NZ-born teen sailor nears end of solo round-the-world voyage

Laura Dekker, pictured in late 2010 on her sailboat Guppy after arriving at Simpson Bay Lagoon near Philipsburg, on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Photo by AP.
Laura Dekker, pictured in late 2010 on her sailboat Guppy after arriving at Simpson Bay Lagoon near Philipsburg, on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Photo by AP.

Teenage Dutch sailor Laura Dekker is nearing the finish of her solo sailing trip around the world almost the same way she began it - in good spirits, despite endless debate about the terms under which she is allowed to be at sea.

Now 16, Dekker is on the final leg, a long stint from Cape Town, South Africa, to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, where she set sail in 2010. Amid blustery weather, she's on pace to reach port in Philipsburg around January 24, her lawyer Peter de Lange said in a telephone interview.

But in her native Netherlands, the story of her voyage has once again been overshadowed by conflicts with the Dutch school system and bureaucrats about approval for her trip.

De Lange confirmed a report in De Volkskrant newspaper that truancy officers issued her father a summons to appear late last year after a newspaper quoted her as saying she hadn't been giving her studies full attention.

De Lange said the report was a misunderstanding, based on her saying she needed to concentrate on sailing while weather in the Atlantic was poor.

When her father refused to turn up, the truancy agency notified child protective services, infuriating the family.

"Who knows, maybe they'll be waiting for her with handcuffs at the finish line," De Lange said.

He added that the incident now appears to have blown over. But Dekker told a Belgian radio station by satellite phone on Friday that while the voyage had been a "dream come true," she is considering moving to New Zealand when her trip is finished.

Dekker has citizenship there because she was born on a boat off the New Zealand coast.

De Lange said tensions may evaporate once the trip is over, given that Dekker is two years older than when she first announced her plans, and she wants to return to school anyway.

A Dutch court originally blocked her voyage and only permitted her to set off after she bought a bigger, sturdier boat than the one she originally planned to use; fitted it with advanced navigation and radar equipment; enrolled in a special correspondence school; and took courses in first aid and coping with sleep deprivation.

There are no questions of world firsts or records attached to Dekker's trip. Guinness World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council have decided they will no longer recognise records for "youngest" sailors to avoid encouraging dangerous attempts.

Unlike other young sailors to circumnavigate the globe in recent years, Dekker stopped at ports along the way to rest, repair her 38-foot (11.5 meter) ketch Guppy, and catch up on her studies before resuming her trip.

Her circumnavigation attempt started two months after Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old American, had to be rescued in a remote section of the Indian Ocean during an attempt to circle the globe. Jessica Watson of Australia completed a 210-day solo voyage at age 16. Dekker is now on day 508 of her voyage.

"After another heavy squall with winds at 40 knots and rain streaming down, it slowly became a calmer night and a wonderful day," Dekker said in her most recent journal entry, published on her website.

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