Let Hong Kong kids live a little, urges Laura Dekker, the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world

The woman who made headlines all over the world when she set off alone as a 15-year-old is – unsurprisingly – an ardent believer that children need their independence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2016, 10:45am

You can imagine many Hong Kong parents being horrified rather than inspired by Laura Dekker’s story.

She’s the youngest person ever to sail around the world solo, setting off as a 15-year-old in 2010 and finishing some 518 days later.

In a town where two-year-olds undergo interviews for kindergarten and half of our teenagers suffer depression from the relentless academic pressure, her determination to seek out something more inspiring from life might be more confusing than admirable to many here.

She did bring along some schoolbooks, but when you’re literally battling storms to stay alive, German grammar and the like fall by the wayside somewhat. It’s unsurprising she advises Hong Kongers to let their children live a little.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who understood me and gave me enough freedom from a young age to explore and learn,” says Dekker, now 21 and in Hong Kong this week giving presentations about her trip to Hebe Haven and Royal HK yacht clubs. She was also taking part in the Sai Kung club’s annual 24 hour charity race.

“It’s really courageous that they did that and for me incredibly lucky and amazing the opportunities that they gave me.

“Kids are capable of so much more than we think, their minds are very different, yes they still have things to learn, but if as a parent you say ‘You can’t do this, you’re too young,’ that’s what the kids believe up until 10 or 11, but after that they’re like ‘Screw this, I’m just going to do it anyway.’

“That’s where it becomes more dangerous. I think because my parents said, ‘Alright, we support you,’ I really respected them and listened to all the advice they gave me.

“If they had said, ‘No you’re not allowed to go,’ I probably would have gone anyway but I wouldn’t have had the advice from my parents and it probably would have gone wrong. That was such a key point and I’m so grateful that they gave me that opportunity.”

When you’ve spent a year and half alone at sea aged 15 and 16, it must put the rat race in perspective.

“I never really did return to normal life – I never had a normal life to start with!” laughs Dekker.

“I grew up on boats and sailing and just continued sailing – after the trip I’m still living on the boat and travelling a lot and sailing so it hasn’t really changed much, I haven’t really had that shock of having to get back to ‘normal’ life.

“I have way too many things I want to do at the same time, there’s so many things to do and to see, I can’t really get bored.”

She set off from Gibraltar on her twin-masted ketch Guppy, finishing in Sint Maarten some 27,000 nautical miles later.

It was a journey not without hardships and peril, especially a storm-wracked rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, but getting to the start line was perhaps the hardest part.

Authorities in her home town in the Netherlands, hearing of the then 14-year-old’s plan, got the child welfare office involved and she was taken from her father and made a ward of court. The case made headlines around the world; eventually a court ruled that if her parents were okay with it, then off she could go.

Dekker was almost literally born on a boat: her parents were in the middle of a seven-year round-the-world voyage at the time. When her parents divorced – partly because of her mother’s dislike of the sea – she stayed with her father to ensure she could continue sailing.

At 13 she went off alone across the English Channel as ‘practice’ for her round-the-world dream. After her father told authorities in England she could sail back herself, they put her in a children’s home. He flew over to get her out, plonked her back on the boat, and flew back alone.

Her fascinating story is chronicled in a documentary mostly comprised of her own footage, Maidentrip, and a book she wrote, One Girl, One Dream.

So what did she learn about herself alone on the waves for so long?

“You’re just out there without really any distractions, life is rather simple – it’s just you, the boat, the wind, the waves,” she says. “There’s simple things to focus on rather than life on land, where you just keep getting distracted all the time by everything, you never really have time to think or just enjoy just ‘being’.

“On the boat I think it’s much easier to do that because you don’t have those lines back to land, it’s simply just you, the boat and the ocean. You’re so in touch with nature as well. If you’re sailing you’re going somewhere just using the wind, it’s a free energy, it’s so powerful and beautiful. It’s really cool to connect with it.”

It sounds quite meditative and Dekker agrees. “I think it is – of course it can be quite hard as well, but I think that’s quite good because sometimes we have to go through hard moments to learn things.

“The important [lesson] for me was to not be afraid to fail – to prepare the best I could, but if I didn’t manage it’s not the end of the world. But also to really appreciate everything that I’ve got.”

Somewhat embittered by her travails in the Dutch legal system, Dekker has lived in New Zealand since finishing her voyage. Now married, she lives on her boat in Wharangei, and is planning her next trip.

“At the moment I’m focusing on trying to sell my boat or trying to find an organisation where she can go to,” she says. “Then I want to buy a bigger boat with the money I get from Guppy and sail with it to Patagonia and Chile and that area – and hopefully take people along and show them how beautiful the ocean can be.”