“MAIDENTRIP” is a documentary that recounts the incredible feat achieved by Laura Dekker, the Dutch schoolgirl who became the youngest person to sail solo around the world in January 2012 at age 16. The Dutch teenager set out at 14 on a solo sailing trip around the globe. Her journey covered 27,000 nautical miles and lasted 519 days, and she currently holds the unofficial record for youngest person to accomplish such a feat.
The movie is directed by Jillian Schlesinger but primarily filmed with a Sony Handy Cam and narrated in both in English and Dutch (with subtitles) by Dekker herself during long passages aboard Guppy, her 38-foot refurbished ketch. In between endless days of sailing, there are stops at the Canary Islands, the Panama Canal, the Galapagos Islands and French Polynesia. Delicate watercolor-style maps provide a way to keep track of her progress while uplifting, often-propulsive string music by Ben Sollee sets the mood on the soundtrack.
Beginning with a Kickstarter campaign, New York-based Schlesinger provided her subject, who set out in 2010 without a follow boat or support team, with a Sony Handycam and mounted GoPro cameras. Novice camera operator Dekker captures the stillness of the open sea as well as the “super awesome” rainstorms and rough winds that toss her 38-foot ketch and sometimes create disasters in the compact kitchen.
The director also gave her lists of topics to address on camera or into a tape recorder during her downtime. What emerges, onscreen and in voice-over, is a preternaturally self-confident teen who doesn’t subscribe to her generation’s social-media egocentrism. Director Schlesinger rendezvoused with Dekker at various ports along her route, and the film includes footage of her traipsing around St. Maarten, the Galapagos Islands and French Polynesia, among other picturesque locales. The beauty of the settings notwithstanding, her time on land at first has the so-what feel of home movies, but through the glimpse of her bond with an older couple, a portrait of the sailing community comes into poignant focus.
Dekker’s trip was prefaced by a legal battle in which the Netherlands’ child-welfare bureaucracy sought custody of the then 13-year-old to prevent her from embarking on her solo trip. The controversy developed in Holland in 2009 after Dekker announced her plans to circumnavigate the globe. After 10 months, she prevailed. “They tried to break Laura down,” her father notes, “but she’s too strong.”Fearing for the teen’s safety, the government stepped in, sharing custody with her parents to prevent her from attempting the challenge until a court finally ruled that she could proceed. The media labeled her spoiled and delusional.
We learn in segments devoted to her upbringing—illustrated with home video and snapshots—if ever a child was raised to achieve this goal, it was Laura Dekker. She was born on a boat in Whangarei, New Zealand, during a seven-year trip around the world conducted by her Dutch father and German mother, and spent her first four years at sea. Dekker is at home on the water.
Divorce split up the family, with Dekker choosing to reside with her shipbuilding father while her mostly-absent mother lived elsewhere with her younger sister. She was forced to become self-sufficient when her overworked dad had a breakdown, learning various life skills and acquiring a self-assurance that would serve her well during her remarkable expedition. Their life is anything but privileged. The Guppy, the boat of Laura’s landmark trip, was a wreck they bought cheap and refurbished themselves. She had her own dinghy at 6 and always dreamed of repeating the route that her parents followed.
We get to watch as this confident and capable young woman deals with inclement weather, impending madness caused by doldrums, and a constantly developing desire for a life other than the one she left behind in Holland. By the time she crosses the equator, dancing alone in a party hat and offering pancakes to Neptune, you’ll find yourself loving her spirit and personality nearly as much as she loves the sea.
“Freedom Is When You’re Not Attached To Anything.”
Perhaps as a result, the narrative tends towards the meditative and Dekker’s personal growth. At first, she recounts how she wanted to step ashore regularly for sightseeing. Loneliness is an issue. She weeps at the company of a pod of dolphins swimming alongside Guppy, as she begs them to linger a while longer.
She hangs out with an American sailing couple at one tropical port of call, catches up with her mother and sister at another and reunites with her dad in Australia, where he helps her repair the battered Guppy. But it’s when Dekker is stuck adrift for 47 days waiting for the wind to pick up on the Indian Ocean that she realizes that solitude actually becomes her. “I love being alone,” she says. “Freedom is when you’re not attached to anything.”
As the months go by, Dekker’s interest in being ashore lessens and, as for countless sailors before her, the solitude of the sea is what matters. She realizes that the everyday grind of the Netherlands—which she describes as “Get money, get a house, get a husband, get a baby and then die”—is not for her. Instead, Dekker buys a New Zealand flag to fly in French Polynesia, a place she refers to as “paradise.”
Not that Dekker doesn’t act her age regularly. She adorns herself with headbands, wrist ornaments and necklaces. She dyes her blond hair red around the trip’s midway point. She celebrates after making popcorn for the first time. She bounces around to music and eats out of a cooking pot just because she can. She even swears, though not quite like a sailor. Dekker is emphatic when she tells a reporter who comes aboard the Guppy that she is not concerned about making it into history books. It is about the experience, she says.
She says, “I don’t like when people tell me what to do,” it’s not an expression of mere adolescent impudence but the voice of someone who knows what she wants and is willing to do the hard work to get it. Fame and publicity are ordeals for her, not goals, as her bristly impatience with a reporter demonstrates. Repulsed by Western conformity and materialism, Dekker quite pointedly arranges for the finish line of her circumnavigation to be somewhere other than Europe.
Director: Jillian Schlesinger
Producers: Jillian Schlesinger, Emily McAllister
Executive producers: Louis Venezia, Rebecca Ritchie Brower, Gill Holland, Dominic Cicere
Director of photography: Hillary Fyfe Spera
Music: Ben Sollee
Art Director: Leah Koransky
Co-producer: Alex Halpern
Editor: Penelope Falk
In 2010, 14-year-old Laura Dekker took to the seas in her sailboat, Guppy, on a quest to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone. Maidentrip, a forthcoming feature-length documentary, follows Dekker on her voyage, told largely through footage that Dekker shot while at sea. Far from her family and without a support team, Dekker goes where the wind takes her. In an exclusive excerpt of the film above, Dekker sails from French Polynesia to Australia.
In 2009, when Dekker first announced plans to sail the world, Dutch authorities prevented her from setting sail for a year. “Of course there are people who say you’re crazy, but it’s a dream. A great, great dream. I want to sail, I want to go around the world. I want to see all the places and not always the stupid same thing,” says Dekker at the start of the film. “I lived my first five years at sea and ever since, all I’ve wanted is to return to that life.” In January 2012, after 17 months at sea, Laura successfully completed her voyage.
In an interview with The Atlantic’s Video channel, filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger discusses the film:
The Atlantic: Why do you think Dekker’s voyage has been such a polarizing subject? After she finished sailing, and with Maidentrip on the festival circuit, has the conversation changed?
Jillian Schlesinger: I think anytime a young person is doing something so far outside the realm of what is considered normal and conventionally accepted, it ruffles a lot of feathers. Some people applaud and stand up for it, others call it insane and irresponsible. Everyone brings their own experiences and values to considering it, however I noticed the more I read the more it seemed Laura’s own voice was missing from the conversation about her voyage. Consequently, many opinions may have been formed without examining Laura’s unique circumstances and worldview. The film allows people into an extraordinarily remote and unique world. It’s hard to imagine being more at home and secure at sea than on land, but that is Laura’s reality. I think having Laura’s voice and perspective represented in the broader conversation about her story, free from the hyper-sensationalized media filter, has changed the conversation in many ways, especially challenging a lot of misguided, gender-biased language used to talk about her story early on. And now that the trip is in the past and she succeeded, that certainly changes things dramatically.
How did you come to meet Dekker and make the film?
I read about Laura in the New York Times in 2009 and immediately wanted to make the film. I spent some time thinking about the concept and approach and then reached out to Laura with a detailed illustrated proposal and a long personal letter about my experience and intentions. Laura connected to something in my proposal, responded, and we began discussing the details of how we would make this thing happen.
What were the biggest challenges in making Maidentrip a reality?
This was a very challenging first film to make, but I’m glad I didn’t go into it with that mindset. Most of the creative and logistical challenges were really exciting, like the challenge making a film about something unfolding as it’s being documented and happening largely outside of your presence and outside of your control. It required a lot of trust—trust in Laura, in other collaborators, in the universe. It’s crazy now to look back on how it all came together, but at the time it was all unfolding, it seemed so hard to imagine that it would eventually become something that people could see and react to.
What was your relationship with Dekker like during filming? How involved was she from a creative standpoint?
Laura’s creative input and our collaborative working relationship were essential to every stage of the filmmaking process . I would say our relationship has been much more of a deep friendship and creative partnership than what I imagine to be a typical filmmaker-subject bond, if there even is one. When I would go to meet her in various ports along her route, the filming was always a secondary consideration to our many adventures. While we often had a camera in tow, the spirit of our collaboration was much more akin to two friends working on a project together, rather than me, the filmmaker, making a film about Laura, the subject.
What is Dekker up to today?
Laura is living on her own in New Zealand, doing a bit of traveling and speaking about her experiences. She recently got her driver’s license. She’s also busy plotting her next adventure.