Circumnavigating the authorities

Why were the parents of the Dutch teen who sailed the world deemed incapable of deciding what's best for their child?

Gabrielle Shiner

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Topics Politics

Last month, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker became the youngest sailor ever to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world. This was a phenomenal achievement, requiring incredible personal courage and endurance. But marring her celebrations was the fact that the Guinness Book of Records failed to recognise her achievement on the grounds that it was deemed ‘irresponsible’. Furthermore, Dekker has claimed she may never return to her home country due to the treatment of her, and her parents, by meddling Dutch authorities.

Laura Dekker began sailing alone when she was just six years old. By the age of 13, she had single-handedly completed a trip from the Netherlands to Britain and back. Her proven ability and determination convinced her parents to let her try to realise her ambition to break the record for being the youngest person to sail around the world solo. And last month, at the age of 16 years and four months, she did indeed beat the unofficial record set by Australian teenager Jessica Watson, who was days away from her seventeenth birthday when she completed her voyage in 2010.

Her struggle to achieve this record almost pales in comparison to the struggle to circumnavigate officialdom in order to make the attempt. Strikingly, it was actually the interfering British authorities that caused Dekker’s troubles to begin back in 2009. Following her solo return trip to Britain, police there intervened and tipped off Dutch child welfare authorities who, as a result, began intervening in Dekker’s stated plans to circumnavigate the world. When she turned 14, the Dutch government ruled that she was too young to sail alone.

The young girl and her father, who supported her trip, were brought to court six times as the Netherlands Bureau of Youth Care attempted to take Dekker under guardianship. After she made an attempt to escape to the Dutch Caribbean island, Saint Maarten, she was arrested and brought back to the Netherlands. In her blog, Dekker recalls that ‘over a period of 11 months, I was constantly afraid that Youth Care would lock me up… It was all a frightening and traumatic experience.’

The Dutch authorities’ reaction to Laura Dekker shows that they have become a Frankenstein of the mentality that inspired the introduction of menacing tobacco labels and countless similar policies. The doctrine that individuals need to be saved from themselves has unleashed a swarm of crusading bureaucrats who relentlessly raid our private lives. Joost Lanshage of the Netherlands Bureau of Youth Care exemplified this pervasive creed as he protested, ‘If Laura had drowned we would be accused of not doing enough to protect her.’ Lanshage assumes his responsibility over both Laura and her parents with uncanny ease. More alarming, however, is Lanshage’s testimony that this is what society has come to expect from public authorities.

Forfeiting judgment to a faceless state erodes the importance of personal interactions as it undermines our dependence on family, friends, and community. The state’s hijacking of the responsibility for our lives also robs us of the ability to exercise and develop our personal judgment. This crucial aspect of our development is being debilitated by the craze to squeeze individuals into the shrinking mould of acceptable citizenship. Denying us the right to take risks, enjoy successes and suffer through mistakes restricts our ability to act according to our individual values and develop purposefully. We’re sacrificing our individual autonomy for the comfort of apathetic mediocrity.

As this process continues, unique approaches to life and education increasingly become unacceptable. After Dekker mentioned on her blog that she had to temporarily put schoolwork aside in the face of dangerous storms at sea, Dutch authorities mounted their high horses once again and summoned Laura’s father to court. While the 16-year-old conquered innumerable challenges that the vast majority of adults would not be capable of facing alone, authorities back in the Netherlands fretted at the idea that she would fall behind with her school work. As Dekker rightfully reflected on her blog towards the end of her journey, ‘Now, after sailing around the world, with… the full responsibility of keeping myself and [her boat] Guppy safe, I feel that the nightmares the Dutch government organisations put me through were totally unfair.’

Exhibiting the disturbing nature of our culture of conceded autonomy, Lanshage asserted, ‘I am sorry Laura is traumatised, but I have no regrets about fulfilling our responsibility to this child.’ Ultimately, the authorities’ accomplishments amounted to delaying Dekker’s trip, imposing a series of costly safety regulations, and traumatising her along the way. It is unclear what responsibility Lanshage could be claiming to have fulfilled, if not a responsibility ruthlessly to bully an individual because of her entrepreneurial attitude towards her own life. The state’s appetite for macro-managing society has metamorphosed into the self-indulgent micro-management of individuals, dangerously coupled with an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality.

Personal responsibility and the informal authority of close relationships have been appropriated as sacrificial lambs fit for slaughter at the altar of public paternalism. If Laura Dekker had been harmed during her journey, Laura and her family would have been the ones to suffer. By trampling over their authority, the state disrespectfully undermines this intimate relationship. If people want to take risks with their own lives, it isn’t the role of you or me or the state to do anything about it. We should commend Laura for bravely challenging our complacency by turning off autopilot and steering her own course.

Gabrielle Shiner is on the executive board of European Students For Liberty and studies English at Queen Mary, University of London.

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