Sunday 30 August 2009

Should a 13-year-old be permitted to sail solo around the world?

On August 28th 2009, a 17-year-old British sailor became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Mike Perham grabbed the record after sailing 28,000 miles (45,000 kilometers) to cross the finish line off the coast of Cornwall, in southern England, after a mere nine months at sea. Perham is a few months younger than Zac Sunderland, from Thousand Oaks, California, who up to then had claimed to be the youngest in July to have circumnavigated the planet solo when he completed a similar trip in 13 months. There are many who said that they left as boys and came back as men. I believe that.

During the summer of 1954, I was the program director of a YMCA boy’s camp in British Columbia, I insisted that the boys learn how to survive in the outdoors. They got an hour’s instruction every day accept on Sundays. One day, a boy got lost during an outing in the vast forest surrounding the camp. He was gone for almost 24 hours. Up to then, he was a cry baby at camp. When he was found, he ran to his mother and said; “I wasn’t scared at all. I learned how to survive in the forest.” His mother said to the press, “I sent my son to camp as a baby and he has returned to me as a man.” Surviving horrific events in life can do that to children.

All thirteen-year-old Laura Dekker of The Netherlands wants to do is sail alone on her yacht for the next two years until she has circumnavigated the globe. The problem facing her? The authorities think she is too young. Fifty-six percent of the people polled said the teenager should not be allowed to sail solo around the world. I am in total agreement with their thoughts on this issue.

The case of the Dutch schoolgirl who wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world has become a national talking point in the Netherlands and has pitted child protective services officials against enthusiasts of open-minded parenting.

Laura, who has the backing of her parents, was scheduled to set out on a two-year trip aboard her 26-foot yacht, Guppy, before Dutch authorities took the wind out of her sails. On August 28th 2009, a court in Utrecht ordered state officials to take temporary guardianship of Laura while child psychologists assess her ability to cope with the trials of such a voyage. She will continue to live with her father, but the ruling means that her parents, who are divorced, temporarily lose the right to make decisions on her behalf.

Laura's case highlights questions and concerns raised by efforts to break age-related records, especially involving feats that are potentially dangerous. How young is too young? Are parents like Laura's admirably supportive or irresponsibly cavalier? Is she motivated by a desire to please her father?

Dutch child services officials have argued that the rigors of the journey; isolation, sleep deprivation, autopilot failures, brutal storms, the radio going on the fritz, the sail being ripped, monster waves tipping the sailboat over on its side; would be simply too much for a 13-year-old to cope with. There is only so much that a child that young can cope with without the support of an adult. For example, would you permit your thirteen-year-old to climb solo up the Matterhorn in Switzerland even if she is a competent climber? Thousands of climbers have succeeded in that climb but hundreds of experienced climbers have died in their attempts to climb that killer mountain.

Back in the early 1950s, when I served in the Canadian navy, I was a helmsman on two warships. One was a cruiser and the other was a frigate. I sailed in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In those two oceans, there were enormous storms, gales and waves that were two and three stories in height with wind blowing more than a hundred kilometres an hour that we had to cope with. I remember on one occasion when the cruiser almost tipped over. There were times when I was really scared and I was in my late teens then.

I can’t imagine how I would have coped if I was alone in a sailboat facing those waves at night with the wind tearing my sail into shreds before I could take it down. When I was forty one, I climbed the Matterhorn alone (which was stupid on my part) and was extremely scared but I wasn’t as scared as I was when I was on the deck of a warship at night during a gale while hanging on for dear life to a safety rope while crossing the deck lengthwise with waves crashing across them.

Would any sane and caring parent submit their thirteen-year-old child sailing her sailboat alone to those terrors at sea? Apparently some would. Perham may be young to have gone solo around the world by sail but he's no stranger to spectacular sailing adventures. In January 2007, he became the youngest person to sail solo across the Atlantic at the age of 14.

After being aware that the Dutch authorities were intervening with the 13-year-old’s dream to sail solo around the world, a fool called, David Brunberg wrote. "Don't let them stop your dream. The world is full of people who will try to tell you what is best for you."

Of course the world is full of people trying to tell us what is best for us. And the fact that we have lived thus far is evidence that we listened to them and accepted their advice. The trouble is that there are also people who give us wrong advice and when we accept it, it is to our detriment.

No one appears to deny that Laura is a technically adept sailor. Born on a boat in New Zealand to accomplished seafaring parents, she lived at sea until she was 4. By age 6, she was single-handedly crisscrossing lakes in the Netherlands. Crossing lakes, even when the waves are rough is one thing but crossing the Atlantic, then the Pacific, and then the Indian Ocean and finally the Atlantic again is quite something else.

When she announced that she wanted to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo, her initially skeptical father insisted that she first try sailing to England, which she did in May. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, crossing the North Sea turned out to be one of the easier aspects of that journey. Her father even let her sail back to the Netherlands on her own.

Now it is obvious that one or both of her parents will be at each port she stops at so in some sense, she won’t be alone when she reaches land in the different countries she visits.

If there was another boat near her as she sailed across the oceans, I would not have the same concerns I presently have for her safety. For example, I was in the row boat with Archie McKinnon, the coach of Florence Chadwick when she swam across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria to Port of Angeles. She was also the first person to swim across the English Channel. She was a very experienced swimmer. A number of teenagers have swum across Lake Ontario but everyone that swims across a large body of water does so with someone nearby in a boat. I realize that swimming in the ocean and sailing in the ocean are two different things but what they do have in common is the dangers that are inherent with it.

If you are attempting to swim across a large body of water and you are having problems, those nearby can help you. On the other hand, if you are sailing across an ocean on your own and you have troubles, there is no one nearby to help you. As I have asked the rhetorical question before; can a thirteen-year-old child cope with every conceivable problem that would face her on the high seas? I would be very surprised if she could.

I don’t doubt for a moment that that this young girl is qualified to sail a sailboat. If her boat is one that will right itself automatically if it capsizes and the sails can’t be shredded by high winds and her radio will always work and her location can be established by GPS, and there is little risk of her dying of thirst or hunger, she probably won’t die in her attempt to circumnavigate the seas of our planet and her voyage can be a success.

But there is more than just having everything go right when a voyage of that magnitude is undertaken, especially when you are a mere child. The real issue is; is she mentally mature enough to take on such a task in a part of earth that is extremely dangerous? That is the question that must be answered by those assigned to her case to determine.

If she is permitted to take that voyage, then I sincerely wish her all the luck that can go her way. If she succeeds, she will be an inspiration to parents and children alike, that inspiration being; if you have the will to succeed, you probably will succeed.

However, is she is lost at sea, many will ask this important question. “Was it worth it?” To those who say; “You can’t succeed unless you try”, the question is moot because she would have died in the attempt. Not too long ago, a famous mountain climber who climbed steep cliffs with only his fingers and toes to place on ledges; amazed us all with his ability to face fear. Unfortunately, his final climb killed him. His fingers slipped from a narrow ledge and he fell hundreds of metres to his death. Was it worth it? He must have asked himself that question as he plummeted down the side of the cliff to his death. Obviously, he didn’t have much time to ponder that question.

If this thirteen-year-old girl is permitted to sail solo around the world and succeeds, will the next person who wants to be a solo circumnavigator be twelve or eleven years of age? At what age will society finally say is low enough for such challenges? Perhaps the one authority that can make that determination, are the authors of the Guinness Book of Records. If they refuse to publish any such achievement unless the person making the attempt is of a certain age, that may be the final authority that makes that determination.


The 13-year-old who is now 14 was given permission in August 2010 to sail around the world.

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