A Dutch court placed a 13-year-old girl into temporary custody on Friday after her parents insisted on supporting her bid to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo. Laura Dekker, an avid sailor who was reportedly born on a yacht during her parents’ own round-the-world trip, told Dutch television before the court handed down its decision that she simply wanted to “learn about the world and to live freely.”
“The crucial question is whether it is wrong for parents to allow their child to indulge in her passion,” the Dekkers’ lawyer told Radio Netherlands. Dekker will continue to live at home, but her parents will not have the right to make decisions on her behalf for two months, at which time the case will be reviewed. Had her plans not been put on hold, Dekker, whose trip would have taken two years, would have been on track to shatter the world record for the youngest solo trip around the world, which was broken on Thursday by Mike Perham, 17, from the U.K. But now, the Dutch court will have to judge just how young is too young to face the physical and emotional strain of setting out alone on the high seas.
“No matter how mature a 13-year-old she is, the psychological effects would be enormous,” says Amanda Owens, a London-based sports psychologist, who worries that Dekker’s planned journey could leave her emotionally stunted. “At that age, two years is a big chunk of her life to spend alone. Plus, she wouldn’t yet have the coping strategies to deal with the emotional trauma that can and would happen.”
Perham, who was just 16 when he set sail on his 9-month expedition around the world, believes age shouldn’t be a determining factor when it comes to deciding whether or not someone can try to follow his accomplishment. “I think it’s right for the Netherlands to state their views, but in the end it should still be Laura and her parents’ choice,” he tells TIME.
However, he doesn’t think he could have made the trip when he was 13, nor would he have gone for two whole years. “You have to be incredibly head-strong it was difficult for me now,” he laughs. On his nearly 30,000-mile journey, Perham subsisted on freeze-dried food and faced large waves, high winds and equipment failures. Along with the physical strain, he also faced mental exhaustion, brought on by isolation and sleep deprivation. At one point, he even had to turn off his tracking device when he reached pirate-infested waters to avoid being followed, as did the former holder of the title of youngest solo world sailor, American Zac Sunderland .
Yet Perham says he had no doubts he was ready by the time he was 16. Two years earlier, he had sailed for six weeks across the Atlantic, while his father monitored him from a nearby boat. That adventure left him feeling ready to take on the world but not right away. It took him over a year to prepare for his record-breaking trip, during which his parents sought out several second opinions, including those of 12 sailors who’d gone around the world as well as those of sports psychologists. This time, his father stayed home, but kept in contact with his son by satellite phone.
“It was a very difficult decision,” says Peter Perham, Mike’s father. “What’s different with Laura is that by being away from home at such a young age, I would worry she’s going to miss out on lots of important social interaction. Not to mention what the reception will be like when a 13-year-old shows up on a boat by herself in foreign countries.”
Sports psychologist Andy Barton in London agrees that the two young sailors’ situations are very different: “You learn quite a lot between 13 and 16. You can only plan ahead so much, but you need maturity to deal with the unexpected.”
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