Maiden Trip (2013, dir. Jillian Schlesinger, with Laura Dekker) documents the nearly two-year voyage of a teenage girl, Laura Dekker, as she circumnavigates the globe in a 30-foot vessel. Dekker shot much of the footage during her voyage. She is 14 when she embarks, and 16 when she finishes. She sails alone. No one accompanies her. It’s certainly remarkable that she did what she did. The film coveys the isolation of long sea voyages. We see Dekker change and grow more confident as the months pass. At first, as she makes her way across the Atlantic towards the Panama Canal, she is easily bored. But she makes friends along the way and celebrates when she crosses the equator. When she enters the Pacific, she begins to feel the enormity of what she is undertaking.
This is an interesting, impressive, and relatively short documentary about an unusual feat. But what interested me most was Dekker’s narration about her family, her parents’ broken marriage, her distant relationship with her mother, her relationship with her father, with whom she lived before the voyage. Her attitudes towards her family are ambiguous, as one would expect of a teenager, but increasingly in the film it becomes clear that her sea voyage is not just something she wants to do. It’s an escape--from her family, from the Netherlands. Her vessel, the Guppy, becomes her home because she has no other home. The sea voyage is also her assertion (somewhat precociously) of her entry into adulthood. After it’s over, instead of returning to the father and the Netherlands, she sets sail for New Zealand, with a young man whom she calls a member of her crew but who may also be a romantic partner.
Dekker struck me as lonely and as damaged by her family experience. She comes to love the solitude of the ocean. She’s not fazed by rough waves and difficult conditions. She doesn’t like crowds or socializing, and is bothered by the people who treat her as a celebrity when the voyage is over. Frankly, as a parent, I cannot imagine sending off a 14 year old to a 2-year sea voyage by herself. It seems the worst sort of parenting. Undeniably Dekker has great skills as a sailor. Her father clearly loves her and helps her prepare for the voyage. He must have helped to finance it. Halfway through the voyage, somewhere in South Asia, he meets her and helps renovate and repair the boat. But you have to wonder: exactly what was he thinking? What would compel a parent to release a child to such a dangerous, difficult experience, one that most adults could not handle? For me this film is not, as some might want it to be, a feminist assertion of self-hood, or a coming of age tale. I see it as the document of neglectful parenting and a failed family.