Article

 November 23, 2016   Cara Kuhlman

Laura Dekker started her circumnavigation at age 14 and completed her record-breaking voyage in the Caribbean at age 16, making her the youngest person to ever solo circumnavigate the globe with stops.

Before ever leaving land, her dream captured the world’s attention when the Dutch government objected to her plan, despite her parents’ consent, and delayed her inevitable departure.

Laura’s voyage ended in New Zealand after 36,000 nautical miles but her journey as a sailor, sailing icon, and young woman continues. Now 21, she lives aboard her beloved boat, “Guppy,” and has released her book, One Girl One Dream, in the United States. We recently caught up with her before a presentation at the Portland Yacht Club to learn more about her historic circumnavigation and future aspirations.

laura-in-portland

Laura Dekker, before her presentation at Portland Yacht Club.

Cara Kuhlman: You did this really amazing trip, how do you normally start sharing that story?

Laura Dekker: Well, I’ll back up a bit. My mom and dad are both travelers. Dad is the sailor in the family, Mum doesn’t actually like sailing, but they sailed around for seven years.

My dad built a lot of boats since he was very little. They just kind of got bigger, and bigger, until he started building the 40-foot boat that my parents sailed around the world.

They sailed for about four or five years and got to New Zealand. I was born in New Zealand and they tried to stay there, but they didn’t manage. So, we had to move on and we sailed to Australia, and then Asia. Eventually, my mom flew back to Germany to give birth to my sister, who is three years younger than me. So, my dad sailed the last bit back to Holland solo.

I lived in Holland for the rest of the time. Mom and Dad divorced, so I grew up with Dad, who started building another boat – a 60-footer, a big boat.

When did you get your first boat?

I built my first boat when I was six. You can’t really call it a boat; it’s probably rather a raft. It floated, it sailed. I sailed it across the river and back. Then my dad got me an Optimist and that’s where it all started.

little-boat

Laura’s first go at boat building.

A lot of young sailors don’t have that boat building experience. How did it affect you?

You know, it was so normal to me because every day I came home, Dad was building the boat. There were plans of the boat everywhere so it was like “Oh, this is what you do.”

For a lot of people, it seemed really crazy but as a child you don’t really think about, “is this the way it should be or not?” It’s just the way it is. As long as your parents are there and love you, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in a house or on a boat or in a shipyard.

How did you and “Guppy” (a 40’ Jeanneau Gin Fizz ketch) find each other?

My dad is a very good boat builder. We found Guppy and she was a total project boat. She’d been in the yard for seven years. No one had looked at her. She was repossessed by the bank, the windows were out and there was a meter of water in it. It was a disaster boat, we did a lot of work.

guppy120211033

One girl, one boat, one dream.

You must have seen some potential, though. What made you pick her?

Oh, the hull shape is just really beautiful and the ketch set-up is quite good. It’s got a flush deck so I can actually see where I’m going. That’s a problem with a lot of boats – I’m just too small.

It was cheap and we could fix it up. We changed quite a bit. We put a new rudder under it, which is deeper and steel, instead of the normal sandwich which is very weak. We went up a size to thicker rigging and we changed it a little as well, by putting a triangle on it. We repainted it, and did new windows, new engine as well…well, two new engines. We did it in like four months. For me, after school. And for my dad, after work.

Had you already gotten some or all of the sponsorship for the trip at the point?

Yes, it was easy to find sponsors who would give me stuff; solar panels, engine, sails, rigging, all that. All that was pretty easy. But I never wanted to get sponsors for the financial part.

A huge super-yacht builder was going to sponsor the trip but, you know…for them, it’s a business. For me, it’s a dream.

So you did the refit on “Guppy” and started your trip, how did that feel? Did it come together or was it challenging?

Well, I actually had the boat I wanted to do it in when I was eleven. It was a Hurley 700, 22-footer. I had that boat set up; it didn’t have much.

It was a tiny boat, can’t put much on it but it was seaworthy, a really nice boat. But then the court decided that it was too small. That’s why we had to get the bigger boat and had to really push it to get it ready.

If you had taken the smaller boat, how would that have changed your trip?

I think it would’ve been nice, actually. I really like that little boat because everything was really easy. You know, when something happened I could still fix it, and it was much cheaper. If you need a few new lines, then you just go out and buy some new lines. On Guppy, if I need some new lines or halyards then it’s like, “Ok, I need to save up for this.”

I think in that perspective, it would’ve been great. I would’ve had to work a little bit less and could’ve enjoyed the sailing a bit more and it would’ve been easier. On Guppy there were a couple of things where it was just heavy. I once had the Code 0 up and a squall came in. That’s just a huge sail to take down on the bigger boat, and I know it wouldn’t have been quite so bad on the little boat. Mainly, I think it would’ve been kind of fun to do it in the little boat. But, I really love Guppy and I think she was the absolute perfect boat.

on-the-bow

Laura learned a lot and came to love “Guppy”, although it was a much bigger boat than she planned on originally.

Would you talk about your learning curve with “Guppy”? She was only in the water for a month before you left, so I imagine that you got to know her underway, right?

Yes, it was one of the things we were trying to point out to the judges when they were like, “No, you need another boat, it needs to be bigger and it needs to have this, and this, and this.” Because they just thought, you know, the bigger it is, the safer it is. Which is absolutely not true, but they weren’t sailors.

Once Guppy was fixed up, I sailed  her on the lake where my dad lives, and one trip down to England, and that was it. In that aspect, it was much less safe because I didn’t know the boat and I had to get to know it while already out there. That was definitely hard.

You need to know how fast your boat can go in certain conditions and how high she can point, and how she will behave in certain waves, what direction will be the best.  If you don’t know your boat and think, “Let’s just go that way,” and your boat doesn’t really like to go that way, then that can be quite dangerous.

Was there something that surprised you most about that boat? Or moving from the small boat to the big boat?

It was just a totally different boat. The first boat was a full keeler, it was very heavy. It maneuvered differently, and it’s good to have much more sail up. Guppy is a ketch, a fin keeler. It’s just such a different boat. I really had to learn to reduce the sails quicker. She starts surfing going down a wave, the other boat didn’t do that. I think I really didn’t know the boat until about halfway through the Pacific.

Will your next boat be fin keel or a full keel?

Oh, that’s funny. I’m going to go to a full keel. It will be a slow boat. I’m going to go to a full keel cruising boat because if you do long distances, you mostly just want to be a little more comfortable and they move very steady and slow and nice. I’d like to take people out on the boat and Guppy is a racer/cruiser, so she’s fast and jumpy, quite uncomfortable.

I really loved Guppy’s speed actually, I quite enjoyed sailing her and really pushing her and racing to the next place. But if you take people out, that’s not quite so much fun. You can’t use the toilet, you can’t cook. You can’t really sleep because you just get bounced off your bed. So, that’s the main reason I’m going back to full keel.

You had an incredible runway to make this trip by being born on a boat, having a father who is a shipwright, and having all this experience. What kind of advice would you give a young person who is interested in doing long distance sailing but doesn’t have that same foundation?

It’s all about preparation. You really need to just go step-by-step, learn, be determined and interested. Go sailing with friends, try out what it’s like.

There is a lot of learning and preparation involved but a really big part of the fun is preparing for it, learning about it, and working up to a big dream.

laura-selfie

Taking a breath and thinking through your process is the key to storm sailing.

A memorable part of your documentary was your arrival in South Africa and coming through that storm. There is a particular part where you talk about how you were too focused to be scared. Can you say more about that experience? Were there other experiences on your trip where you noticed fear but your mind was less focused?

I began sailing the Opti on my own when I was six, and part of the deal was that my dad was going to do training with me. I wasn’t allowed to sail it on my own for the first half year or something, he always went with me, working on docking the boat, sailing through things.

One day, he just suddenly flipped over the boat and I remember I was so scared. I didn’t want to go in the water and I thought I was going to die. But he thought that if you sail, you need to know what happens if the boat flips, and you can’t be scared of that.

Then, he always went a step further. The second time, he flipped it and made sure I got under the sail so I was under water, under the sail, and had to get out. The next time, my feet would get tangled in the ropes. He was very good at very sneakily setting all this up and then I’d be stuck under there. He was always in his little dinghy right next to me, watching me. I learned that I shouldn’t, I couldn’t panic. I would think, “Shoot, this happened, alright. What do I do? What are my options?” and just quickly analyze the problem.

I think it’s just amazing that Dad did that training with me. There was no room to freak out, because every time I freaked out it wouldn’t work. He would say, “You need to think clearly, count to three, go through your options, and then go from there.” I have often applied that on the boat.

At what point on your trip did you decide you weren’t going to go home?

Probably while passing New Zealand the first time. I just hated passing New Zealand. I really, really wanted to see New Zealand and go there because I heard so much about it.

But, going to New Zealand means another year because you go down there and you have to wait for the season to change to go back up. So I sailed past it the first time and then I thought, “I’m just going to keep sailing and then I’ll get to New Zealand again.”

The other reason I didn’t go back to Holland was that my original plan led through the Red Sea and then back up to Europe. That year piracy was really bad. There was no way I could do it.

So I had to go around South Africa anyway and then the most logical route back to Europe is going to the Caribbean and then back. So then I thought I might as well keep going to New Zealand. It all just made a lot of sense to me.

aloft

Going aloft…always a challenge for a solo sailor.

You’ve chosen to live in New Zealand. What is your relationship with Holland like at this point? Do you still identify with aspects of culture or citizenship? Obviously the foundation is there, your family is there.

Yes, my family is there. I don’t really have a big relationship…at the time I was sailing around I actually hated Holland and didn’t want to go back at all. I’m over that now. I see it was just a few people who kind of were really difficult.

Holland does have nice things. But I just like New Zealand a lot better as a place to live. It wasn’t the plan, I just wanted to go there to see it and then I just fell in love with it and stayed.

Lighting Round with Laura

Favorite book?  Solo by Tania Aebi (Maiden Voyage), but The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier is getting close. I like real books, and I hate being selective about what books I keep aboard. It’s another good reason to get a bigger boat. (You can just sail in, go to Powell’s here in Portland.) Yeah! I was at Powell’s and it’s good that I don’t have my boat here because I would just load it up. There are so many good books.

Favorite movie?  Well, Captain Ron. And I really like the old Point Break too.

Favorite food to cook underway?  Pasta and pancakes. I love pancakes, they’re really good. When it’s a bit more quiet, I just make a huge stack of pancakes and whenever you’re hungry you have one. It’s so handy.

Favorite tool or piece of gear?  My wind vane was pretty important for me. I don’t think I would’ve done very well without my wind vane.

What would you take on the life raft to the desert island?  Well, definitely lots of water and food. I don’t really care about the rest. I try not to put too much value on materialistic things.

When you meet other cruisers, is there one question you ask them first more than any other?  I guess it’s always, “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?”

If you could be transported back to any place you’ve ever sailed to, where would you go?  French Polynesia. It’s a hard question, because every place has its own really special things. They’re all so different, but I think overall I liked French Polynesia best.

As a boat owner, you know maintenance comes all the time. Is there a particular boat project that you hate? And another one that you like the most of all the projects?

I hate sanding and antifouling. Expensive jobs. I love working with ropes and rigging. I really like that. I really like fixing the electrical system too, that’s really fun. It’s a lot of logical thinking and making up drawings to understand what’s going on.

What do you think about youth sailors and youth sailing?

I think if it’s set up right, it’s quite a cool thing for young people because there are a lot of things you can learn. Even for myself, it was great that my boat is very simple.

I don’t have internet. I don’t have a shower. I don’t have a fridge. That’s actually quite good, to just get away and realize you don’t need all those things and that’s not what life is about.

Sailboats have a habit of just throwing you into crappy situations and you have to get yourself out of it. I think that’s a really good thing for young people to just get out there and you have to get through it.

When someone tells you that you’re their role model, what do you tend to say to that?

I don’t know, what do you say to that? I never thought about it that way until people kind of told me that I was for their kids. I always find it kind of hard because for me, it was just my thing and it was kind of selfish. I wanted to do it.

So when someone comes up and says, “I’m inspired and I’m going to go do (whatever their dream is),” it’s really cool. It gives the whole trip another special meaning for me.

You’re here in Portland to do a presentation, what else are you up to now?

I do deliveries every now and then. In New Zealand, I work with the high school outdoor program. Whenever they are going on a trip, I’ll come with them. It’s really fun to see them excited about being outdoors. We went on this big hike up a mountain and they were just all, “This is not fun, I don’t want to do this, I’m tired.” We had to stop about every five minutes. But, once they were on the top they found it so amazing and they were really glad that they did it.

Do you have another big dream that you’re working up towards?

Well, yes. I’m trying to sell the boat and hopefully it will go to somebody who will use it for youth training, like the Laura Dekker Sailing Foundation in Holland. I’m not affiliated with them except by name, but they’d like to buy Guppy as a platform to teach other kids. Then, I want to buy a bigger boat and, hopefully, take people out that want to know what it’s like to go sailing but aren’t sure about it.

So, you’re willing to share your sailing time now?

Oh yeah, absolutely, I’d love to. I think it was great that I was out there on my own for that time. I think I really needed that. But now, when I’m out there it’s like, “Gosh, I wish I could show somebody how amazing this is.” First, we need to get the boat and then fix it up. So, it’s going to be a few years probably until I’m that far.

Is this a dream that you’re pursuing with your husband? And, congratulations!

Thank you, and yes it is. Living aboard together comfortably is another reason for the bigger boat. I’m not going to live on land, I’m absolutely not ready for that!

Do you have your eye on a specific boat?

Yes, a Hudson 51. Do you know Formosas? It’s basically the same boat.

hudson-51

Laura’s dream boat, a Hudson 51.

How did you do your homework and figure out what boat you want?

Have you ever seen Captain Ron? (YES!) Ok, I love that movie. So I’ve watched that movie, I don’t know, twenty times. Every time I see that boat, I’m like, “that’s a beautiful boat. One day I’m going to own a boat just like that.” So, I started looking up boats and I went into Yacht World and thought, “I want it to between 45 and 50 feet and it needs to have this and this and this.” It kind of narrows down and I just looked at the boats that I like and there it was!

It’s exactly the same boat as in the Captain Ron movie. I was like, “That’s it!” It’s really beautiful, it’s comfortable.

Is there something in sailing you still want to learn or take on?

There’s a lot involved with the bigger boat. At the moment I am mainly focusing on the boat maintenance, keeping the boat running completely on my own. The electrical systems, the engine; on the bigger boat, the systems totally expand.

Will you do more cruising around New Zealand, or do you have longer-distance aspirations?

I’ve set my mind on Patagonia and Chile. I don’t know, it’s just another one of those things that’s been in my mind forever and I need to go there.

Tell us about your book.

It was first published in Dutch in 2013, and it just came out in English in the U.S. a few months ago. I wrote my diary on the trip and kind of made a book from it after. That was a lot of work.

I started writing in Dutch the first couple of months. My later diary entries were actually in English because I was just speaking English all the time.

It’s kind of fun to go through the whole trip again and think about what you got from it and what were the bad parts. A lot of things would totally make sense to me and then I would send it to my dad, who even kind of knew what happened, and he’d be like, “What? I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” It was hard work, but so great to be able to share my story and hopefully inspire readers.

cara-and-laura

Interviewer and Interviewee: Cara and Laura in Portland, OR.

Cara Kuhlman is a Seattle-based writer and sailor who is always eager to share a good story, especially over a beer.

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of 48° North.