In 2009, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker announced that she planned to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world. Alone.
Growing up, Laura loved sailing. She was born in New Zealand while her parents were on an around-the-world voyage, and then spent the first five years of her life on a boat. As Laura got older, she fell more in love with life on the water and more anxious to leave Holland. And when she was 13, she began dreaming about the record-setting journey.
Her plan was to set out from Gibraltar in her boat, Guppy, sail across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, into the Indian Ocean, around the southern tip of Africa, then back home. She knew the journey would be difficult. But she didn’t realize the challenges would start before she ever set sail. For a year, the Dutch government tried to stop her before finally OK’ing the trip. Laura began her voyage as a 14-year-old in August 2010. When she pulled into port at St. Maarten in the Caribbean on January 2012, she was 15 years old and officially the youngest person to sail around the world solo.
Filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger captures Laura’s epic journey in the new documentary Maidentrip. The film opened in New York last week, and will be traveling around the country until April. Sports Illustrated Kids spoke with Schlesinger recently about the film, the challenges Laura faced, and why Laura’s story is an important one — especially for kids.
How did you first learn about Laura Dekker, and what was it about her story that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
I originally read about Laura in 2009. There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times with the headline "How Young is Too Young to Sail Around the World Alone." She was 13 at the time, and the Dutch government had just gotten involved in the situation and it made international headlines. The story immediately intrigued me. I started to read more and more about it and, obviously, it sparked a lot of discussion and really strong opinions in a lot of different directions. But I found that Laura's point of view seemed to be all but missing from the conversation about it. So I reached out to her with this idea of making a collaborative film that would help her to tell her story from her point of view.
Why do you think her voice was being left out of the story?
In such an easily sensationalized story like a kid sailing around the world, it's hard to really have a reasonable conversation about that. And so I think when she did try to speak about her experience or about her point of view, often very small soundbites would be selected to twist what she was saying into something else. And I think she felt like she wasn't really being represented accurately, especially in the Dutch media. But people said really nasty things, and for people to express so much anger towards a young woman seemed really, really strange to me. I think kids, and especially young women, don't always have a platform to be able to speak and express themselves in a public forum. So, in a way, the film does that for Laura.
Early on in the film, there’s a graphic that rattles off words that people used to describe her, like "delusional," "spoiled," "arrogant." You mentioned age and gender bias, but do you think it was more one than the other?
I would say, first it's age, and then I would say the gender aspect of it definitely kind of piles on to the age issue. Kids are capable of a lot, and they have really strong ideas about things and they're not always given credit for that. And I think there's also a lot of messaging in society about young women needing to be protected or not being capable or strong. It's great to have examples and voices of young women who are powerful and can have a voice and can do brave and amazing things.
Was it your idea or her idea to have the video camera on the boat with her? Was that something that she had already planned on doing or was it something that you suggested?
I'm sure she would have been doing that anyway. In this day and age when it's so easy to get cameras, if you're doing something exciting or going on a big trip like that, you would be documenting it no matter what. I had cameras that I could have given her, but she was comfortable using the camera that she owned. And I actually didn't want the filming that she was doing at sea to really be about the film or for the film particularly because I felt like that was such a great relationship that Laura had with the camera. You know, it's a friend out there, it's a confidant, it's a playmate in obviously very isolating circumstances. So I thought it was really important that that really be between Laura and the camera, and I tried not to interfere or give her too much instruction in any direction.
Did you meet up with her at any point on her journey?
Yes. I met up with her about 10 times. I met up with Laura twice in Holland before she left, and then in St. Maarten and Panama. And then in the Galapagos Islands, we ran into these Canadian people who we had met in Panama who were also cruising sailors and this opportunity came up for me to sail across the Pacific. The idea, at the time, was that at some point hopefully along that route we would be able to go near Laura and film her. It was Laura's idea, as well. And then she thought it would be really funny to race and ended up beating the boat that I was on by a couple days. So we never actually saw her in the course of that trip across the Pacific. But now having done that trip and spent a few weeks on the water, I really can't imagine having made the film without that experience of long distance sailing.
At the end of the film, you say she went to New Zealand. But what has Laura been doing since her voyage?
She kept sailing all the way to New Zealand, back to the town where she was born, and she has since settled there. She still lives on Guppy. She's been doing some different things for work. She was working on a dive boat for a while, and she's also been doing some speaking about her trip. She got her driver's license and she was accepted to maritime school, but she's deferred for a little while. I'm not sure what her plans are in that regard. But I think otherwise, she's just planning for the next adventure.
What can kids take away experiencing Laura’s story through your film?
I think the film is universally about just having a dream and going for it. In Laura's case, it was really extreme. She had to fight government and public perception and all of these things to be able to pursue the thing that really mattered to her. And I think the message of that is, if you want something, just to go for it and believe that you can do it and really fight to overcome obstacles. And if you are doing something in the more extreme, risk-taking realm, to do it really safely, to do it responsibly, to do it the way that Laura did it so that it has a triumphant finish.
Visit the Maidentrip website for more information about the film and to see if it’s playing in a theater near you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
Photos courtesy First Run Features