Just four months ago Laura Dekker was a carefree 13-year-old with an extraordinary dream — to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. On Tuesday, police hauled her home — clutching a suitcase and guitar — from a mystery trip to the Caribbean, and child care workers sought to remove her from her father's custody.
Dutch judges quashed Laura's dream in August when they ruled she was too inexperienced to set off in a sailboat on her own. They came to the same conclusion in a second judgment in October, and appointed a guardian to ensure she did not try to set sail anyway.
The decisions, and the media attention surrounding them, sent Laura into a downward spiral that is thought to have led to her running away from home last week and flying, apparently alone, 5,000 miles to the Dutch Caribbean territory of St. Maarten.
Police are investigating how she managed to get there via Paris with $5,000 in cash and why she left in the first place. European rules bar children from flying alone on intercontinental flights without permission from a parent. Police interviewed Laura on Tuesday as soon as she landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, but gave no details of what she told them.
Laura's lawyer, Peter de Lange, later told reporters that she sidestepped the European regulations by flying out of Paris on her New Zealand passport. Laura has dual nationality because she was born on a boat in New Zealand while her parents were sailing around the world.
Police are investigating whether she got help boarding the plane.
"I don't think she did it alone, but we are not sure," said police spokesman Bernhard Jens. He declined to elaborate and said police had no immediate plans to interview her father, who is divorced from Laura's mother.
'Built a shield around herself'
A family spokeswoman complained that Laura's lawyer was not present for the questioning.
De Lange spoke as he waited for a court's decision on youth welfare workers' request to remove Laura from her father's home. He said Laura planned to spend the night at friends of the family.
Laura's grandparents on her father's side blame welfare workers for transforming her.
"Since the Bureau of Youth Care got involved, we have seen Laura change from a positive teenager into a child who has built a shield around herself and lost all trust in adults," Dick and Riek Dekker wrote in a letter published Tuesday in the Dutch press.
The letter offered a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a family that has wrapped itself in privacy even while Laura's risky quest ignited worldwide debate about the extent to which parents should allow youngsters to pursue their dangerous dreams.
Even in the Netherlands, where liberal parenting is the norm, Laura, now 14, was widely seen as too young to embark on the voyage.
The case became a public sensation when child welfare authorities read about Laura's plans in the media and asked Utrecht District Court for an injunction preventing her setting sail.
Life under sail is second nature to the blonde girl born on a boat in New Zealand. Judges examining her case have repeatedly said that nobody questions her sailing ability.
On her Web site, Laura says she was sailing a small dinghy across a local lake single-handed when she was 6 and alone up the Dutch coast and around inland canals when she was 10 — encountering more problems with lock keepers than with battling bad weather.
Even so, the farthest she sailed alone to prepare for her round-the-world voyage was across the North Sea to southeastern Britain and back.
Parents under scrutiny
In October, judges said they were so concerned about her ability to cope with the grueling trip that setting sail then would have formed "a serious threat to the child's interests," even though Laura had arranged to have an experienced sailor shadow her throughout her trip.
They put her voyage on ice at least until July 2010, and told her to improve her preparations — at the time, she had not taken a first-aid course or practiced sleep management techniques essential for a single-handed sailor who can only snatch quick naps throughout the voyage.
They also appointed a Bureau of Youth Care guardian to discuss any important decisions about Laura's life with her father. Under Dutch law, Laura is considered a minor until she is 18.
The court had said in July that the father realized the dangers of Laura's plans and the necessity to take precautions.
"The way he brings up Laura has prompted fierce public debate, but does not mean he is a bad parent," the court wrote.
Laura lives with her father. Her mother has grudgingly given her permission for her to sail, but only if she is convinced her daughter has taken all necessary precautions.
The court's refusals to let her sail hit Laura hard, and left her with a "gut feeling" that judges again would prevent her from launching next year as well, her spokeswoman Mariska Woertman said.
"For her it was a big disappointment that the judges wouldn't let her go," Woertman said. "For a child of 14 years old it's probably a bit difficult to grasp."
The youngest person to sail solo around the world is 17-year-old Mike Perham of Britain. Australian 16-year-old Jessica Watson, is currently trying to beat Perham's record.
Shortly after he grabbed the record in August, Perham put Laura's quest in perspective.
"It's whether she's got the physical strength, the mental strength and the technical ability," he said. "You know, can she strip an engine blindfolded? You know, can she build boats? Is she an electrician? Is she a mechanic as well? Because you can't just be a sailor to do a trip like this."