In 2011, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker became the youngest person to sail alone round the world. Her account, of which this is an extract, bubbles with a youthful verve and passion.
In 2009, the English sailing community was galvanised by the arrival on the East Coast of a 14-year-old single-hander from Holland, writes Tom Cunliffe. This was Laura Dekker, skippering a small yacht she had bought with borrowed money.
She was placed in care and refused leave to return home in her boat until her father, party to the whole event, came over. He declared his confidence in his daughter and she completed her voyage alone.
Later that year, Laura announced her intention to sail round the world single-handed in a 38-footer she would finance though her own efforts. Now it was the Dutch authorities who tried to ban the project, but after a good deal of manoeuvring they too relented and she finally set out from Portugal in 2010.
One year and five months later, Laura became the youngest solo circumnavigator at the age of 16.
This extract from her book, One Girl One Dream, (Harper Collins, New Zealand) describes part of her 6,000-mile passage from Australia to South Africa. It bubbles with youth, and anybody feeling jaded with their life should read it right now.
Better than that, go out and buy the book. I did. I couldn’t put it down.
DAY 15 – 10 OCTOBER
Finally, some wind, but it’s so dark and grey outside that it looks as though the clouds will envelop Guppy at any moment. There’s a 4m swell and I’ve been having squall after squall breaking over me for the past two weeks. The wind isn’t constant for more than an hour at a time, which entails adjusting the sails and the course regularly.
I dive into a book so that I can forget everything around me, but every time I get up there are dark clouds, drizzle and little wind. During my crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas Islands, I’d covered 2,600 miles in the same time it’s taken to cover only 1,500 now. This ocean hasn’t done me any favours, and I’ll be glad to leave it behind me.
Guppy is running at three knots and bobbing along like a useless rubber duck on the high swell. At the top of the waves, I have an infinite view of endless grey sea that changes to drizzle on the horizon. I have to accept it because I can’t change it anyway, and things are bound to get better.
When day breaks, a few squalls pass by, causing the wind to come first from behind and then head-on, just to give me a hard time, before falling away altogether.
This isn’t much fun with the high swell and the cross-seas . . . Guppy is rolling very heavily and the sails are flapping in all directions, but once the squalls have disappeared on the horizon I feel it – WIND! Wonderful wind. Guppy flies forward and is making real speed for the first time since Darwin. It’s going well and she’s jumping over the waves at seven knots like a young foal, and looks as though she’s enjoying it as much as her skipper.
A glance at the solar panels shows me that there is work to do. I can start cleaning them all over again as it seems to have become a regular shithouse for all my feathered friends. Not good, and I’m pissed off about all the lost current that I need so much.
Seeing that I’ve hardly had any sun, Guppy’s batteries have not been charging optimally, which means that I can make only limited use of my radar and beloved SSB radio, which both need a lot of electricity. A pity because my SSB offers me something else to do other than staring over the grey sea and skies.
Towards afternoon, my mood improves when the weather starts to clear gradually. I’m proud of Guppy as I watch her cut nicely through the sea. We have covered so many miles and experienced so much together.
I think back to my first crossings, years ago in my little 7m Guppy. At the age of ten I didn’t have a clue what lay ahead of me, but that never stopped me from venturing into the unknown.
After the first plunge into the deep end, many more followed, but I never regretted my decisions. I’m glad Dad gave me the freedom to discover things for myself, but never before he was certain that I could handle the situations I would be confronted with.
This voyage of mine has already taught me so much. When I left the Netherlands I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do in the future, just like any other teenager, and now I have loads of plans. I want to go to New Zealand, finish my schooling there, and then do something in the sailing field. But most of all, I’ve come to know myself very well.
I have consciously faced the fear of the unknown, confronted myself and conquered anxieties and loneliness. I’ve become stronger mentally and feel on top of the world. I know I will get to South Africa richer for the experience of having crossed 6,000 miles of the Indian Ocean.
No bird shit today, and no squalls either, but a strong wind and something to go for! It’s still cloudy, but the sun breaks through from time to time and that cheers me up.
The wind gives me a broad reach and I’ve boomed out the genoa. The sheets are still getting chafed by the spinnaker pole and I invent a new solution. A sort of safety rope. I make a short loop in the eye of the genoa and fix the spinnaker boom to this. This line is sure to tear, too, but that’s not serious. It’s holding so far, but then I think of all my other attempts — the duct tape, Rescue Tape, the patches bound around . . . But theoretically this should work. Guppy is in her element.
I’m too late to see it coming. A massive wave breaks over the cockpit and soaks me to the bone. I’ve had my shower, but it leaves me even more salty.
When I go below to change into some dry clothes, I feel Guppy balancing on the top of a wave and, before I know what’s happening, I’m flung through the cabin, along with everything else that’s loose. Everything in Guppyland is back to normal . . . Welcome back, wind!
In the meantime, the wind has got a little too frisky… Braids of white foam are flying over the water and the seas are mounting.
In contrast to the Pacific, the waves are steep and high with a swell that’s coming from a different direction to the wind. Guppy is being blown forward at a speed of eight knots while massive waves wash over the deck.
The companionway has to stay closed, and I see walls of water chasing past when I look outside. But Guppy is handling it well; I’m proud of her and know that she will continue to thunder on until the sea calms down again. All I have to do is keep watch. I’ve been at sea for 18 days now and this has been my longest crossing so far in terms of time; and I’m not even halfway yet.
Sitting on the chart table with one foot on the cabin steps and the other firmly against the cabin wall, I switch on the SSB. Guppy is occasionally surfing off the waves at speeds exceeding 10 knots, and is rolling dangerously from side to side.
I have to reduce sail, put a second reef in the mainsail and possibly set the storm jib before night falls, because otherwise it is simply too dangerous. I’m busy thinking about all this when I receive a call from Sogno d’Oro. We’ve been talking for a few minutes when Guppy starts to surf faster and faster off a wave.
“Oh, shit!” is all I can say.
A huge breaker crashes over us from the side, taking Guppy down a mountain of white foam to land on her side at the bottom of the trough with a mighty bump.
Looking through the Plexiglas door, I see the sea wash into the cockpit. Still holding the microphone in one hand with the other on a handgrip, I‘m hanging horizontally to the companionway and am looking at the oncoming water in shock.
Slowly, Guppy manages to right herself while I survey the chaos inside and the water that is slowly running out of the cockpit. “I, I, we – Guppy has just been knocked down,” I stutter into the radio. “I’ll call you back in half an hour.”
I switch off the SSB, click myself into the harness and wait for the right moment to venture on deck. In the meantime, the windpilot has got everything under control again.
Almost everything that was in the cockpit has been swept away. The sprayhood has been totally flattened on one side, and I’m standing up to my knees in water in the cockpit . . . I take in the remaining bit of the genoa that’s still attached to the spinnaker boom.
With water flying over me, and cursing myself, I insert the second reef in the mainsail; something I should have done hours ago. Several lines are trailing in the water behind Guppy, and I bring them back on board.
Half an hour later, everything looks to be under control again. There doesn’t seem to be much damage to the mast or equipment. Cold and soaked to the bone, I get back to my radio pal Henk who’s also at sea and explain what’s just happened.
Guppy is more stable now that she is going slower, and I’m more comfortable about facing the night.
We chat about life on board. Things that are so easy to do at home are a real challenge on board. Just going to the toilet is a major task, and you have to wedge yourself into a certain position in case an unexpected waves launches you through the boat . . .
But what must be done must be done; including eating liquid food that flies through the cabin the moment you let go of it, and losing stuff you left on deck. Reefing on time, but not too early, in case Guppy becomes a toy in the waves – it’s all part of it.
It feels as though Guppy has been on a roller-coaster all night. I hear the breakers gathering height in the dark, but only see them when they crash over Guppy with force. The cockpit is underwater regularly.
All the hatches have to stay shut tightly, which makes it very stuffy inside. I’m impressed by the waves here; not only are they really huge, but they are particularly steep. Each big breaker could knock Guppy down again, but she’s handling it well and is running at seven knots on a small piece of sail.
It’s already light when the wind starts to drop a little. By noon it’s just 25 knots and the waves are becoming longer. The breakers have disappeared.
I shake out a reef and unfurl a good bit of the genoa. The situation is improving steadily and I suddenly feel exhausted. I’ve been on standby all night watching from behind the Plexiglas door.
Before turning in, I check Guppy’s position. We’ve made good progress in the past few days.
The wind has totally died and we start the umpteenth grey, wet day. I can’t even remember the last time I saw the sun. Everything is timeless here. If I didn’t make a diary entry every day, I would lose my sense of time altogether.
What does it matter if you’re at sea for 20 or 25 days? Even though there’s a big difference between one and five days. I’m still very tired, miss the sun and sometimes feel like running.
At the same time, I’m intensely happy here on Guppy on waves that have calmed down now. There are times when I’d like to be on land, but there are always more moments on land when I wish I was at sea.
The sea draws me onwards, and so does my curiosity to experience what lies beyond the horizon.