Dutch court should let 13-year-old set sail
Last week, busy-bodies in the Netherlands stepped in to prevent Dutch teen Laura Dekker from becoming the youngest person to sail around the world solo. The Utrecht District court ordered Dekker to undergo two months of psychiatric evaluation, calling the plan “undeniably daring and risky.”
Of course the trip is daring and risky. Isn’t that the point? If circumnavigating the globe in a 26-foot sailboat were a walk in the park, other teens would be doing it. Currently the title for youngest person to sail round the world belongs to 17-year-old Mike Perham of Britain.
The trip takes two years. The court-ordered guardianship and evaluation will, at least, delay Laura beyond her fourteenth birthday, pushing her ETA beyond age sixteen. If she is allowed to set sail at the end of the evaluation period, it will not be the same voyage. Not only will Laura be older, she will also be forced by the seasons to take a different route than the one she has been plotting for three years.
It is admirable that a sea-faring nation like the Netherlands is more concerned with child safety than having another of its citizens listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The question, then, is whether the state’s meddling is justified.
Laura Dekker did not merely wake up one morning and decide to sail around the world. The girl was born on a boat, and spent four years sailing the world with her parents. She began sailing solo at age six. At the age of 11, she crossed the Atlantic solo, spending seven weeks alone.
Isolation is the primary concern touted by those who want to stop Laura Dekker. Professor Micha de Winter of Utrecht University (not directly involved with the case) touted the guardianship and psychological evaluation as a wise decision. “It’s a big risk and an experiment with a child in which you don’t know what the results could be.” Winter indicated two years alone at sea could damage her physical and emotional development.
Winter’s view presumes that Laura would have no contact with the outside world, as if she would sail for two years without ever seeing or speaking to another human. Actually Laura plotted the journey to stick with busy shipping lanes. The need to reprovision the ship will necessitate many stops over the two-year period, and we do live in the electronic age. One can easily imagine a media following, a blog, and a plethora of satellite calls and emails.
For a generation that worries incessantly about children’s text messages and peer relationships, we are quick to overlook the value of solitude and hard work. We enjoy adventure movies where a young person faces off nature with no real preparation, but when a well-trained young person wants to undertake an epic voyage she has spent three years planning, we cry “Parental neglect!” and try to ground the sailor.
Amazing teens can do amazing things. We cheer our young Olympians without asking too many questions about their education, because we realize that their experiences are a different kind of education. We listen to young music phenoms without worrying too much if they miss some of the ordinary experiences of youth, because we recognize that they are allowed to experience the extraordinary.
Laura Dekker is an amazing young woman with a very big dream. I applaud her parents for getting behind that dream, and I look forward to following her journey.