is how the court sees it. And it has requested a detailed psychological assessment of her by October.
De Lange: That's no problem. Laura is far more grown up than one would expect for her age. She's a top athlete and her sailing technique is excellent.
SPIEGEL: Why would a girl of 13 even want to sail around the world in the first place?
De Lange: Laura spent the first four years of her life at sea. Sailing means everything to her. Three months ago, Laura already sailed to England and back alone.
SPIEGEL: But isn't her real goal to break the world record of being the youngest person to sail around the world solo?
De Lange: No. Laura wants to discover the world. She wants to moor in different harbors in order to get to know countries and people. Breaking a record would just be an extra perk.
I heard on the radio this morning that on her first day out - she hit a very large ocean liner. Guess she wasn't such a good sailor after all.
... she hit a very large ocean liner.
A Dutch judge today grounded a schoolgirl hoping to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo, dealing a further blow to her record-breaking attempt.
Laura Dekker, 14, must remain a ward of court until July next year after a two-month investigation cast doubt on her ability to safely cope with the rigours of a solo journey that could last up to two years.
I think that this is such bullshit. She should be able to go.
Laura Dekker, the 14-year-old Dutch girl who caught the world's attention with her plans to sail solo around the world at the end of last summer, is missing.
The girl's yacht is still moored in the harbour. Unconfirmed reports say she took 3,500 euros out of her bank account. Her parents say they are very worried.