There was a time when Laura Dekker must have felt the entire world was against her. At 14 she was too young and too immature, people claimed, to sail a large boat around the world by herself.
But a lot has changed since the Dutch adventurer shoved off from Gibraltar last Aug. 21, embittered by criticism and court proceedings that for a time had made her a ward of the state, on a quest to become the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the planet.
She has safely crossed the Atlantic and Pacific, and is in the Coral Sea aboard her beloved Guppy, a 38-foot twin-masted sailboat, bound for Darwin, Australia. Now 15, she's more than half way around the world, with the Indian Ocean representing her final major crossing.
What's remarkable is that Dekker -- who faced such harsh criticism and opposition in The Netherlands that she contemplated suicide -- has not experienced major troubles and has proved to be more skilled and independent than many people thought possible.
"It's easier to be so far from home than I thought," Dekker said in a statement released this week by her new manager, Lyall Mercer. "It's even better than I expected. It pretty much has become a lifestyle which I totally like."
Dekker ran away while in custody of the state child welfare agency, having somehow booked a flight by herself to the Dutch-controlled portion of St. Martin Island in the Caribbean. Ultimately, she was released from custody after winning the support of both of her divorced parents (her father had always supported her "dream" voyage while her mother originally opposed the journey).
Hers is the fifth attempt in two years by a teenage sailor aspiring to become the youngest to have solo-circumnavigated the planet. Southern California's Zac Sunderland completed a 13-month circumnavigation in 2009, at 17, and briefly held the distinction. England's Mike Perham, a slightly younger 17, stole that honor a month later.
Australia's Jessica Watson completed a non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation in May of 2010, just days before turning 17. Following not far behind, on the same daunting Southern Ocean route, was Abby Sunderland, Zac's sister. She was 16 when she was rescued after her 40-foot boat was damaged by a large wave in the southern Indian Ocean.
Dekker's journey most closely resembles that of Zac Sunderland: westerly and with multiple stops; more of a see-the-world adventure than a dash around the planet. It began with a jaunt from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands, where she laid over for three months before crossing the Atlantic.
She enjoyed a lengthy stay in the Caribbean, as well, benefiting from the hospitality of various yacht clubs.
After passing through the Panama Canal, she visited the Galapagos Islands, where she met other sailors and went diving with large sharks, and conquered her fears of the predators.
"Those were exactly the sharks of my nightmares, and they did no harm to me," she wrote in her blog. "About ten of them swam below me and they were not interested in us at all."
With the careful planning of her father and good fortune, Dekker, who has an extensive sailing background, enjoyed a relatively smooth crossing of the Pacific, too.
"She has copped a few big waves that have thrown her around and she lost a couple of things overboard in the process," Mercer said. "But nothing that has slowed her down."
She's not entirely lonely, either, thanks to sophisticated communications equipment and notably Skype, which enables her to visit face-to-face with family and friends. In her most recent column for a Dutch newspaper she touched on those visits, and getting to see her beloved dog, Spot.
"He barks when he hears my voice and then searches for me at home; he does not really understand where I am," Dekker wrote.
To reach Darwin she must negotiate the infamous reef-strewn Torres Strait between Papua New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula in northeast Australia. Her many fans will be pulling for her and among them is Pat Henry, a fellow adventurer who completed her circumnavigation in 1997 and authored a book, "By the Grace of the Sea."
Henry, who lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, said of Dekker: "I hope that her story serves to awaken in her peers a sense of possibilities. The message she conveys is: If you believe in yourself, have a dream, and prepare yourself to follow it, almost anything is possible. At a time when much of the adult world is caught up in negativity, here is a young woman following her heart."
-- Images courtesy of Laura Dekker