Brand building through storytelling

Portrait of the sailor as a very young woman

There’s a depth of desire—fierce, wholehearted and relentless—that can seize the heart of a teenage girl and carry her away, perhaps forever.

Some girls, like the lovely, gifted daughter of one of my friends, are so determined to be thin that they’ll starve for their notion of beauty. I’ve just read about others, as young as 13, who have staked their sense of self on joining violent gangs where gun-running and rape are the price of admission. Laura Dekker, 14, of the Netherlands is raising teen obsession to a loftier plane. She intends to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo, overturning the record set by a 17-year-old boy. A judge has ruled that Laura is too young to make the two-year journey on her own, but she’s not about to back down.

I’ve been following Laura’s quest with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m appalled by the very idea of a teenage girl spending two years alone at sea. I ache for Laura’s mother, who has risked estrangement to oppose the voyage, but has said after long and painful reflection: “I would rather have a living daughter whom I do not see than a dead daughter.” (Laura’s parents, both passionate sailors, are divorced and her father, with whom she lives, is in her corner.) Yet I have to applaud the scope of Laura’s ambition and the unbending power of her commitment to a goal that fires her spirit.

Far too many adult women—let alone teenage girls—are afraid to compete, afraid to take risks, afraid to throw their arms around a vision that reflects their talents. And as Laura Dekker’s mother concedes, this particular girl is one hell of a talented sailor.

Born on a boat, she’s been sailing all her life and set her sights on the global expedition at 13. Her father, initially doubtful, set her a test. To win his support, she’d have to sail alone to the east coast of England. He thought the rigour of the trip would make short work of Laura’s plan. In fact it strengthened her resolve.

Child welfare authorities in two countries tried to shield Laura from her own life-threatening ambition. In Britain she was briefly confined to a children’s home; then the Dutch Child Protection Agency scrutinized her emotional, intellectual and physical fitness for sailing the world. On all three fronts, Laura impressed. Her supporters point out she’ll be making stops and will have a larger boat to shadow her in case she needs help. But she hasn’t dispelled the concerns for her safety and her schooling. And as the sailing correspondent for the Times of London sums up in a respectful but skeptical piece, “Laura will still be short of the most valuable weapon in a sailor’s armoury: experience.”

I’m no sailor but I do know this: the number one task of every girl is to assume her rightful place in adult life with confidence and clarity of purpose. You can’t grow up alone in a boat. You do it in the thick of things, by remaining yourself in the face of peer pressure, destructive media messages and parental expectations. I can’t help but wonder if Laura’s father, himself a former sailing prodigy, has unwittingly raised her to believe that nothing matters more than breaking records at sea.

I wish Dame Ellen MacArthur, who last year set lost her world record for the fastest solo sail around the world, could have a heart-to-heart with Laura Dekker. Dame Ellen knows exactly how it feels to be a girl with the heart of a sailor: she bought her first boat with the change she’d saved from her lunch money. But at 33, she has decided not to pursue another record. She has found a new goal: promoting sustainable living. “I didn’t think anything in my life could eclipse sailing,” she said in a recent interview. Yet she eventually realized “how brutally selfish it is to go off sailing around the world, even when you are achieving your dream.”

That’s the wise voice of a grownup. Here’s hoping Laura Dekker grows up, too. The world needs women whose courage and drive is equalled by their sense of perspective.


Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.