Photo: valkird

Sailing Around the World at 13: How Young Is Too Young?

by Adam Roy Sep 9, 2009
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.

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.

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