Monday, January 23, 2012

Sweet Sixteen Circumnavigation

Sixteen-year-old Laura Dekker docked in St. Maarten on Saturday, ending her year-long solo voyage around the world aboard her 38-feet sailboat, "Guppy." Her story first came to international intention in the fall of 2009, after the Dutch Child Welfare Office became involved. A family court decision placed her in shared parental custody with the Council for Child Care, who stopped her departure. Nasty legal battles ensued. Finally, after a year of bitter and expensive legal battles, the Dutch court ended her supervision. She set sail two weeks later. After a shakedown cruise to Gibralter, she sat off on her circumnavigation on August 21, 2010.

Her summation of the state's interference? "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."

Wiser words were perhaps never spoken by a 14-year-old.

This was not a non-stop, reckless assault on the oceans of the world. She laid over in the Canary Islands for several weeks to avoid hurricane season, and even flew home for a visit at one point. The trip involved about a year of travel over the 17-month period.

My wife and I were live-aboard sailors for several years, and before health concerns derailed our plans, we intended to spend our retirement in a similar pursuit, albeit on a more leisurely schedule. The accuracy of Laura's summation is even more apparent when one fully understands what such a circumnavigation entails.

A circumnavigation is by no means a rare thing; there are hundreds of thousands of people in the live-aboard sailing community called cruisers. Walk through any marina or along any anchorage shoreline and you can easily discern the cruiser sailboats from the weekend toys. Some cruisers stick exclusively to their home port, others to their continent, yet it's not all that unusual to make the decision to endure a few long-distance legs lasting for weeks in exchange for exotic ports of call. It's a topic of discussion in every port I've visited, and I've met a few sailors who have had the experience. Many cruisers, often retirees, are on their second or third circumnavigation.

Is this a challenging pursuit? Certainly. Unusual at her age? Granted. So stunningly dangerous as to require the state step in and assume custody? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Dozens of books and, more recently, websites, document similar excursions by people of all ages. The dangers, while sometimes unpredictable, are known, and to those well-versed in the lore, almost always surmountable. Copious details are available on-line for any reader willing to do the research.

Laura, although young in years, was well-prepared for the challenge. Born on a sailboat, sailing from the age of six, beginning solo trips at the age of ten, she had more experience than many have had when they started their journey. With the exception of boredom of the longest legs that are required for crossing the major oceans, she had already experienced most of what the journey would entail many times over.

Laura had a realistic view of the challenges ahead of her, developed over several years of experience and buttressed by extensive exposure to the stories of those who had gone before her. Those denying her choice were most likely heavily influenced by media attention given such extreme sailing events as the Vendee Globe Race. (Two great, exciting and terrifying trailers at the link, btw.) Comparing a normal circumnavigation to the Vendee Globe is like comparing the drive to the supermarket to competing on the Formula One circuit. The only thing they have in common are sails.

The Vendee is far from what Laura was planning. It's a non-stop race around the world, in a highly-tuned vessel designed to go as fast as possible, with a minimum of creature comforts and provisions, and with no stops for rest, repairs or weather.

Sensible circumnavigators, on the other hand, select a nice roomy boat with plenty of provisions and spare parts, plot each leg carefully, delay while waiting for good weather, and often travel between ports in the company of other sailboats. Excellent communication and location gear means that even if you're not in sight of other ships, help can be on the way quickly if needed.

Boogiemen are only scary if you don't turn on the light and look under the bed. In most cases, all you find are dust bunnies. You can't judge what others should do if you haven't taken time to get out of bed and turn on the light.

A circumnavigation is nowhere near as frightening as the uninitiated would imagine it to be. The skills that carry a sailor from Miami to Key West are exactly the skills that carry the sailor around the world. Each departure is simply farther from their home port than the one before, and each arrival closer to their destination. Yes, they'll see lots of unfamiliar places, but each leg, while some are much longer, is no different functionally than a vacation trip they'd take from their local marina.

On top of that, it's a close-knit and generous society. There are no more helpful or friendly people than cruisers. I'd rather have a young daughter out in a sailboat alone than driving through any big city late at night.

Laura's words again. "They don't sail and they don't know what boats are, and they are scared of them."

There, in a nutshell, is the lesson to be learned from Laura's Sweet Sixteen Circumnavigation. The state operates from incomplete information. Laura, at 14, was already better-equipped to make such a decision than any state bureaucrat involved. Sailing since the age of six, and with four years of solo sailing already behind her, she knew far more about the risks and rewards involved in such a pursuit than any of those who sought to stop her.

In the end, her judgement proved correct.

Young people Laura's age engage in all manners of potentially life-threatening activities. Hunting, camping, surfing, horseback riding, motocross, X-games, skiing, snowboarding -- the list is endless. And in those cases, instantaneous life or death decisions rest, ultimately, in their own hands. Tackling challenges is how we mature into adults. Some of those challenges are far more dangerous than others. Attempting to thwart those is an attempt to deny the essential elements of choice and growth necessary to an individual. Attempting to interfere in such activities with no knowledge of the actual risks involved is overreach of the most blatant kind.

Today, I celebrate Laura's achievement not only for her triumph over the seas, the elements, the sometimes-frustrating battles with equipment and her own concerns, but for her resolute resistance against ill-informed others attempting to stand against her dreams and shout 'you may not!'

Raise a glass with me, won't you?

Laura's website, including pictures, videos, and a blog of her trip.

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