Thursday, September 03, 2009

How low can it go -- safely? Laura Dekker, would-be youngest circumnavatrix

Sailing is perhaps an ultimate frontier of independence, daring, and "rugged individualism". Sailors of every sort seek out challenges without many of the "safety nets" provided on shore. Solo sailors will venture thousands of miles away from other humans into the most remote portions of the globe and racers will shave the margins as they make split-second maneuvers within inches of other boats. Tales of havoc and near-carnage routinely regale visitors dockside as sailors recount stressful and sometimes disastrous moments. Outside the harbor, human frailty is pitted against the unbounded power of the ocean and this is precisely the sort adventure that many sailors crave -- and many land-creatures dread. Many sailors resist government safety urgings and and are suspicious of external regulation. Modern society's increasing aversion to risk is less evident on the watery realm of sail.

Yet, sailing takes a very different tack with regard to youth sailors. Safety requirements and permissible weather windows are more stringent for junior sailing and youth regattas. The truism of skippers deciding whether to race or not is abridged, given the general notion that young people may lack the judgment, experience, or strength of their elders. Many people were concerned about the safety of the British and American teens who recently circumnavigated the globe or express concerns about Jessica Watson, the Aussie lass who proposes her own circumnavigation, or Zac Sunderland's kid sister, fifteen-year-old Abby, who is also considering the trip.

But that is nothing to the indignation that has accompanied the case of Laura Dekker, the thirteen-year-old Dutch girl who wants to be the youngest circumnavigator of all. Dutch and British protective authorities have actually stepped in to the case and the Dutch courts have temporarily put Laura under the custody of the courts. Most people do seem to agree with the authorities that she is too young. Many people seem to fault her parents or question their motives in encouraging her.

But how young is too young, how should this be determined, and who should do the determining?

Rather obviously, many adults lack the experience, judgment, strength, mental fortitude, or equipment to safely take on the world ocean and the hazards of a circumnavigation and who would likely be a danger to themselves, to others, and a drain on rescue services. But, sailors have succeeded with small, older boats, minimal equipment, and sometimes limited experience. The world would be arguably far poorer without the stories of Joshua Slocum, Vito Dumas, Bernard Moitessier, Robin Lee Graham, Kay Cottee, Tania Aebi, Dee Caffari, Karen Thorndike, Ellen MacArthur, Zac Sunderland, Mike Perham, et al.

And, do we want the world's governments to be the ones drawing the lines for sailors? Do we still consider parents to be generally competent or do we see the currently controversial parents as proven to be incompetent to decide what's best?

The general update: Sailing World had some recent info; the Dutch authorities have taken custody and have no inclination to let Laura Dekker take off; her family is talking about trying for New Zealand but NZ doesn't sound receptive; and the girl has been sailing intensively by herself for most of her short life but recently she and her family had run-ins with authorities when soling between Holland and England.

While I want sailors to be prudent and prepared, I also can't but think of the changes in attitudes between modern parents and authorities and those of past generations.

In Arthur Ransome's old Swallows and Amazons series, set a couple of generations ago, some sailing-loving children unintentionally wind up sailing their boat to Holland in rough conditions. In the story, there are no recriminations; the young people cope well and a father arrives to help their return. All this, of course, in an era before modern safety and communications equipment with arguably less handy boats and rigs that would have been harder for young people to manage. Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons were self-reliant "free range" children to a degree that might be utterly unthinkable to modern first-world upper-middle-class parents.

Perhaps Laura Dekker's parents are viewed as frighteningly hands-off anachronisms in today's era of helicopter parents, soccer moms, and highly-adult-organized, over-programmed schedules for upper-middle-class youth. Yet perhaps children need more freedom, opportunity for self-governance and discovery, and certainly much more exposure to nature and the outdoors when far too many children are confirmed couch potatoes before they ever reach their teen years, unlike Laura Dekker.

Based on a video interview, some observers may believe that Laura lacks the confidence, fortitude, strength, or independence from her parents to succeed at sea. But, perhaps the interview should be taken with a grain of salt, since it may not be representative of her confidence or competence at sea.

Perhaps a more telling concern is the socialization that she would be missing at an age that for many youth is a critical period for becoming more mature in relating to others and cementing one's identity.


Although a few thirteen-year-olds would likely have the toughness to handle a circumnavigation, perhaps Laura Dekker doesn't and the whole affair seems rather odd or circus-like.

Now, were I to see a thirteen-year-old on the telly,

* without mummy and daddy hovering nearby,
* who had already completed quite a large number of long-distance solos in rough waters,
* with excellent training and preparation including emergency medicine and safety expertise,
* and demonstrated outstanding athleticism, quick wits, enormous motivation, and demonstrated mental fortitude,
* who showed respect and realistic appreciation for the challenge,
* and was doing the circumnavigation for some highly worthy cause,
that would be another story.

At a minimum, I'd expect a voyager this young to have completed

180 days of sailing, including 80 days of voyages out of sight of land, at least 40 of these days solo, with at least one passage of minimum duration 10 days and minimum length 1000 nm,

with knowledge and ability equivalent to RYA Yachtmaster or similar, full ability to repair and jury rig all yacht systems, advanced swimming and self-rescue skills including completion of in-water drills in varying conditions, and successful completion of tests for mental aptitude and stability,

voyaging in an over-engineered, well compartmented yacht, with positive buoyancy, superior stability measures, hull and rig reinforcement, and a full panoply of well-tested safety gear and maintenance spares, tools, and supplies, with arrangements made for continuing academic progress and counseling and emotional support available.

That's all. Yes, that's a stricter test than would be applied to most adults, but the higher bar here is appropriate to the circumstances. With these requirements met, I'd be quite happy to let the thirteen-year-old take the wheel for a spin around the seven seas.

It seems obvious now, based on the information that's been coming out, that Laura Dekker has far more sailing experience than is common for her age. But does she have enough of the right kind of experience? Soloing the North Sea is a legitimate achievement, but in this circumstance it perhaps falls an order of magnitude short of being a convincing qualification.

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