When does solo equal stupid?

In my neverending consumption of solo-travel-related media, last weekend while trawling Netflix for something to occupy me, I stumbled on Maidentrip, about Laura Dekker‘s solo sailing trip around the world. She was 14 when she started and 16 when she finished, and now holds the record for youngest person to sail around the world alone. Before she left, she had to endure a 10 month court battle with the Dutch government, who were trying to decide if it was necessary to remove her from her father and not allow her to make the trip.

After some Googling, I found a few things that said Laura wasn’t a great fan of the way the movie portrays her trip (or at least, she initially wasn’t), and although I do think the film is actually pretty good, I can understand why she’d feel that way even without knowing exactly what happened. She was clearly irritated at the presence of the media whenever they popped up as she just wanted to get on with it. Even without the high profile court case to begin with, I’m sure the attention would have been unwelcome.

There’s a scene in the film where she’s being interviewed by a journalist that I think was meant to be sort of following the trip, and Laura spends most of it trying to get the journalist to stop asking questions she doesn’t like. And to be fair, the questions ARE ridiculous. Also, she’s 15 at that point – at that age, if I’d spent most of the last year on my own running my own life and a whole boat as I pleased, I’d be pretty peeved at the stuff that woman was asking as well.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that the trip wasn’t so much about the world record for her, but more about seeing if she could do it. I get that. But a lot of people still believe it’s stupid to let a 14 year old attempt to sail around the world on her own. You have to wonder what being completely by yourself in the middle of the ocean can do to your mind when you don’t have the experience of time and age. I mean, in one way, 14-16 is THE BEST time for a teenage girl to be hanging out on her own piloting a boat, because I know I was quite happy to tell the world to piss off most of the time at that point in my life. And what a treat to focus on sailing and what’s going on inside your own head instead of the horrors of growing up in the age of Facebook and crappy mass-media. But then you also miss the part where you learn to deal with the fact that the world is still there even when you’d LIKE for it to fuck right off. And that is a necessary life skill.

I don’t think most 14-year-olds are at a stage where they’re ready to take their life in their own hands like that. But I do think that after 10 months of battling the state, it’s pretty apparent that it wasn’t some fleeting thought Laura Dekker had, to sail around the world. She had a ton of experience and more or less grew up on the water. And her father obviously cares a lot about her and knows his shit when it comes to boats, so there’s no way a parent would give their kid the go-ahead to do such a trip if they didn’t have complete faith in the kid’s capability. Sure, she didn’t know much in terms of Life In The World, but then plenty of adults are complete morons regardless of the fact they’ve had more time on the planet, so, case-by-case basis, I say.

Last weekend just before watching Maidentrip I also finished Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless‘s ill-fated attempt to live off the land in Alaska, and how he got to that point. I was talking about the intersection of these two of these things to my friend Chris in the pub the other night because we’ve talked about this book before and I know he thinks that this motivation to go off and do extreme things on one’s own is a mostly male phenomenon. I still think that opinion comes from the fact that women are stopped more often than men from any personal quests that don’t sit well with society’s perception of what normal human beings SHOULD do, and that when they aren’t stopped, you don’t often hear about them.

It doesn’t mean he’s wrong though. Societal conditioning or whatever it is, it may still be a fact. I don’t think women lack the same motivation, I think men just have a lot more to spur them on. And some kind of ideal masculine mythology to aspire to – which may also cause an extra blind sort of stupidity in itself. On top of all that, I think McCandless had a borderline dangerous idealistic view of his own life fueled in part by the kind of impressionable undergraduate experience of Reading Lots Of Things And Fiercely Believing Them that I am incredibly familiar with.

Anyway, Chris thinks it’s stupid to have let Laura Dekker go sail around the world alone. Partially because she’s young and you know nothing about anything when you’re young. Which, true, particularly the fact that you don’t even know how you YOURSELF work in relation to the world. So fair enough. I just don’t know if that’s a good enough reason for it to be stupid.

Then he said, ‘What if she had died?’ Well. Chris McCandless died and he was nearly a decade older. A lot of people think he was an idiot for doing what he did. It seems to me he was pretty aware of what he was getting himself into. Overconfident and overoptimistic, possibly, but also mostly just unlucky. And anyone can be unlucky in any situation. I nearly got rammed by an asshole in a car when I was on my bike in a roundabout the other day. I could have died and I was just going about my normal life.

Chris McCandless died doing something he felt some unstoppable need to do. He wasn’t NOT going to do it. Laura Dekker was also not going to be stopped. If the state had managed to stop her at 14 she’d have just waited til she was legally an adult and done it anyway. And what if she did die? Well. It would really suck, but also, she’d have been doing what she wanted. Maybe that’s stupid. Maybe it’s not. If it is, it may only be so because of the pain it causes other people rather than how it affects the person doing the doing.

Not letting someone stop you doing something a bit out of the ordinary is a brand of determination that not many people have the guts to carry off. That alone can’t get you through the perils of a solo sailing trip around the world, but I don’t think you could begin to even consider such an undertaking without it.

I have some gumption but I can’t claim to have the kind of hard edge McCandless had and Dekker has. In Into the Wild, there’s a whole section where Jon Krakauer relates his own story of climbing a mountain on his own when he nearly died about 3 separate times. He kept going back at it every single time. And I think THAT’S pretty stupid.

That is about ten levels up from the kind of determination I posses. I mean, the term ‘risk assessment’ is pretty much a joke to me due to my current corporate employers, but there comes a point when you have to read the situation for what it really is. Krakauer himself admits that it was relatively ridiculous, even if only for the fact that conquering that mountain without dying did not change his life in the way he imagined it would as a younger man. No one really cared in the way he hoped they would. No one ever really does in these situations. They only care enough to rip you apart if you happen to fail.

The only reason we’re even talking about Chris McCandless is because he died. Laura Dekker did not die, and I bet she wishes we weren’t talking about her.

Maybe some of the ten levels up determination comes from preferring death to being pilloried, but there’s two different solo motivations at work here, and I think they often work in tandem even if you bring only one of them to the fore. There’s proving it to yourself and proving it to the world.  If proving it to the world is something you’re concerned about, it doesn’t typically end well. But even proving something to yourself isn’t always the life balm you think it’s going to be. And both are selfish. It’s good to be a little selfish sometimes. It’s also sometimes a little stupid.

I’m not doing anything I think is all that crazy, and the reason I’m traveling alone is because the lack of a companion isn’t something I’ll let stop me doing and seeing what I want. For Laura Dekker, being alone was most of the point. But there is something in the root of her attitude that I hope is related to the root of mine: the scrappy, fuck-it-I’ll-do-what-I-want foundation. And as stupid as I think Krakauer was for throwing himself back at that mountain multiple times, that foundation is there too, and I get it. I’m astonished it can go that far, but I do get it.

I think what Laura Dekker did is awesome. Not because of a record or her age, but because it was fucking hard and it would have been so easy to give up. At any point. And she didn’t. And then she reached her goal and STILL didn’t stop. She was lucky a few times when she could have been unlucky, but luck or lack of luck isn’t what drives that kind of experience, it just happens to have terminal possibilities. There are a few people that can stare that down. There are more people who can admire them for it, on at least some level. Then there’s everyone else.

My favourite bit of Maidentrip is what is presumably Christmas day, or close to it, when Laura is at sea in tropical weather blasting a punk cover of a Christmas song and dancing all over the deck of the boat in a Santa hat. People always seem to be so concerned about me (or anyone) spending Christmas alone in a far away place. But it’s just a day. And in that moment, she is loving it.

Laura Dekker on Guppy
Laura Dekker on Guppy

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