Dutch teen sets sail in secrecy on solo world trip

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PORTIMAO, Portugal (AP) — A 14-year-old Dutch sailor departed in secrecy from Gibraltar Saturday on her quest to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world — avoiding the media because, her manager said, she didn’t want the attention.

Laura Dekker was in good spirits as she started sailing her 38-foot (11.5-meter) ship “Guppy” from the British territory bordering the southwestern tip of Spain, on a trip expected to last a year or more, her manager, Peter Klarenbeek, said.

The attempt has been criticized by Dutch child protection authorities, who questioned the wisdom of a child risking the world’s oceans alone. Dekker’s departure itself was kept a secret from international media, who descended on Portugal but failed to capture images of it.

“She said goodbye to her father and friends and she sailed away into the horizon,” said Holland’s MasMedia company, which has exclusive TV rights to film her voyage.

Laura had been scheduled to depart from Portimao, in southwestern Portugal, where she arrived from Holland last week before embarking on final sea trials. But Marijke Schaaphok, MasMedia’s director, said the girl ended up leaving from Gibraltar because Portugal only issues permits for sailing ocean vessels to people 18 or older.

This regulation does not apply on British territory, Schaaphok said. Laura also “did not want to speak to the media” gathered in Portimao, Klarenbeek said.

The girl is now en route to Spain’s Canary Islands or Portugal’s Madeira Island, depending on the wind, Schaaphok said. Then she plans to head through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, and on to Australia, the southern tip of India and through the Suez Canal en route to the Mediterranean.

Laura’s website features links titled “My Coordinates” and “Where is Laura,” but neither was working Saturday.

A porthole-shaped counter of the days of her voyage stood at zero, and the most recent pictures on the site were from Aug. 17 when she was off the coast of Portugal.

One of the voyage’s sponsors, Ferry Dammers, showed up in Portimao with a banner to display on her boat as it left — but he ended up hanging around with the media crowd expecting to film the girl leaving from Portugal, and never got to mount his banner on the “Guppy.”

“I am disappointed, I have the banner here but when I spoke to Klarenbeek he informed me Laura had already set off on her journey,” said Dammers, whose company supplied Laura with wax for the hull of her sailboat.

A Dutch court released Laura last month from the guardianship of Dutch child protection agencies, who had tried to block her voyage because of fears for her safety and psychological health.

Schaaphok defended the girl’s push to sail around the world, saying Laura is mature for her age and has proven that she can sail her yacht without help by passing a maritime exam in the Netherlands for a vessel of her boat’s size.

She also insisted that Laura is uniquely qualified for the ambitious sea venture because she grew up with her father on a boat, and “is completely different from a normal 14-year-old girl.” Schaaphok said.

“She’s very wise and a little bit impatient, but she’s a very nice girl and she knows exactly what she wants,” Schaaphok said.

Laura’s first port of call will be picked based on wind conditions, and her departure came after she took numerous steps to reduce objections to the voyage — including the purchase of a bigger, sturdier boat than the one she originally planned to use, and courses in first aid and coping with sleep deprivation.

She also used as evidence her successful solo trip across the North Sea to England.

In the end, the Dutch court ruled that her preparations were adequate and it was up to her parents, who are divorced, to decide whether to let her make the attempt.

The trip comes 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. Earlier this year, Australian Jessica Watson completed a 210-day voyage at age 16.

But while Watson remained at sea nonstop, Laura plans to stop at dozens of ports and may even return home to catch up on her studies before resuming her trip.

If Laura completes the voyage, any record she claims would be unofficial and likely to be challenged. The Guinness’ World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council have decided they will no longer recognize records for “youngest” sailors to avoid encouraging dangerous attempts.


Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning and Harold Heckle in Madrid and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.