National and international media waiting to cover the official launch of teenage sailor Laura Dekker’s controversial bid to become the youngest person to sail round the world solo – initially expected to take place last weekend from Portimão Marina – were left bitterly disappointed when they discovered that the girl had in fact left Portugal for Gibraltar days earlier, unannounced.
Last week The Portugal News covered Laura’s bid after she arrived in Portimão in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was believed at the time, following suggestions from within her camp, that she would spend the week in the Algarve, resting and testing equipment, before officially starting her global mission from Portimão.
The Portugal News was told last Thursday morning that Portimão had been selected as a departure point as it was “where Laura wanted to end her solo voyage” sometime between 2012 and 2013, shortly before her 17th birthday.
“She chose Portimão because as far as I know, it is where she wants to return at the end of her journey in two years time”, Dutch-based Marijke Schaapkhok, managing director of television production company Masmedia, told The Portugal News.
It emerged last week that Laura Dekker and her father had agreed terms with Masmedia for the television rights of her voyage, which could last into the spring of 2013.
At the time Marijke Schaapkhok also confirmed that Laura was looking to set sail “sometime this [last] weekend, with Monday being the latest she would like to depart”.
Dutch legislation, which forbids any captains under the age of 16 to sail from the country’s ports on boats measuring more than seven metres, could also have aided in the Dekkers choosing Portugal as their starting and finishing point.
However, snags with Portuguese nautical legislation as well as burgeoning media attention may have contributed to the teen leaving for Gibraltar.
On Monday this week her manager, Peter Klarenbeek, confirmed to The Portugal News that Laura had in fact set sail from Gibraltar.
He explained that she had set sail for Gibraltar - a British territory on the southern tip of Spain – “for two reasons: because of the media and to avoid problems with the Portuguese [maritime] authorities”.
“They [Gibraltar] have another law”, he said.
Mr. Klarenbeek told The Portugal News that he had spoken to Laura via “satellite phone” and that the journey was “going well”.
“She has good weather, good winds”, he said, confirming the teen was heading for the Canary Islands.
He said that the teen had departed for Gibraltar, with her father, “Last Tuesday or Wednesday”.
A statement from Masmedia issued Saturday (August 21st) also confirmed Miss Dekker’s departure, though it did not specify where from.
“Laura Dekker has embarked upon her great adventure, she is the youngest solo sailor to sail around the world”, it read.
Suspicions Miss Dekker had already left Portugal were first aroused when there was no activity last weekend at the marina, and Miss Dekker’s distinctive double-masted ketch ‘Guppy’ was nowhere to be seen.
In fact neither Miss Dekker nor her ketch had been seen since Wednesday. The last sighting of the teen at the Marina, where her boat was inconspicuously moored, was on Tuesday, when she and her father appeared to be stocking the boat with provisions and canisters of fuel.
It is thought that Miss Dekker is keen to avoid media hype after she was at the centre of a legal wrangle that lasted 10 months and attracted international interest, sparking a global debate as to how young is too young for a teen to sail the world unaided. Courts ultimately ruled the decision should be left to the parents.
At the beginning of last week, following her arrival in the Algarve and reported resistance to speak to local media, her manager issued a statement explaining “She has had so much media attention in the last year, and she decided she needed some time to be by herself, in peace.”
A recent report from the Associated Press claimed “she left from Gibraltar because Portugal issues permits for sailing ocean vessels only to people 18 or older, according to Holland’s MasMedia Company, which has exclusive TV rights to film her voyage.”
It is not clear what Portugal’s stance is on the matter.
A statement sent to The Portugal News from the National Port and Maritime Transport Institute (IPTM) said that, despite the media attention that the case had attracted because of the “strong involvement of Dutch judicial authorities in a case in which the starting point was precisely the cause of the journey being prohibited”, a fact that should be “duly considered”, it added “On the other hand, it is an exceptional situation that, as such, must be analysed and thought through”.
To further explain its stance, the IPTM added, “The affirmation that: ‘the current legislation does not allow any Portuguese youngster, of this age, to embark on this type of initiative, even if it was only the first phase to the Island of Madeira, let alone around the world’ does not entirely correspond to the reality of the current national legislation”.