When I was fourteen years old my greatest accomplishment was installing a homemade (from instructions) cable de-scrambler on my television so I could experience the late-night joys of Cinemax. By contrast, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker set out at fourteen 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.
I bet I’ve seen Hardbodies more than she has, though.
Maidentrip documents Dekker’s incredibly impressive adventure mostly through footage she took herself while sailing apart from friends, family and strangers alike. 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.”
Dekker’s larger journey of life began off New Zealand where she was born on a boat to parents who themselves had set out to sail the world. They made a home on land a few years later, but the saltwater bug was already coursing through Laura’s little veins. When her parents split up she chose to stay with the one who shared an affection for sailing, but life with her father also shaped her into an independent and self-sustaining child. That drive helped her win a ten-month-long court battle with the Dutch government who wanted to stop her plans to sail the world solo, even going so far as attempting to take custody away from her dad.
She set sail in August of 2010 intent on setting the age record, but while other teens focused on speed, Laura was more interested in seeing and experiencing the world around her. She made multiple stops along the way, and we see her time split between the solitary life aboard the Guppy and her brief, social excursions at various ports or with fellow sailors. Her initial jubilance is tempered by ravioli disasters and clumsiness as she learns to film while going about her business on a rocking boat, but even as her spirit sinks and nerves settle in at the beginning of the 2200 -mile stretch across the Atlantic ocean, she stays remarkably focused and controlled.
There are tense moments as storms approach, water gets in where it shouldn’t, and Laura works to navigate a deadly, reef-filled strait at night in the rain, but the film is filled with vitality, charm, and a sense of humor. Animated maps show the legs of the trip with watercolors and personalized little touches highlighting her dog Spot, where she was when she turned 15, and more that add a human touch. A scene counting the days trapped by dead winds in the Indian ocean features Laura joking that “bobbing on the waves for days” is enough to drive someone crazy, and it’s followed by her introducing a bird that had taken up residence on the boat. “I’m only speaking English to him,” she says straight-faced, “because he probably doesn’t understand Dutch.”
As mature and wise as Laura seems at times we’re constantly reminded that she’s also a teenage girl coming into her own. Her handheld videos aboard the Guppy often reveal a girl intentionally posing before the lens, highlighting a pretty face staring out from behind windblown hair and directly into the camera or off towards the distant horizon.
Director Jillian Schlesinger’s film mostly uses Laura’s own footage, but we also see scenes taken by third parties. Friends made along the way, family members who visit at the halfway point, and even the director herself points the camera Laura’s way revealing an abbreviated version of someone growing up before our eyes and ears. Laura’s priorities shift as her loneliness morphs into a preference for the solitary life at sea, and a distaste for people in general (and the media in particular) evolves into a love for individuals like her family and like-minded sailors.
The film runs a too-slim 82 minutes, and while there’s little here that could have been cut or altered there’s plenty more that could have been added. It’s a coming-of-age film in the guise of a sailing documentary, but both halves of that equation would benefit from more time on the ocean showing us Laura in action. We see glimpses of her working on deck in silence, but more time spent highlighting her growing expertise or showing her appreciation of the world she’s traversing through would not have been wasted.
Maidentrip is Schlesinger’s film to the point that she crafted and culled it from presumably hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of footage, but it’s undeniably Laura’s story. She’s already a “beyond her years” type when she begins the trip at fourteen, but by the time she pulls into St. Martin to complete the official journey at the grizzled old age of sixteen it’s clear that we’ve watched a confident girl grow into an accomplished and wise young woman. “It’s the end of the dream I had as a kid,” she says, “and it’s the beginning of my life as a sailor.” With any luck she’ll invite the rest of us along on another adventure soon.
The Upside: Laura Dekker is inspiring and charismatic; beautiful visuals; well-crafted in how it tells Laura’s story past and present
The Downside: Scene showing Laura arguing with Dutch journalist seems extraneous; more footage of the journey, with or without narration, would have been nice
On the Side: Laura Dekker has taken issue with the film, stating only that “I am not going to say much about the film Maidentrip, but I won’t be representing it as I am not fully standing behind it.”
Maidentrip opens this Friday in limited theatrical release.