Many moons ago, while toiling in the salt mines at Cruising World as an associate editor, I procured and edited for the magazine an amazing story about a man named Hans Klaar. Written by James Baldwin (you can read the original manuscript on his website here), the story told of Klaar's unusual childhood aboard a Thai cargo junk. It was like something out of The Swiss Family Robinson… on steroids.
It told also of Klaar's adult life. Of how he'd purchased a 51-foot Wharram Tehini catamaran, sold off its aluminum spars, and re-rigged it with Polynesian crab-claw sails. Of how he had wandered the Indian Ocean making a living as an itinerant cruising trader. Of how he hoped someday to build his own 75-foot Polynesian voyaging cat and explore the Pacific.
Just two years ago, when I met James Wharram and Hanneke Boon for the first time in Mystic, Connecticut, I had merely to mention Hans Klaar in passing… and the three of us fell into something like a collective swoon.
So you can imagine my surprise, and dismay, when I learned this week that soon after the story I prepared appeared in the July 1998 issue of Cruising World, Klaar was convicted of rape in South Africa and was sentenced to six years in prison. Ever since August 1999, when he lost his appeal, he has been on the run, sailing the world, and was finally taken into custody again in South Africa just last month.
According to one account appearing in the South African press, the episode that led to his initial arrest, which took place in Durban in March 1996, was pretty grim. After luring a 25-year-old student into his dinghy and out into the middle of Durban harbor, Klaar reportedly held her down and forcibly raped her. At one point "he stood over her like a Viking conqueror, grinning while performing a sexual act."
Another account by Dr. Martinique Stilwell, who first met Klaar when he was a teenager and later encountered him as a young man, clearly implies that the 1996 incident was not an isolated one:
Both Hans and his younger brother, Alex, were tall and strong and had a feral quality, which attracted a steady stream of girlfriends. They did not treat women well and often boasted about how they loved Thailand, where prostitutes were so cheap. One night on the beach that summer I learned to my detriment that Hans was not very good at listening when a woman said no.
Stilwell also suggests that Alex Klaar may have once committed a grisly murder:
News trickled into Richards Bay in 2006 via sailors coming from Hellville, Madagascar, that Michael Klein, another long-time cruising trader, had been found decapitated on his yacht with his head in his lap and that Alex Klaar had allegedly been jailed in connection with the crime.
Then word spread that the murder had been declared unsolved due to lack of evidence, that Alex had been released and was allegedly once again ferrying cheap rum from Madagascar to the Comoros Islands.
(You can read more about this incident, from the perspective of a cruiser who was in Hellville at the time, at this intriguing link here.)
How did Hans and his brother grow to be so "feral?"
Their childhood, as I said, was quite an adventure. As James Baldwin relates in his story, Hans' father Ernst suddenly gave up his job at a Swiss chemical company and moved the family to Thailand when Hans (the oldest of three children) was just 8. Ernst bought an old 52-foot junk, dubbed it Maria-Jose, and supported his family carrying cargo around the Indian Ocean.
The Klaars suffered various misfortunes--Maria-Jose was dismasted in a storm at sea and later was badly damaged again in a typhoon in northern Australia--but finally they hit paydirt. In 1976 Ernst launched a rudimentary treasure-hunting expedition and the family found the wreck of a 15th century Portuguese galleon, the Santiago, lying submerged in the Mozambique Channel. It was Hans, then 14, who first discovered the ship's remains when he spotted coral-encrusted cannons protruding from a reef. For a while the family lived well off the treasure they recovered, but eventually the money ran out and they resumed their wanderings on Maria-Jose.
Dr. Stilwell, who grew up on a yacht herself and evidently knew the Klaar family well, paints a somewhat bleaker picture of Hans' upbringing. Ernst, she writes, cared little for his children's educations (there was also a daughter, Inge) and was concerned only that the two boys learn to navigate and sail. In Stilwell's words:
For nearly 20 years the family scrounged and bartered their way around the Indian Ocean, succumbing intermittently to malaria and living almost exclusively on the fish they caught and the rice and beans they kept in two barrels inside their otherwise empty junk.
At age 22, hoping to study marine biology, Hans sought admission to the University of Hawaii, but was not accepted. Spurned by the conventional world, anxious to strike out on his own, he bought a 36-foot plywood catamaran with money he made from a yacht delivery and followed the only life he knew, carrying small cargoes around the Indian Ocean under sail.
Eventually Hans married, had children of his own, and upgraded to the 51-foot Wharram cat, Rapa Nui, that he was sailing when he met James Baldwin in Trinidad in the 1990s. Hans described his first passage on Rapa Nui to Baldwin in some detail, and spoke contemptuously of two crew who got seasick and later jumped ship: "Complainers and pleasure babies must stay out of my way. I have no time for them."
A fugitive from justice (we now know), Hans wandered the world on Rapa Nui for several years and eventually sold her. In 2007, he realized the dream he had described to Baldwin and built a 71-foot crab-claw-rigged asymmetric double canoe out of raw tree trunks in West Africa. He named the boat Ontong Java and set out for the Pacific.
Among those now following Klaar's exploits was Jim Wharram, who regularly received e-mails from the itinerant voyager. Wharram hailed Klaar's building of Ontong Java as a "heroic, mind-boggling achievement" and tracked his progress across the Pacific online. Ironically, according to one South African news account, it may have been a website post by Wharram on December 11, 2009, that led to Klaar's being detained in New Zealand just three days later after he entered the country illegally. He was held in New Zealand for over a year before finally being extradited to South Africa last month.
I have to say I find all this at least mildly depressing. Hans Klaar was a mythic figure to me, and now that myth is shattered. I think every cruising sailor, in some corner of his or her mind, dreams of living entirely outside the boundaries of modern civilization, and Klaar seemed a very acute personification of that ideal. But in fleeing civilization we cannot abandon morality. If anything, IMHO, cruisers should aspire to be more moral than the societies they leave in their wake.
To put it more bluntly: we may look down on the complainers and pleasure babies of the modern world, but we should not assault or abuse them.
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