Published October 13. 2012 4:00AM Updated October 13. 2012 7:22PM
Stonington - When Laura Dekker walked into a packed classroom at New England Science & Sailing in the borough Thursday night wearing jeans, boots and a lime hoodie, she looked like any other 17-year-old girl.
The difference is that on Jan. 20, 2011, when she was just 15, the Dutch teen set off in a sailboat from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean on a 366-day, 27,000-mile journey. When she finished the trip on Jan. 21 of this year, she had become the youngest person to sail around the world solo. She was 16 years, 123 days old.
On Thursday night, the poised and humorous Dekker entertained about 100 people while describing her trip, showing photos and videos and answering questions that ranged from what kind of sails she used to how she kept up with schoolwork.
Aboard her 38-foot ketch, Guppy, she battled storms with 25-foot seas, long periods without any wind, equipment breakdowns and birds that made a mess of her boat.
She worked and made friends at the ports she visited, subsisted on spaghetti and spent last Christmas by herself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a small Christmas tree and presents her parents had given her in South Africa.
Dekker admitted that, at times, the trip was boring. "But I enjoyed the quiet out there - the quiet on the boat," she said, describing a 48-day passage to South Africa. "After four weeks, I didn't care if it was five, six or seven weeks."
Dekker grew up much differently from most children, living aboard a boat for the first five years of her life, sailing with her parents. The family eventually moved back to their native Holland.
Dekker began sailing when she was 6 and racing when she was 8. At age she 11 began taking multiweek sailing trips on her own off the coast of Holland and in the North Sea.
When she was 13 she sailed to England by herself without telling her father, with whom she has lived since she was 5. "The police there didn't think it was a good idea and I got in a little trouble," she said.
"After that trip," Dekker told the rapt audience, "I wanted to sail around the world. It was a dream I had since I was 8."
Dekker then began a yearlong court battle with the Dutch government, which opposed her plan even though both her parents had given her permission. The government eventually relented and let her parents decide.
Dekker's quest, along with those of other teens seeking to accomplish such feats as climbing Mount Everest, prompted an international debate about the wisdom of allowing people so young to participate in such potentially dangerous activities.
'I wanted to go further'
Dekker's trip really began in August 2010, when she was 14. She and her father set off from Holland to Gibraltar aboard the red-hulled boat, which features a cartoon-style guppy painted near the bow. From there, she left on her own for the Canary Islands and Cape Verde.
She said that first trip was scary. "I was out there by myself with nothing to do," she recalled. "But after that I wanted to go further."
Dekker then made the 2,400-mile crossing to the Caribbean, where she visited some of the islands. Sint Maarten became her official starting point, as she was not planning to sail back to Holland. She then traversed the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean.
"That felt like a big step," she said. "Before that I felt like I could turn around. But now I had to keep going."
She said the Pacific was where she saw the most sea life. She showed a video of dolphins, white tip reef sharks, hammerheads, spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles, spotted snake eels, exotic fish and pelicans.
Birds, however, she did not like, even though one stayed with her for a week. "The birds are annoying because they (expletive) on your boat," she said. "They (expletive) on your solar panels, and that was the only way I could get power."
Dekker wore a safety harness at all times, and one day a wave knocked over her boat. She had left some of the hatches open, she said, and she "had a wet and salty bed for the next 30 days."
The storms challenged her sailing ability, Dekker said, but the windless days were worse because she made no progress.
She loved squalls, however: "The rain showers were epic because I finally got a chance to shower."
For half the trip Dekker had no equipment to get weather reports and just dealt with whatever came up. "It's better not knowing, because then you think about it for two days," she said.
When she completed her trip, she was greeted by her father, mother and sister - who is in the circus.
Dekker, who speaks English, Dutch and German, said she especially liked going ashore by herself and meeting people.
Asked about the threat of pirates, she said she avoided the Red Sea and turned off her GPS in places so no one could track her. Off Australia, she said, a "weird vessel" followed her for a while but turned away after customs planes flew overhead.
'What do you do now?'
Dekker said that as she neared Sint Maarten, she wasn't looking forward to the end of the journey. "You dream about a trip like this for so long and then you finally finish," she said. "What do you do now? I hadn't thought about that."
Since completing the voyage Dekker has sailed the Guppy back to New Zealand, where she plans to live, making stops in the South Pacific along the way. This time she had a crew because she said she now wants to share her experiences with other people.
She's finishing a book about her exploits, and a movie is being made. She's spent the past few weeks in New York, working aboard a schooner and speaking to groups such as the one on Thursday night. She will return to New Zealand in a few days.
Dekker said she wants to get back into racing, get her captain's license and eventually finish high school, when she gets the time. "I always get that question," she joked when someone asked her about school.
She said the best places she visited were the islands of the South Pacific, such as the Marquesas, Tonga, Fiji and Bora Bora. She warned one audience member thinking of visiting the Galapagos to avoid one of the islands because of its many sea lions.
"I don't know how they do it, but they climb on everything," she said of the large marine mammals. "I woke up one night and there was (a) sea lion lying in my cockpit. Three steps further and he would have ended up next to me in bed."
When the same sailor asked her how hard it was for her to get a permit to land in the Galapagos, Dekker said she just sailed in. "I gave them some money and they handed me a permit," she said nonchalantly.
Asked about the biggest lesson she learned on the trip, Dekker responded with one that many parents of teenage girls might wish their daughters would learn.
"I learned that a house does not clean itself," she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.