A Girl's Own Adventure


Portrait of the adventurer as a young girl


To hell with Disney princesses!


  Image: Laura Dekker on bow of Guppy, day 425 of her voyage. Text reads, She sailed 27,000 nautical miles over 519 days. Screenshot from Maidentrip, text added by author.
Laura Dekker looks into the future from the bow of Guppy,
425 days into her round-the-world solo voyage.

At age 13, Laura Dekker announced her intention to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. After battling Holland's child-welfare authorities for more than a year, she set out to follow her dream.

Image: Poster of Maidentrip
Maidentrip: Buy it at Amazon.

In August of 2009, a 13 year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker announced her intention, to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone, in the Dutch newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad.

Wikipedia does not report how or why the tween's plans made the news, but they did. And, though she had her father's support, the local Child Welfare Office had other ideas and a Dutch family court soon placed Laura in shared custody between Dick Dekker, her dad, and the Council for Child Care. The latter stopped the departure and it took the better part of a year of legal battles before, on July 27, 2010, a court ruled it was "up to the girl's parents to decide whether she can make the trip."

Image: Screenshot of world map showing Dekker's route. Colour modified by author.
Dekker's route, colour modified from Screenshot.

Laura Dekker wasted no time at all. On August 4th of 2010, she set sail aboard the two-masted ketch Guppy, which she and her father had restored earlier that year, to start a voyage which would take her 519 days to complete.

Maidentrip is the all-too-brief documentary that tries to tell the tale of that 519 day voyage.

* * *

There's no doubt Dekker's age and sex make her story especially intriguing.

In a world where teenagers are expected to phone or text any time they're going to be 10 minutes late home from school, and girls especially are taught to always be aware, if not positively afraid, no matter where they are, who they're with or what they're doing, the idea of a father allowing his 14 year-old daughter to just set sail by herself for a round-the-world voyage must surely strike many as a kind of abuse. No wonder child welfare authorities tried to put the kibosh on Dekker's plans.

Image: Screenshot of Laura Dekker works to repair storm damage on Guppy
Dekker works on Guppy in port, after surviving hard storm on route to Australia.

Consider the case of Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, who recently made headlines for saying her daughter has been walking to school alone since she was nine. The ensuing flurry of commentary can only make one wonder just how many women who might have been explorers or adventurers (or indeed, scientists or artists) have had (and still have) their dreams crushed by the world's great denial, No! It's too dangerous!

Wikipedia's awfully short list of female explorers and travellers suggests the answer is, "Most of them." I digress.

A couple of questions do spring to mind about Dekker's voyage. First, lots of 14 year-olds might imagine such a trip, but what kind of 14 year-old has the determination to follow-through and achieve it? And second, what kind of father could possibly say yes to that teenager's dream, knowing his child would be risking death in the attempt?

Maidentrip doesn't even try to answer the second question. Neither Laura's father nor her mother (Dekker's parents are divorced and she chose to live with her father) are a strong presence in the film. As to the first, Laura Dekker only echoes Mallory's "Because it's there".

"It was my dream," she says repeatedly, as if the existence of a desire is all the explanation needed.

And maybe it is. Ask a writer why he writes, a musician why she plays, and as likely as not you'll get no more enlightening a reply. Because to not write, to not play, would be a kind of death, of the soul, of the spirit. If Maidentrip tells us anything it is that to deny Laura Dekker the freedom of the seas would be to put her spirit in chains.

* * *

Every Dad a critic

According to the website SailFeed.com, neither Laura nor Dick Dekker was impressed by Maidentrip. Laura said only that, "I am not going to say much about the film Maidentrip, but I won't be representing it as I am not fully standing behind it."

Dick Dekker was more forthcoming on a Dutch-language site (translation from Laura's Facebook fan-page via SailFeed.com).

"... Only a few minutes from all the pictures Laura took [during her voyage] was used for that movie of 90 minutes playtime! ... Laura does not recognize herself in that movie. It's a big disappointment for the sailing enthusiasts since the movie is about all and everything except for the journey and Laura's passion for sailing.

... Jillian, the filmmaker, always promised to Laura that she will make a documentary about the journey. After having watched the movie for the first time in New York several months ago, Laura was very disappointed and asked Jillian for several changes since the film did not show the truth. Jillian had promised to go over it once again, however, in the end she made it even worse (more lurid)."

I agree Maidentrip would have been better-served through a heavier emphasis on the voyage itself, I can't help wonder if the "more lurid" elements he refers to have to do with those brief scenes in which daughter makes clear she no longer needs her father. One particular, shot aboard the cramped confines of Guppy, was the sort of parent-teenager argument that can not have been an easy thing for either father or daughter, both apparently essentially private people, to have had to re-live in company of an audience.

As a movie, Maidentrip is more episodic chronicle than narrative. The bulk of the footage was shot by Dekker herself while at sea. That footage, along with audio also recorded by Dekker, was then knit together by first-time feature-film director Jillian Schlesinger. Schlesinger also added some material shot before Dekker began her voyage and at stops along the way. It is the latter segments that are most problematic.

Dekker's own amateur video is surprisingly watchable, despite being shot at arm's-length or, more often, from a fixed location on the boat. Indeed, one of the movie's flaws is that there isn't enough of it. I could have done with a lot less than 10-plus minutes on Dekker's brief friendship with a middle-aged American couple she met while crossing the Panama Canal in favour of another 10 minutes of what it's like to cross the Pacific ocean by yourself.

Similarly, the inclusion of a shorter sequence with a reporter aboard Guppy while Dekker was docked in Australia seems to come out of nowhere, an unimportant interruption that serves only to show us that Dekker wasn't much interested in answering the woman's questions, but not why that was the case.

Both scenes suggest that the novice film-maker Schlesinger was trying to force her film into a standard documentary shape by including normalizing footage of her subject, but it is Laura Dekker's difference that makes us interested in watching a documentary about her.

On the other hand, more insight into Dekker's impatience with her father after the two had spent a few days together in Australia as they worked to repair her boat would have been welcome.

Or maybe not. A case could be made for making a documentary about Dick Dekker, about why he helped his daughter accomplish her dangerous dream and about the fears he must (we presume) have had after she set sail, but the movie about Laura Dekker is not the place to tell that story.

If Maidentrip can not or will not explore why Laura Dekker accomplished what she did, it would have been a better film if it had spent more time showing us its subject in her element.

All that said, Schlesinger's take on Dekker's voyage is compelling viewing despite its flaws, giving us what feels like at least a glimpse at Laura Dekker's isolated coming-of-age. The brief self-portraits are enough for us to intuit something of her development from preternaturally determined child to equally-determined woman, whose steely focus is of a kind we associate almost exclusively with men. Seeing a living, breathing example in a woman's form is a breath of fresh air by itself.

For all that a viewer might want (and that the director surely wanted) to uncover the psychological "reasons" behind Laura Dekker's obsession with sailing the open oceans, it might be that they just aren't there to be found.

Maybe Laura Dekker's dream to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone came about simply through an accident of genetics, and because she grew up on and near the sea and learned to love to sail from a very early age, just because the ocean is there.

And maybe, in (what I hope is) a post-psychotherapeutic age, those are reasons enough.

To hell with Disney princesses; if you have a girl in your life and want to show her that she aspire to more than being admired for her beauty, this is a movie I imagine will be an inspiration to young girls for many years to come.

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