A 14-year-old Dutch girl will set off Saturday on a controversial attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world, her representatives said. Laura Dekker's ambition of completing the yearlong trip has fueled a global debate over the wisdom of allowing young sailors to take on the tremendous risks of sailing the high seas alone. The girl who grew up on a sailboat faces a host of challenges, including favorable winds to send her across the Atlantic Ocean from her jumping off point in a marina in the resort city of Portimao at the southwestern tip of Portugal.
Late Friday, seas were so calm that the ocean looked like a mirror, and Laura was still out in her boat, performing last-minute tests on her red-hulled 38-foot (11.5-meter) yacht named "Guppy." Hordes of television crews, reporters and photographers from around the world descended on Portimao Friday to cover the departure. They gave up on their stakeout after her yacht did not return to port after dark.
Marijke Schaaphok, the director of Masmedia, a company filming the trip with remote cameras mounted on Laura's boat, said that the girl was expected to return to port and depart at an undetermined time on Saturday.
"She has her father and her manager on board and as long as they are on board there's not an official start," Schaaphok said. A court last month released Laura from the guardianship of Dutch child protection agencies who had tried to block her voyage because of fears about her safety and psychological health. But Friday afternoon, trip manager Peter Klarenbeek said Laura was ready to go, and that a ceremony would happen Saturday just before the departure.
"We are testing equipment now and I can't give a departure time, but it will be obvious when she leaves. We'll be on the dockside to say goodbye," Klarenbeek said from the yacht while at sea with the girl.
Portuguese state-owned news agency Lusa quoted an unnamed port authority source saying that Portuguese law does not allow people under age 18 to navigate alone.
But a man who answered the phone at the port authority of Portimao told The Associated Press there are no legal barriers for sailors under age 18 from leaving Portuguese ports as long as they are qualified to sail. He declined to give his name in keeping with policy.
Schaaphok defended the girl's push to sail around the world, saying Laura is mature for her age and has proven that she can sail "Guppy" across oceans after passing a maritime exam in the Netherlands for a vessel of her boat's size.
Furthermore, she said Laura is uniquely qualified for the ambitious sea venture.
"She grew up with her father on a boat so she's completely different from a normal 14-year-old girl," Schaaphok said. "She's very wise and a little bit impatient, but she's a very nice girl and she knows exactly what she wants."
Laura's first port of call after leaving Portugal will be Spain's Canary Islands or Portugal's Madeira Islands, both far out in the Atlantic. The choice of destination will depend on how the winds end up blowing.
Laura took several steps to reduce objections to her voyage after the authorities stepped in last year. She got a bigger, sturdier boat than the one she originally planned to use, took courses in first aid and practiced coping with sleep deprivation. The girl also made a solo trip across the North Sea to England. The Dutch court ruled that her preparations were adequate and it was up to her parents, who are divorced, to decide whether to let her make the attempt.
In June, American Abby Sunderland, 16, had to be rescued in a remote section of the Indian Ocean during an attempt to circle the globe. Earlier this year, Australian Jessica Watson, completed a 210-day voyage at age 16.
But while Watson remained at sea nonstop, Laura plans to stop at dozens of ports and may even return home to catch up on her studies before resuming her trip.
If Laura completes the voyage, any record she claims would be unofficial and likely to be challenged. The Guinness' World Records and the World Sailing Speed Record Council have decided they will no longer recognize records for "youngest" sailors to avoid encouraging dangerous attempts.