Much has been written about the rights and wrongs of allowing youngsters to set out on solo long-distance voyages. I have been critical of such voyages in the past, so how would I get along with the latest teen sailing-sensation Laura Dekker? The girl's story has featured on television stations and in newspapers worldwide. Unfortunately, many reports were written by journalists who don't know an ocean-going sailboat from a hole in the ground.
The moment I met Laura Dekker, I knew she was different. That she looked at me like I was a dinosaur, didn't bother me. While she was studying me, I was busy trying to work out if this slip-of-a-girl could indeed take on the oceans with more than a fair chance of coming out safely at the other side.
The first thing that struck me was that Dekker's boat is fit for purpose – tough, no-nonsense and well prepared. This puts her ahead of the game, and she knows it. Like all her previous boats, the 12-meter Gin Fizz Ketch is called Guppy and the Dutch girl holds the boat in deep affection.
Stepping aboard Guppy and making my way around the ever-present film crew, I entered the world of Laura Dekker.
"It's a nice boat to sail alone. It's a ketch and that's nice because there's not too much sail," said Dekker. She then described her tactics for sailing in heavy weather. "First I drop the main and then set the storm sail. She sails well under storm and mizzen."
We're been talking five minutes when I realize that here's a 15-year old girl who knows more about seamanship than many of the guys I've put to sea with!
Guppy is fitted with two self steering systems, electrical and wind-driven. "I prefer the Windpilot because it doesn't use power," said Dekker. This no-nonsense approach can be seen throughout the boat. Nothing is hi-tech and she can fix just about anything that breaks.
It has been reported that the longest part of Dekker's voyage is behind her, the 2,200 nautical mile voyage across the Atlantic from Cape Verde to St. Maarten, but that is not the case. The Pacific lies ahead and 5,000 miles of ocean separate the Galapagos Islands from the Marquesas. That's a long time for anyone to be alone at sea, never mind a teenager. Could boredom be a problem?
"No," said Dekker, "I never get bored. I wake up, check my course, eat, look around; do some reading and writing." And you can see how this would work as the young single-hander sticks to a strict system of watch keeping – two hours on and two hours off.
I was surprised to learn that the boat had no water-maker, however, there's no shortage of tanks and containers, and Dekker can catch water when it rains.
One thing she does have is a satellite phone. This doesn't stop the folks back home from worrying, but it helps. Her father calls her every day, and calls more often if he learns she is facing severe weather.
The media have made Dekker a celebrity. Fame, as she has found to her cost, isn't always easy to deal with.
"When I started this voyage, I never thought about any media. The fuss, I didn't want it. I didn't do it because I wanted to be in the media. I did it because I like to sail and love the sea."
The interview was coming to a close and I was impressed by what I had heard. Here's a fifteen-year old girl who can 'hand, reef and steer', has no fear of climbing the mast and knows how to keep the onboard systems running. Most of all I recognized in Dekker a deep love and respect for the sea and that is why she will succeed.
Girly, yes, but my last question was answered with toughness beyond her 15 years. I asked how local officials were reacting to her voyage. Had their attitude been okay? "No," she said, "in Holland, really not. 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."
Having tempered her anger Dekker said the reaction of officials at the various ports had been nice and put this down to the fact that they at least knew something about the sea.
Perhaps there's a lesson in that for us all.
For more information and to follow Laura Dekker's voyage, visit: lauradekker.nl
Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea. He hosts the radio show YachtBlast on Island 92, St. Maarten, and is the author of the thriller/sailing adventure Caribbean High. For more information visit: garyebrown.net