(WOMENSENEWS)–In the documentary “Maidentrip,” Laura Dekker, a 13-year-old Dutch sailor, challenges herself –and the stereotypes of young teens not being mature or experienced enough to undertake long, challenging solo journeys, especially young female teens –to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo.
The 82-minute film follows Dekker on a two year trek, from 2010-2012, as she faces doubters who try to remove her from the custody of her father who encouraged the adventure. “They thought it was dangerous. Well, everywhere is dangerous. They don’t sail and they don’t know what boats are, and they are scared of them,” she says in the film about the skeptics.
Dekker was raised at sea. By the time she was 6, she was learning to sail solo on an Optimist, a seven and a half-foot dinghy. At 15 she had sailed across the Wadden Sea, North Sea and solo-crossed from Maurik, in the Netherlands, to Lowestoft, England, and completed several other multi-week solo treks. Her quest was an effort to find her home. “I was born on a boat in New Zealand,” she says. “I lived my first five years at sea. And ever since, all I’ve wanted is to return to that life.”
As a 15-year-old who has been sailing for seven years, “Maidentrip” was more than a coming of age story for me. Dekker’s feat is a big deal because of her bravery and because she shows the world what females are capable of in the sport.
Finding Sea Legs
When I started sailing, I had male teachers who gave the boys on the team leadership roles even when they had no more experience than the girls. There were older female coaches and sailors around me but I didn’t truly find my sea legs until I started working with girls my age. Girl crews communicate more, which is important when you are handling a 230-pound vessel in rough waters. Compared to the males I’ve worked with, female skippers didn’t snap at me and they delegated responsibility in a way that benefits the whole team.
There’s a lot to learn from sailing. I have learned to communicate with others and to see through the competitiveness of sailing to appreciate the journey. For an expert sailor like Dekker, the challenge becomes existential, yet on the water she is calm, even in the most perilous times. “I didn’t feel anything but focused. Being scared was totally gone. I didn’t feel that I was hungry or tired. I was just doing it,” she says in the documentary.
Her journey had its fair share of dramatic moments. A storm off the tip of Africa damaged the storm jib, the rudder and ripped the sails of “Guppy,” a 38-foot Jeanneau Gin Fizz ketch that Dekker and her dad refurbished.
The 518 days at sea also provided Dekker with some thinking time. She decided to renounce her Dutch citizenship and return to New Zealand because she felt there wasn’t anything tying her to the Netherlands. She also felt pushed out of the country because of the way the government treated her, taking possession of her and disrespecting not only her thoughts, decisions and skills as a sailor, but also her dad’s ability to take care of her and decide what is best for her. Dekker felt that by returning to her place of birth, New Zealand, she could maybe start anew and have a better life. “I don’t really have a home. Home to me is Guppy,” she says.
Not every girl makes headlines like Dekker did, but her resolve does show us how we need to be more assertive if we want the chance to lead. We have to want to be skipper and we have to want to assume control, not be satisfied with tying the square knot on the mast. We also have to take chances in order to reach our dreams. At the end of Dekker’s solo circumnavigation she says, “It’s the end of the dream I had as a kid, and it’s the beginning of my life as a sailor.”
Though I may not have progressed far yet in my sailing career — I have never competed in large races or sailed across a vast expanse — Dekker’s story showed me that sailing is more than being the fastest. She wanted to stop places, see new things, meet new people and make new memories. What girl doesn’t? As an athlete she humanized the sport and makes the challenge about collecting experiences and memories, not trophies and scholarships.
And as a young female sailor who would love to see more girls on the water, this is the takeaway that will make the biggest waves.