Saturday 24 October 2020

Laura Dekker: stubborn, self absorbed and a devil of a sailor

On Saturday Laura Dekker arrives in St Maarten. At 16 years and 123 days old, Dekker is the youngest person to sail around the world singlehandedly. The Volkskrant asks: who is Laura Dekker?

In the summer of 2010 Laura Dekker’s boat stops in the middle of a busy shipping lane in the North Sea. With ships fast approaching Laura dons her wetsuits and jumps overboard and manages to prise off a fishing net that has become caught up in the boat’s propeller. She sails into port at five in the morning. ‘Quite an experience’, she drily reports in her diary.
Hours later she is in court in Middelburg for another wrangle over whether or not the fourteen year-old can go on the voyage she so desperately wants undertake.
The incident with the fishing is very typical of Laura, mother Babs Muller told the Volkskrant. ‘She sails like a devil’, she says. ‘She’s a stoic’, her grandfather Dick Dekker says. ‘She will keep a cool head in the most extreme of situations’. ‘Laura has tremendous will power and ambition’, says lawyer Peter de Lange who advised Laura and her father during the run up to the trip. ‘Her wish to do this was something that came from her heart and soul and no one was going to stop her.’
At the same time, her determination is her Achilles heel, he adds. ‘Laura find it difficult to understand that other people don’t understand her.’
So who is Laura Dekker really? the paper asks?
Her room in the wooden cutter her dad built doesn’t have the usual array of horse pictures. It’s sailing boats, more sailing boats, a world nautical chart and her sailing trophies, the Volkskrant states.
Grandmother Riek Dekker remembers Laura telling her that she couldn’t do Atheneum but would settle for HAVO instead: it would give her more time for sailing.
The book Solo by Tania Aebi, the American teenager who sailed around the world in 1985, takes pride of place in her cabin room. Freedom, no interference from anyone, that was exactly what Laura wanted.
Aebi (45) has followed every stage of Laura’s voyage. ‘What she did is fantastic. An incredible feat. The ocean is always the ocean and you have to do your utmost to survive. She’s a pretty determined person,’ she tells the paper.
‘Laura does exactly what Laura wants’, says filmmaker Marijke Schaaphok who was set to film Laura’s big adventure. ‘But ten minutes after she left port in Porugal she turned the cameras off. I thought then and there it wasn’t going to work. She was too unpredictable and I didn’t want to be at the mercy of a schoolgirl’s whims’.
Her refusal to cooperate meant losing quite a lot of the sponsorship money. Laura’s father didn’t even try to change her mind. ‘He knew she would not listen’, Schaaphok told the paper. ‘She will only take his advice in matters of safety. Besides, her dad is not a man to tell her anything. She could go to bed when she wanted and if he didn’t turn up in the evening she would cook her own meal. She is incredibly independent and I was convinced she could cope with the difficulties of the trip. I didn’t think she was spoiled or wild. She is a very nice girl. But at the same time she is very self absorbed. I was taken aback by the fact that a child as young as that could be so forceful.’
Laura’s parents divorced when she was six and she went to live with her father. Her sister moved in with her mother. Not long after her father had a burn out and Laura had to help him around the house. For years things were difficult. When the council threatened to tow away their boat she successfully appealed to the mayor.
The psychologist called in to evaluate her on the order of the judge paints a picture of a girl who has had a lot to cope with. She describes her as ‘disciplined, intelligent and determined but wary of emotions like fear or sadness. She is very rational. Friendships have a functional character and do not seem to be ‘based on reciprocity’.
Self harmed
Laura, as she has written in her blog, hates anything to do with the authorities which claim to act in her best interest. They seem to have a point: Laura self harmed when her battle with the authorities was at its fiercest.
But others don’t understand why the authorities had to get involved at all. A yachtclub owner she stayed with in the island of Bonaire told the paper: ‘She had built a wall around her but she could be social at the same time. People said her behaviour was autistic but I didn’t think so at all, She was just fed up with the authorities interfering and it made her shy.’
Laura was born on her parents’ boat in New Zealand. Somewhere near the Fiji Islands Laura’s mother had enough and left the boat with Laura while an angry Dick Dekker set sail for Australia.
Peter de Lange says Laura doesn’t see herself as special in any way. ‘She would prefer to be completely left alone when she comes to St Maarten, no journalists, no fuss. She doesn’t care that American television stations are clamouring for interviews. She’s become a global brand but she’s just not interested.’
Former manager and sponsor Peter Klarenbeek owns a watersports business and helped to kit out Laura’s boat. ‘Neither Laura nor her dad care about money or fame. Clothes, luxury, cars mean nothing, it’s all about the boat.’
Their cooperation didn’t last. ‘I sorted out websites for them, sponsors, the media…when I stopped a lot of sponsors pulled out. I tried to keep things from going off the rails after that but it was no good. Laura has a mind of her own.’
Finish school
Laura’s voyage is over. But maybe not completely: she may sail on to New Zealand or Bonaire. This week she announced she didn’t feel like returning to the Netherlands at all, worried that the authorities would interfere again.
Tania Aebi’s advice is ‘Finish school. Look at it as your next goal. If she doesn’t set out a new course for herself she will always remain the ‘sailing girl’.

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