The first people to sail a ship around the world were the handful of survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition, which was completed in 1522. Joshua Slocum set the record for the first solo trip around the world on his boat Spray in 1898. Since then, circumnavigation has become a badge of honor with sailors chasing the dream of taking certain routes and completing the journey in the least amount of time.
Most people who even think about steering a boat around the world by themselves via wind power have many years, sometimes decades, of sailing experience under their belts. But for every 10 gray-haired circumnavigators there's one teenager willing to risk his or her life for the thrill of the ultimate adventure.
The governing body of around-the-world sailing, the World Sailing Speed Record Council, no longer recognizes the category of youngest (or oldest, or any other "human condition category") to sail around the world for two reasons: "Almost anyone would be able to claim a record of some sort," and "the verification of age/disability/marital status etc. is a less exact science" than monitoring and ratifying speed/time records.
Even still, teen sailors continue to make the trip, content to simply be known as the youngest person to sail solo around the planet. Here's the story behind the adventurers 18 years old and younger who have completed the trip.
In 2009, Zac Sunderland became the first person younger than 18 to sail solo around the world when he successfully completed his 13-month trip in Intrepid, the 36-foot boat he bought with $6,500 that he had saved up from after-school jobs. (He completed his trip without any major corporate sponsorship.) The California native set out on his trip in June 2008 when he was still 16 and finished in July 2009 before he became legally eligible to vote. He snatched the now-unrecognized record of youngest circumnavigator from Jesse Martin and held it for all of six weeks before losing it to 17-year-old English sailor Michael Perham, who was a few months younger when he completed his trip. (Zac's sister Abby attempted the same feat in January 2010 but was thwarted more than halfway through her quest when the mast of her boat Wild Eyes collapsed in heavy seas in the Indian Ocean that June, sparking a rescue mission.)
Though Australian Jesse Martin was a couple of weeks older than David Dicks when he completed his trip around the world in 1999, he grabbed the spot as the youngest person to sail around the world nonstop, unassisted and solo by avoiding taking help of the kind that David was forced to take. Jesse made his trip in his 34-foot boat, Lionheart-Mistral, documenting his journey in the book "Lionheart: A Journey of the Human Spirit." He traveled 27,000 nautical miles from December 1998 to October 1999, and was the impetus behind the World Sailing Speed Record Council discontinuing recognition for the youngest sailor to make a circumnavigation.
Michael Perham also held the unofficial title of the youngest person to sail solo around the world. According to the BBC, "his father was a merchant naval officer, his grandfather served with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and his great-grandfather was a Royal Marine in the Crimean war." Michael started sailing when he was 7 years old. In November 2008, he set out from Portsmouth, England, in a 50-foot yacht and in August 2009, he pulled back into Portsmouth at the ripe old age of 17 years and 164 days.
David Dicks set out on his trip in February 1996 from Fremantle, Australia, on a 34-foot boat named Seaflight. He spent the next nine months fighting his way through bad weather (four-story-high waves!), mechanical breakdowns and food poisoning, overcoming each challenge to grab the unofficial record for a solo, nonstop assisted circumnavigation. Unfortunately David lost the chance to claim his voyage as non-assisted when he accepted a bolt from the British Royal Navy mid-ocean to complete a repair vital to his continued efforts. Nevertheless, David, who was 18 when he completed his journey in November 1996, was hailed a hero in his native Australia.
Sixteen-year-old Laura Dekker of the Netherlands wrapped up her attempt in January 2012, giving her the new unofficial spot as the youngest to find success sailing solo around the world. But first she had to convince the government to let her try. A Dutch court put her under the guardianship of child protection authorities in October 2009 to block her from making the journey. The order was lifted in July 2010, and she set out on her voyage in her 38-foot boat Guppy in January 2011.
Honorable mention: Australian Jessica Watson sailed around the world alone from October 2009 to May 2010 at the age of 16, but some sailing experts note that because she didn't sail far enough north of the equator, her voyage would not be recognized as true circumnavigation by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.