I recently watched Maidentrip, a wonderful, award winning documentary by Jillian Schlesinger about 14 year old Laura Dekker‘s almost two year solo circumnavigation on her Jeaneau Gin Fizz ketch, Guppy. It is a fascinating tale about young sailor’s coming of age as she sails around the world alone. The trailer:
Just before the beginning of this decade, there seemed to be an virtual explosion of teenagers attempting to sail alone around the world. In 2009 Zac Sunderland, a 17-year-old from Southern California, became the youngest person to solo circumnavigate. He held that title for only about a month as the British 17 year old sailor, Mike Perham, who was a few months younger, completed his own solo circumnavigation. Then, in 2010, sixteen year old Jessica Watson of Queensland, Australia set off on a non-stop circumnavigation which earned her the (unofficial) title of the youngest person to sail non-stop around the world. Close on her wake, however, was Abby Sunderland, Jake’s sister, in a hastily prepared attempt to compete with Jessica, which ended badly — in a dismasting in a winter storm in the Indian Ocean and a rescue by a fishing trawler.
And then, along came Laura Dekker. At 13, she wanted to sail around the world alone as well. She had been born on a sailboat in New Zealand waters where her parents had been sailing on a trip partially around the world. In one form or another she had literally been sailing her entire life. After close to a year long battle with Dutch authorities who tried to stop her, Laura sets off on her solo voyage.
The documentary is made up of a series of video clips shot by Laura as she sails on the various legs of the circumnavigation. Unlike Jessica Watson who sailed non-stop, Laura Dekker wants to see more of the world. As she visits the various ports, Jillian Schlesinger videos her activities ashore. Artful graphics keep the viewer informed on Dekker’s course and add bit of other necessary information.
In the hands of less gifted documentarian, the production could have developed into a “how I spent my summer vacations sailing around the world alone,” featuring a series of video “selfies.” Instead, Schlesinger allows Laura to reveal in her own words, in English and Dutch, with subtitles, what she is experiencing as she sails out into the vast expanse. We see her mature as a sailor and begin to get a glimpse of what is driving this remarkable young woman. Why is it so important that she get away? What doe she have to prove? What does she really want?
The documentary becomes far more about Laura’s coming of age than about the sailing itself. This is not necessarily bad and is, in any case, unavoidable. With Laura serving as the captain, crew and cameraman, we see the calmer times far more often than the raging storms, when sailing the boat took precedence over Laura’s duties as camera crew.
As she sails across Atlantic and on to the Panama Canal and then into the Pacific, it becomes clear that Dekker is also working to come to terms with her own difficult childhood. When she was five, her parents moved back to the Netherlands and got a divorce. The family split up. Laura went to live with her father and her sister went to live with her mother. She felt abandoned by her mother. She says that her father was “always there for her.” Nevertheless, her father suffered a breakdown and she was frightened by his outburts and rage. She escapes by going sailing with her dog, which she describes as good company but poor crew.
At the Panama Canal, Dekker meets other sailors and for a time sails in company for a time with a middle-aged couple who she comments, “treat her like a daughter.” She seems to enjoy this even temporary sense of family, as long as it lasts, before their courses diverge.
She sails progressively longer legs on her voyage — from Australia straight to South Africa and then onward to the Caribbean, where she crosses her outboard path and officially completes her circumnavigation. At this point, now still only 16 years old and having fulfilled her dream of sailing around the world, what is left for her to do? The answer is that she sails on. As a last act of defiance to the Dutch bureaucrats who attempted to stop her from sailing,she strikes the Dutch flag from Guppy’s stern and raises the flag of New Zealand, the country where she was born and in which she holds a dual citizenship. Laura continued to the Panama Canal and onward to New Zealand, which she has now made a new home. Will she find what she is looking for? Time will tell. We can only wish this remarkable young sailor all the best.