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Looking at the controversy over one girl’s campaign to break a world record.

IF LAURA DEKKER HAD her way, she’d be at sea right now.

If you haven’t been following her story, Dekker, 13 of the Netherlands, hopes to become the youngest sailor to circle the world solo, breaking the record recently set by 17-year-old Mike Pelham. She had planned to set out on her two-year voyage on September 1.

Instead, Dekker is back in school, under state supervision while a Dutch court decides whether she should be allowed to make the trip.

She’s not the only sailor gunning to break Pelham’s record, but, at 13, she’s certainly the youngest. While her father, with whom she lives, says he supports her trip, others are less convinced.

In putting Dekker under supervision, the courts voiced concerns about the interruption in Dekker’s schooling, as well as the psychological effects of making a solo ocean voyage at her age.

Photo: dudu_viana

Much of the media reaction has centered around Dekker’s motives, with some speculating that she’s making the trip just to break a record, rather than out of any sense of adventure. But should we really be surprised?

When you establish a “Youngest to…” record, it only makes sense that you’ll see young people trying to break it. If you keep track of who was the youngest to sail around the world or swim the English Channel, you have to accept that you’re giving younger and younger children an incentive to engage in a dangerous activity.

Unfortunately, “record fever” has a way of screwing with people’s judgment, both adults and children. There’s evidence that another young record-setter, 7-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff, died after her instructor decided to take off in bad weather to keep to Jessica’s publicity schedule.

While there’s no doubt that Laura Dekker is a skilled sailor (she sailed to England by herself before her 13th birthday), one has to wonder if she’s too married to the idea of setting a record to make responsible choices.

Her reaction to criticism isn’t comforting. In an interview earlier this week, Dekker’s mother, Babs Mueller, told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that Laura threatened to cut off all contact if she blocked her daughter’s plans.

“Laura said: ‘If you ban me you will ruin my life’,” Muller said. Dekker has also responded to the Dutch court’s decision by threatening to go to New Zealand, where she holds dual citizenship.

It’s this lack of maturity that causes problems to young athletes, talented though they may be. A sailor who doesn’t have the bearing to handle obstacles on land has to ask herself if she really wants to be facing down problems at sea by herself.

Most importantly, an athlete making an attempt like this needs to have the maturity to decide when the record just isn’t worth the risk anymore. As unglamorous as it may seem, the ability to walk away is the ultimate life preserver.

If a kid is too young to take that simple but crucial responsibility, to let her have any more seems like inviting disaster.

Community Connection

When it comes to records, how young is too young? Let us know what you think in the comments.



About The Author

Adam Roy

Chicago native Adam Roy is the former-Editor of Matador Sports and an aspiring renaissance man to boot. For more of Adam's writing, check out his blog at Ill-Advised Adventures.

  • David Page

    Great piece, Adam! Sounds nuts to me. Still, not sure I like the idea of courts deciding what’s best for children. No matter how irresponsible it may seem to me, who am I (or who are the Dutch courts) to say? Having been the recipient of any number of stern lectures from other, slightly more self-righteous parents about how dangerous it is to ski with my one-year-old in a backpack (like my dad did with me, and his with him), or how no child should be weaned before 24 months :-), I don’t know. Maybe there are lines that can be drawn, but I lean toward toward trust and freedom and stupidity over the tyranny of the municipal code… Slippery slope and all that… Probably have to let people be lunatics amongst themselves. As long as they only endanger their own. Shit, who knows.

  • Carlo

    I think the threat she made to her mother pretty much tells it all doesn’t it? 16 (Jessica Watson) is one thing…13 is a whole other ball game.

    Speaking of Jessica Watson, here is the latest news…she was hit by a cargo ship while she was sleeping below deck:,23739,26047924-952,00.html

  • Julie

    Great piece, Adam. While I’m with David on a more hands-off my family attitude when it comes to the courts, I also think that basic psychology and biology have to be taken into consideration. At 13, it’s questionable whether a kid is developmentally ready to take on a journey of such epic proportions (hell, at 32 I’m pretty sure *I’m* not developmentally ready).

  • Paul Sullivan

    Definitely food for thought here Adam. Thought provoking piece. I guess the ultimate decisions must lay with her guardians (parents). Hope they know what they’re doing.

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