New book: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers!

Sign up for updates and more!

Laura Dekker: Sailing Around the World

About the Episode

Laura Dekker was born on a boat and lived her first five years at sea. As she grew, Laura had one dream: To sail around the world. Despite many challenges, at 16 years old, Laura became the youngest person to do just that—all by herself!

You can find Laura in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.

This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Adrienne Patino Dunn. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Laura who lived and breathed the ocean. In fact, Laura was born on a yacht, and her first word was not “mama” or “dada.” It was “dinghy”—which is a small kind of boat! 

For the first five years of her life, Laura sailed around the world with her parents. At night, the ocean waves rocked her to sleep. During the day, she watched the bright white sails whip above her as the sunlight danced across her skin. 

Laura and her parents eventually returned to the Netherlands, where her father was from. But when Laura went to sleep at night, she could still hear the seagulls’ cries and feel the rocking of the waves.

She knew she would return to the sea, no matter what it took. And when she did, she wouldn’t look back.

Back in the Netherlands, Laura’s father built and fixed boats. When Laura turned six years old, he gave her a kind of starter boat called an Optimist. Laura loved it. It was a boxy little boat with one big white sail that she couldn’t wait to fill with the fresh air of open waters.  

In fact, the very next day, Laura announced, “I’m going to sail on the lake with my boat!”

Her father frowned. The lake was rough and unpredictable, especially for a six year old!

“You have to learn how to handle it first,” he told her. “To tack and sail at high winds.” He paused, looking at Laura’s downcast expression. “But together we can learn, okay?”

So, the next weekend, Laura put on her life vest, climbed onto her Optimist, and shoved off from the lake’s shoreline. Her father followed alongside on a big windsurfer, shouting instructions for her to follow as they made their way out.

He shouted things like, “Let out the sail until you see a bubble then pull it back until it’s gone.” Or, “Careful, you’re about to gybe!”  

Laura tried to do exactly as she was told, but the winds kept getting stronger and stronger, sometimes whipping away her father’s voice. As the boat was pulled farther away from shore and into the center of the lake, Laura’s heart started racing. She didn’t know what to do. In her head, she saw the boat tipping over and plummeting to the bottom of the lake. She saw herself flailing and calling for help.

But then, she heard her father’s voice cutting through the howling wind.

 “It’s okay, Laura—just hold the rudder, nice and calm.”

She gripped the rudder and channeled all of her energy into her core.

 And as she did, the boat turned and slowed down. It was like the boat was listening to her—it was following what she told it to do as she steered it along the lake’s dark, choppy waters.

 That day, Laura found out she could handle the wind and the waves. She felt like, as long as they worked together, she and her boat could be the best of friends.

Soon, Laura was sailing by herself almost every day, and loving every second of it — the wind rushing through her hair, the sunlight making the water sparkle, the adrenaline that coursed through her body as she and her boat zipped across the lake. She felt like she was flying!

She learned how to tie knots and trim sails, how to track winds and use nautical charts. Then, when Laura was about ten years old, she hatched a plan: She was going to sail around the world—just like her parents had done. Only she was going to do it all by herself!

Only, when she shared her plan with her parents, they both said no way. Sailing on a long trip like that was hard, complicated and lonely. Most importantly, Laura was only ten years old!

Laura was discouraged, but she refused to give up on her dream. She had been sailing since she was six. She was born on a boat, for Pete’s sake!

So, she kept mapping out possible routes and reading up on supply lists. She kept begging her father to teach her whatever else she needed to know. And when he saw how diligent and dedicated she was, he couldn’t help giving her a few pointers.

First of all, she would need a bigger boat if she was going to take on longer sailing trips. Her dad agreed to go halvsies with her on an old sailing yacht, so Laura scraped and saved and worked odd jobs so she could cover her half.

She named her yacht Guppy, and announced that she was ready to depart on her trip around the world.

Again, her dad told her to slow down. He said she needed to try sailing to England before they even talked about her circumnavigating the globe.

 The route from the Netherlands to England would be filled with rough winds and freezing waters. Laura’s dad hoped this shorter trip would fulfill her need for adventure.

In March 2009, at age 13, Laura set sail for England all by herself.

She faced brutal winds and wild waves. When sheets of rain fell from the sky, she got soaked to the bone. And when a heavy fog rolled in, she couldn’t see a thing, and could only rely on her radar for navigation.

Still, Laura was determined. She had studied and trained and felt certain she knew what to do. 

And she made it to England without a hitch. 

Well, there was one hitch. When she got there, she was approached by police officers.

One of her friend’s parents in the Netherlands had phoned the police. They thought Laura was too young to sail to another country on her own.

The police called Laura’s dad, who flew to England to get her. 

But after Laura was released from custody, her dad didn’t take her to the airport. Instead, they went right back to the Guppy.

“If you managed to sail here,” her dad said, “you might as well sail back.”

With a successful round trip voyage to England under her belt, Laura felt confident and energized. She was ready to go. 

Or, so she thought. Until a bunch of adults stepped in.

Education officials told Laura it was illegal to miss so much school. Child welfare workers said that her parents were irresponsible. Pretty soon, there were lawyers involved. A judge sent her to a psychologist. She wasn’t even allowed to step foot on her dear Guppy!

 It was all very scary for Laura.

Now, at 14 years old, she had to convince all these people that she was strong, smart and capable of surviving this long journey. As a solo sailor, she would be responsible for everything on the boat—from cooking and cleaning to navigating and repairs. All while doing schoolwork on the side!

So, Laura took courses on safety and first aid. She learned how to do boat repairs and stitch her own wounds. She trained herself to sleep less. After all, long-haul sailors have to stay alert, even at night.

Finally, in August of 2010, after more than a year and eight court cases, Laura was ready to set sail!

She was standing on the deck of her new boat—an old Jeanneau Gin Fizz yacht which she also named Guppy.

She and her dad had updated the safety equipment and added storage. They’d fixed up the little kitchen and brought on a new bed. As a finishing touch, Laura had painted the outside of the boat bright red and added a cute orange guppy on each side of its bow.

Laura’s father sailed with her to the edge of the European continent… and then Laura and Guppy were on their own!

Soon, the land disappeared behind her, and Laura was surrounded by the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

Guppy’s red bow cut through the waves as foamy crests crashed onto the deck. The orange guppies Laura had painted on smiled out at the horizon. At the back end of the boat, a Dutch flag flapped in the wind.

And there was Laura standing tall and steady at the helm, steering Guppy forward. She was so thrilled to be here! She felt like the waves were coursing through her veins, filling her with momentum and courage.

But that day was just the beginning.

Ahead of her lay more than 27,000 nautical miles of sailing—with lots of stops along the way. Based on her calculations, she would be traveling on Guppy for two whole years!

And those two years were spectacular.

As Laura sailed across the Atlantic, schools of dolphins raced alongside her. Sunsets dazzled her eyes with their majestic colors. Giant whales nudged Guppy’s hull.

It was amazing… but it wasn’t always easy.

 At first, she was homesick and lonely. She missed having a bath (that wasn’t salty!) and a fridge.

On days without wind, Laura thought she might lose her mind as Guppy stood motionless in the ocean. 

On other days, the wind wouldn’t stop! 

Once, near Australia, Laura sailed through such fierce weather and dangerous straits, Guppy’s sails were torn to shreds, the rudder was jammed, and even the steering wheel fell off!

Laura was okay, and she sailed on to Darwin, Australia. There, she docked Guppy and assessed the damage. Her father flew to Australia to help her make the repairs.

As they mended Guppy’s sails and replaced the steering wheel, love welled up in Laura’s heart. 

This boat was more than just a vessel. It was her trusted friend and confidant. Sometimes when she was in the middle of the ocean Laura talked to Guppy about her hopes and dreams. And fixing those sails was Laura’s way of saying thank you. She loved Guppy truly and fully and felt sure that she could guide Guppy back home.

Laura and Guppy sailed from Europe to the Caribbean. She navigated through the locks of the Panama Canal and swept across the Pacific Ocean to Australia. She sailed through the Indian Ocean and braved stormy seas to dock in South Africa. Finally, she sailed across the Atlantic again, heading back to the Caribbean Sea. There, she was met by a cheering crowd—including her family.

With training, patience, and perseverance, Laura had made her wildest dreams come true.

The journey lasted 518 days from start to finish. It was full of solitude and surprises, new horizons and brilliant sunrises.

And in 2012, at 16 years old, Laura became the youngest person to ever sail solo around the world.

Wow. That’s an incredible feat, wouldn’t you say? Rebels, do you have a dream as wild as that?

What is it? 

And who do you think could help you make it come true?

Well, whatever it is, just know, we’re cheering you on every step of the way. So dream big, and dare loudly.

Thanks for listening, and staaaaay rebel!