I was 15 the first time I flew to a non-English-speaking country by myself, an experience at once terrifying, thrillingly adult and exceedingly small potatoes compared to that of Laura Dekker, the Dutch teenager who sailed around the world alone from 2010 to 2012 on a 40-foot boat called Guppy.
"Maidentrip" (at the Siskel Film Center through Thursday) is a video diary of sorts, combining footage Dekker shot at sea as she sailed westward from Holland, solo. She was 14 when she began the trip, and the resulting film is one of the more remarkable documentaries to play in Chicago this year so far. It is the real-world counterpart to Robert Redford's "All Is Lost," minus the big catastrophic event.
It doesn't hurt that Dekker herself is a compelling cinematic personality to tag along with for 90 minutes. Switching easily between Dutch and English, she is photogenic — never looking the worse for wear — with tousled blonde hair and freckles dotting her face. And she's funny, with a wry sense of humor about the ups and downs of her adventure, including her father's initial dismissal of the plan. "If you want to do this," he told her, "figure it out yourself." She was 13 at the time.
Midway across the Atlantic Ocean, early in the journey, the water looks deceptively calm. But you worry for her, even as she embraces the euphoria of sailing in solitude and exploring new places (which is why she took two years to complete her trip). There are consistent challenges as well — bad weather, gnarly reefs, a damaged boat and lack of wind — that could turn dire.
"I just started by figuring out routes," she says in the film (I was unable to reach her for this column), "looking at charts and Google Earth to see what it would look like and what I would need for the boat."
Her origin story reveals much. "I was born on a boat in New Zealand when my parents were sailing around the world," she says. Consider that; a woman nine months pregnant was sailing around the world with her husband when she gave birth.
Dekker spent the next five years living on that boat before her parents divorced; her mother was prone to seasickness and hated sailing, it turns out. Dekker's younger sister went to live with mom; Dekker went with dad, a boat builder who helped her buy (with money she earned from after school jobs) and rehab an inexpensive, crumbling boat that would become the Guppy.
Sponsors were lined up and plans were in motion when Dutch state authorities got wind of the project and sent a child protection officer "after me," as Dekker puts it.
An ensuing (and unsuccessful) court case attempted to not only thwart the voyage, but remove her from her father's custody and put her in a home for mentally ill children — which all seems a bit of an overreaction, but then again, who lets a 14-year-old take off by herself for two years? Forget the sailing part; what parent would be comfortable letting their 14-year-old travel the world unaccompanied and reliant on the kindness of strangers?
It's hard to imagine an American family — with its proverbial helicopter parents — being quite so on board with the voyage. Dekker's mother and sister visit her in the Caribbean when she docks in St. Maarten, and we see them playing with slingshots at the shoreline.
"Your nuts," Dekker tells her mother, watching her shoot rocks into the water.
"Well, yeah," comes the reply. "If not, I wouldn't have a daughter sailing around the world. That doesn't happen with normal parents."
What would prompt a 14-year-old to sail off by herself for so long? "After my parents' divorce, she lived somewhere else," Dekker says of her mother. "I tried to visit her every weekend but I had a feeling that there was too many things going on in my mom's life, and I was too much to handle." Talk about observant. You sense she has grown used to spending time by herself.
Director Jillian Schlesinger splices in old home movies as well as footage shot by new friends that Dekker meets in her many ports of call, including a wind-swept, deeply tanned American couple named Mike and Deana, who take Laura under their wing as they explore the tropics, sail through the massive locks of the Panama Canal and explore the Galapagos Islands.
"I felt like I had a family," she says after spending time with the pair, "just a normal family, and I was their daughter." Normalcy — or rather, ordinariness — has been missing from her life, but Dekker knows who she is and what she wants.
You never forget that she is just a kid, though. She is moody and petulant to a Dutch reporter in a way that screams "teenager." But aside from that brief flare-up (and another with her father), few adults seem as poised as Dekker. She is expert at entertaining herself when she is alone; crossing the equator, she marks the occasion by blasting Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" and wearing a paper tiara that she dubs "Neptune's crown."
Even the quieter moments reveal interesting bits. She cleans her pots but tying them to a rope and letting them drag alongside the boat in the water. Her food stores consist of canned goods, dried pastas and junk food. She films dolphins traveling alongside the boat and swallows back a lump: "I hope they swim along for a while," she says, "a bit of company."
It's been two years since Dekker circumnavigated the globe. She is the youngest person to do it alone. Now 18, she lives in New Zealand where she is studying for her captain's license and delivering yachts.
And as her website explains in succinct but meaningful terms: "She still lives on board her beloved Boat Guppy."
"Maidentrip" screens at the Siskel Film Center through Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/maidentrip.
Knuckles wrapped in foil
The Hanson Brothers, the bespectacled, brawling trio of hockey players featured in "Slap Shot," come to the Chicago area this weekend for screenings of the 1977 film. Of the three (who are legitimate hockey players, not actors), only two are actual brothers; that would be Jeff and Steve Carlson, with Dave "Killer" Hanson rounding out the group. At the Hollywood Blvd Cinema in Woodridge and the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville. Go to atriptothemovies.com.
Chicago ranking high
Coming off what is likely the strongest year yet in terms of TV and film spending in Illinois (the state estimates that figure to be $358 million in 2013; the hard numbers will come out in the spring) Chicago has just been named the best place to live and work by MovieMaker magazine.