Sailing Around the World Alone

How young is too young to sail around the world? The other night I watched Maidentrip about Laura Dekker, a Dutch girl who wanted to sail around the world by herself at age 14.  The Dutch courts intervene for ten months before Dekker finally got to sail when she was fifteen, completing her circumnavigation when she was sixteen.  It’s hard to say when a person is too young to do something.  We want to protect our children from harm, and we think of teenagers as being inexperienced and incapable of knowing what we know, but does that mean they shouldn’t do something if they have the ambition and the means to get what they want?  Wikipedia even has a list of teenagers who have sailed around the world.

The first person on this list on the list is Robin Lee Graham who was made famous by a serious of articles in National Geographic Magazine back in the 1960s when he set off to sail around the world at age 16.  They even made a movie about his trip named after his boat, The Dove.  Even today he is still remembered, and was recently asked what he thought about kids sailing around the world on their own.  As a teen in the 1960s I followed Graham’s story in National Geographic magazines with great interest.  I thought it would be a great adventure, and envied his freedom.  However, I wasn’t very enterprising, and had trouble keeping my old $150 Ford going when I was 16. 

The man who started it all was Joshua Slocum who was the first person to sail solo around the world starting in 1895.  There have been many solo souls to circumnavigate the world since.  I guess it was Slocum who started the whole mania for solo sailing around the world.  It takes a special kind of person to spend hundreds of days alone in a small boat by themselves away from human society, and to live so completely in the harsh elements of nature.  The ocean can be a very cruel place to be alone, both physically and psychologically.  It reminds me of the early days of spaceflight when men orbited the Earth in solitary capsules.

There’s two ways to sail around the world – port-to-port and nonstop.  Graham took five years to sail around the world, stopping for long periods in various ports, and eventually using two boats.  The nonstop sailors stay on the ocean the entire trip, never making port.  Those are the real loners of the sea.  And there’s something about the psychology of these solo sailors that make them want to stay at sea and not come back.  Laura Dekker, a port-to-port voyager, finished her round the world trip and then kept going, disappointed she hadn’t stopped at New Zealand on the first time around.  Bernard Moitessier, who was about to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race for fastest solo circumnavigation, turned around on his approach to the finish line and started another lap of the globe.

The dramatic Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was recently portrayed in the documentary Deep Water.  I beg you to watch this film, but also beg you not to read about the film or the race ahead of time if you don’t know the story.  It’s riveting as it unfolds, especially the human interest angle.  I’m not even going to link the trailer that spoils the story.  There were nine sailors that entered the race, and one, Donald Crowhurst, had no real experience.  It was the old salts versus the daydreamer.  Crowhurst’s story is so compelling that a fictional film account with Colin Firth and Kate Winslet is in the planning stages.

Since the Sunday Times race, there have been many round the world races and even more solo sailors.  Over the years I’ve read about various men and women sailing solo around the world and have been quite fascinated by two aspects of this sport.  First, why and how people can survive so long in self-imposed solitude.  Second, I’m fascinated by the details of outfitting a sailboat and the equipment it takes to navigate precisely around the world.  Most of the recent documentaries have focused on a quick overview of the trip, and spent little time on the details.  These films make me hunger for books with lots of how-to facts.

From watching Maidentrip it was pretty obvious that Laura Dekker was only marginally experienced at sailing, and her boat gave her little trouble, and her GPS did all the navigation work.  She said she knew how to use a sextant, and had the charts but we didn’t get to see her use them.  Her voyage was from port-to-port, and my worry for her as a teenager,  was more for when she was on land than at sea.  I thought a 15-year old girl would be an easy victim for crime and sexual assault.  But she made the trip and has kept going.  She evidently has a savvy and toughness that most teens lack.  Dekker is obviously a school dropout, and doesn’t seem to be interested in any subject other than sailing.  I tend to believe most parents would keep their kids away from round the world sailing because of school, and not because it’s a dangerous activity.

How dangerous is sailing around the world?  I haven’t heard of any kids being killed, but some have sailed into container ships.  Modern boats must be pretty well made compared to the old days, because old sailing stories are often endless tales of equipment failure.  And sailing from yacht club to yacht club has its own level of safety.  I don’t know how young a kid could sail around the world by themselves, but it’s probably dependent on them acquiring a good boat, and a decent amount of training.  Yet, how many kids would want to spend weeks and months totally by themselves?  Crewed sailing is far more popular.  Like I said, it takes a special kind of person to sail solo around the world.  I’m not sure if they want to get away from other people and society, or they love the feel of being completely in control of their own fate.

Sailing around the world has changed because of technology.  Jessica Watson is the youngest girl to sail around the world solo non-stop, although she didn’t meet the requirements to qualify for official records.   It’s not quite the solo experience it was in Slocum’s time.  With radio, cell phones, YouTube, and the Internet, fans can follow sailors almost in real time.  Jessica Watson’s voyage was well covered by YouTube reports and television.

Deep Water and Maidentrip are available on Netflix streaming.  The Dove is available on Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime Streaming.

JWH – 8/16/14

4 thoughts on “Sailing Around the World Alone”

  1. The post says ” it was pretty obvious that Laura Dekker was only marginally experienced at sailing”.
    I will agree, Maidentrip does not elaborate on Dekkers early years (because of the courts and state prosecuting thing). That is sad, and here are some testimonies to the contrary.
    Her granddad says about her: cool under pressure. Her mom says: A devil of a sailor. You might think ‘only marginally experienced at sailing’

    Her granddad says about her: cool under pressure. Her mom say: A devil of a sailor. You might think ‘only marginally experienced at sailing’

    Laura Dekkers makes mistakes. But not as a sailor, there she has demonstrated master compency

    And here is why: As soon as she admitted her ambition to her dad, he mad her turn over her dinghy, and upright it again (when 11 years old) and climb in, repeat every day, and consequently under the worst conditions. His question was everytime, YOU now have a problem, WHAT CAN you STILL do?. As a result she was already a sailor with a incredible golf handicap/uhm sailing resume when the courts thing came along. She outsailed her competition in sail meets on a regular basis (by that I mean good tactician, good helmsman, and good sail trim expert), and was graceful under pressure (at 14, while returning to NL, solo, non stop, from UK to NL, she dived in the water while in a north sea marine traffic lane (where the big container monsterships are), to remove discarded nets from careless fishing vessels from her boat screw drive, … all in order to arrive home on time after your weekend trip, early monday morning, as you do when you’re 13l!!!). No 911 calls, no mayday mayday mayday on maritime ch 16 emergency channel, no, but A girl, A boat, A problem, A dive, A problem solved.

    So there you have it, a brilliant sailor, described as ‘only marginally experienced’.

    1. Hugo I agree she’s a good enough sailor to sail around the world, and that’s pretty good. But if you compare her skills to those men in the past who attempted to sail around the world after years of sailing experience, her experience was only marginal. She starts out with very little experience, and they started out with decades of experience. Sailing around the world has given her years of experience that most sailors will never gain, so she’s currently pretty experienced. But when she started on her voyage, she was fifteen and had only a marginal amount of experience.

      Of course that says something about round-the-world sailing. It evidently doesn’t take a lot of sailing experience. My guess it takes a certain kind of personality that’s suited for being alone on the ocean more than it does actual sailing skills.

      Watch Deep Water to see how Donald Crowhurst does with much less skill.

  2. “From watching Maidentrip it was pretty obvious that Laura Dekker was only marginally experienced at sailing…”

    You do not sail (possible minimal limited day crewing aside) do you? Admittedly “marginally” is a vague quantifier and may mean different things to us but I cannot see how it possibly applies here. Her sailing skill is unquestionably formidable. She is dealing with a boatload of that requires a lot of experience and attention. Sure even now there is much she can learn and refine. In fact, that is what makes sailing an activity for lifetime; the learning process never ends.

    1. That was supposed to say a “boatload of boat” above. To expand on that, just look at the sail plan. Yes this potentially makes it more versatile for various conditions but it is a lot to contend with single handed especially when there is a blowing stink. A sailboat is still a very physical beast. Keep in mind there appears to be no automation on this boat. All she appears to have is a mechanical windvane self steerer. All it does is maintain a course relative to the apparent wind. So if the wind changes so does your course. This might not sound ideal but of course when under sail this is all you want anyway since the sails are set relative to the wind.

      Also it is certainly true she set out without transocean experience. Indeed many who have set out on such voyages have had far more experience but many have had less as well. Yes she was very much a kid with much to learn still. However, this does not make her sailing skill and experience marginal. The amazing thing is how much experience, especially single hand experience, on keelboats she had for her age. There was nothing typical about it.

      So many make such a huge deal out of GPS in these trips as if it is sailing the boat or something. It is not. Yes it is a big deal outside of coastal waters. Yes it makes sailing easier and much safer. Without it you will need other well developed navigation skills that most do not have. But ultimately it is just telling you relatively precisely where you are. Remember at best the original explorers knew where they were relative to where they came from; they did know where they were going except ‘that a way’.

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