A Law Unto Himself - Kris Larsen Sailing his Steel Junk

Excerpt from the book The Next Distant Sea by James Baldwin

A Law Unto Himself

The Unlegislated Adventures of Kris Larsen

 

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The 33-foot steel junk Kehaar careened for bottom painting on the beach in Madagascar

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Escape From Communism; Life in the Wind

On most days along the northwest coast of Madagascar I could set my watch by the onset of the afternoon sea breeze. Early each morning the lateen-rigged dhows they called butra or sambu, along with outrigger sailing lakas carrying cargo and passengers from the mainland, passed by our anchorage at Nosy Komba on their way to the market in Hell-Ville. The lakas carried a single square sail whose upper corners were held aloft by two long poles angled up and out from the deck. The rig worked well for running with the morning land breeze behind them but was hopeless for sailing against the wind. It did not matter. After discharging their cargoes in Hell-Ville, they simply waited until the afternoon sea breeze set in to carry them back home.

The extensive range of mountains running the entire length of Madagascar shields the dry west coast from the Indian Ocean trade winds carrying abundant rain to the tropical rain forests of the east coast. Between the months of May and November, the southeast monsoon was in full force on Madagascar’s east coast. But due to the blocking effect of the mountains, the west coast weather was characterized by clear skies and no prevailing wind system, which set up perfect conditions for a classic land and sea breeze effect.

By definition, unless a prevailing counter-wind system is present, a sea breeze can begin when the land is heated by the sun to a temperature well above that of the adjacent seawater. As the warm air over the land rises, the cooler air close to the sea is sucked in to replace it. The heated air then moves over the water, cools, and sinks to complete the cycle. A sea breeze will seldom last more than an hour or two after sunset, and on cloudy days it will have less effect or may not develop at all. As the nighttime land surface becomes cooler than the water, the flow is reversed. The offshore-flowing land breeze generally gets started before midnight after an interval of calm and lasts until midmorning. The nocturnal land breeze we encountered along Madagascar’s west coast was sometimes enhanced by the influence of the trade winds that flowed down the mountains. Weather fronts and passing low pressure cells also have an influence on the development of a land or sea breeze. It takes an adept weather eye and considerable experience out on the water before you can accurately account for all the variables. Yet you can make a rough prediction of the maximum strength of the sea breeze by anticipating about 2 knots of wind speed for every degree Celsius of difference between the water and land temperatures. In practice, a hot sunny day along Madagascar’s west coast often meant a sea breeze of up to 15 knots.

Early one morning at Nosy Komba, as I was scanning the horizon from the cockpit, I spotted a junk-rigged sail on the horizon. It was so distant that the boat’s hull remained below the horizon. Throughout the morning the floating sail drifted on the currents, working in closer, then getting set back again. The morning had been cloudy, which lessened the normal sail-filling sea breeze to under ten knots. By late afternoon the flush-decked black hull finally gained the bay and anchored nearby. Moments later its skipper had furled his sail, launched a tiny outrigger canoe, and disappeared ashore.

The next morning I rowed over to the strange craft and was invited aboard by the solo skipper. The tall, tanned bronze, and bearded 40-year-old introduced himself as Kris Larsen. He said he had just arrived after a slow 200-mile passage from the French Island of Mayotte. Kris gave me a brief tour of his steel boat, first pointing out the heavy but simple unstayed solid wood mast and control lines for the single sail. We slid through a small round hatch in the flush deck like dropping into an amphibious tank. Inside of the mostly empty hull was fitted out with sparse accommodations. There were two bunks and a table that held an enormous Salvador Dali-like creation consisting of a half-melted mass of twisted candles that he used for lighting. Because the hull’s exterior was painted black and the boat had little ventilation, the late morning sun had already heated the interior beyond a tolerable level. Before we melted like the drooping candles, we retreated to the deck. “I never spend any time below during the day anyway. On deck or ashore, witnessing the world is where I need to be,” he explaned. I invited Kris over to visit with us under Atom’s wide cockpit awning. He came back the next two evenings to share dinner and stories of his travels. Although Kris seemed unusually wary of strangers, claiming he normally shunned the “judgmental” people found on bigger, expensive yachts, he was brutally honest with me in his portrayals of himself and others.

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Looking aft past the main deck hatch

 

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Kris Larson in the cabin of Kehaar. Above the bunch of bananas is the candle that is his main source of light.

A couple of years earlier, Kris had sailed Kehaar, his 33-foot engineless steel junk, singlehanded across the Indian Ocean from Tasmania. But his adventures really began 18 years earlier when, at age 21, he had fled on foot from the oppressive communist rule in his native Czechoslovakia. He wandered through Western Europe without money, friends, or a valid passport, hounded by police from country to country. In his early travels he was forced into situations he wasn’t proud of. Like any young person, he was inexperienced and naive, but he was resourceful. As Kris put it in the memoir he wrote years after our first meeting, titled Out of Census: “Every real man who lived his life in full can dig up moments he is profoundly ashamed of. Often it was not his choice, when life forced his hand. That is not an excuse, though. If a bloke tells you that he has nothing to be ashamed of in his whole long life, he is either lying, or he never really lived.” From his adventures on a steel boat to his unique life philosophy, Kris reminded me of that rare breed of adventurer, the controversial sailor-guru Bernard Moitessier.

Kris taught himself English and a smattering of other languages as he went from picking fruit and dodging police in Europe, to sandblasting ships in Singapore, to digging for gold in New Zealand. Along the way he was twice robbed of all his possessions and left with nothing but the old clothes on his back and a passport with someone else’s name in it. Eventually he married and settled down in Tasmania, where he worked building houses and shearing sheep. After a few more bad breaks, which he now blamed mostly on a weakness for Aussie beer, he found himself divorced, broke, and homeless. Looking back on a decade of settled life with nothing to show for it, he did what many men in similar situations do: he decided to go to sea on his own boat as soon as he could arrange it. Most failed men also fail at making their escape. But Kris was not most men. He swore off alcohol, returned to work, and began saving money.

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A Ship Toward freedom

On his way to work he had noticed the partly finished steel hull of a boat abandoned in a field on the edge of town. One day he stopped for a closer look. The boat was little more than a hull of rust-streaked, 1/8-inch-thick steel plates tack welded together. Kris tracked down its owner who admitted he had bought a set of plans by Australian yacht designer John Pugh, but had given up on the project soon after it began. A familiar story—he dreamed big but lacked the fortitude and supportive wife to finish the job. Kris bought the boat cheap on the spot, minus the lost plans. Backyard boat building projects often defeat those whose escapist dreams don’t match their skills, pocketbooks, or commitment. Sometimes a boat project will ruin several owners before the intractable vessel is launched or forever abandoned. Now a rusting hull and desperate man might find a new life together.

Lack of money and an original design to follow, forced him out of modern inhibitions. All he had was the genius born of need. Or as Kris put it, “I needed to free myself of the ossified notions and preconceptions of modern yacht building. My philosophy was, if you can do without it, get rid of it.” To that end he welded on a flush deck that included no cockpit. Instead, he constructed a small round hatch where he could sit with only his upper body exposed, within reach of the tiller and running rigging. Almost all sailboats have a recessed cockpit because it provides secure seating and a place to brace your feet as the boat rolls, as well as being a catch-all for items you don’t want to slide overboard. Eliminating the cockpit was a radical design compromise that was based on Kris’s resolute quest for simplicity, sometimes even over functionality.

Rather than slowing Kris down, a lack of money opened his mind to alternatives. People fell under his spell. What tools he could not pay for he borrowed from friends who were entertained to see a man on a crazy mission. Parts of a discarded conveyor assembly became his deck beams and stringers. He fitted out the interior with free hardwoods from junked picnic tables and church pews. To learn welding, he practiced by making his own anchors. To obtain a mast, he went into the forest, felled a Douglas fir, carefully shaped it with an adze and hand plane, and then set it aside to dry for a year. He chose an unstayed junk rig for its simplicity, low cost, and easy handling. A junk is notoriously slow upwind, particularly in light air. But for the most part, Kris planned his passages downwind and anticipated he would not be concerned about making the fastest possible passage. After all, his boat was as indestructible as an iron drum. He could ride out any storm rather than trying to beat one into port, as most modern sailors on faster boats with weather-routing tools expect to do.

Rather than pay a sailmaker, Kris used an antique sewing machine to convert a canvas tarp into a sail. Given Kris’s lack of funds and his intense dislike for “smelly, noisy, infernal combustion engines,” it was clear from the start that Kehaar would be powered strictly by sail. Kris knew what I had come to learn during my own engineless crossing of the Pacific on Atom: that sailing without the aid of an engine declutters and simplifies the boat, saving you from being a slave to engine maintenance, and makes you a better sailor. You learn how to plan your passages to avoid sailing into traps that you can’t sail out of. You anchor when the wind fails on a foul tide or wait with the patience of a hunter when the wind goes calm offshore.

I assumed Kris had named his boat after the straight-talking but unpredictable seagull, named Kehaar, in the fantasy novel, Watership Down. Perhaps he felt an affinity for that talking bird’s unrestrained spirit and wisdom.

Some local land folks and sailors alike doubted Kris’s sanity when he finally sailed out of Tasmania’s Mersey River in the middle of winter, bound for the islands along the Great Barrier Reef. He had no radio, no electrical system, and no plumbing. His only lighting was from candles that eventually morphed into that great lump of wax I had seen on his table. He kept his drinking water in plastic jugs. His first shakedown trip was plagued by vicious squalls, seasickness, and self-steering failures. Kris said he adopted the simple tactic of “Let’s get the hell out of here!” He eventually found his sea legs and hand-steered up to 20 hours a day.

His navigation equipment consisted of two small-scale charts of eastern Australia, a pilot book, and a handheld compass that proved useless on a steel boat. He threw the compass overboard. The barometer soon followed the compass, because its incessant fluctuations caused him needless anxiety over approaching storms. Many sailors have gotten into the nervous habit of tapping their barometer every few minutes at the sight of an approaching cloud bank, as if its movements were a crystal ball to see the future. But if you have an alert weather eye and a solid vessel, you relax and just deal with the weather as it arrives, rather than fretting over uncertain meanings behind each little quiver of the barometer needle.

Once across the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia, he headed north, steering from one lighthouse to the next holding his course between navigational landmarks using the sun, moon, and stars as guides. For four months Kris cruised among the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and then sailed around the north end of Australia to Darwin with the vague notion of continuing on to Africa. The reality of bucking back into a trade wind can turn a notion into certitude.

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Reef Scare; Darwin’s Secrets; Port Captains

Along the way to Darwin, in a strong blow off Cape York, he ran hard onto a reef. For ten hours Kehaar pounded on the coral before floating off at high tide. Most boats built of wood or fiberglass would not have survived, but Kehaar’s strong steel hull was merely dented, saving his life and revealing ultimate strength as the primary virtue of a steel boat.

Once underway again, Kris climbed the mast to con his way through the reefs. Describing it in his journal that he let me take notes from: “From up here Kehaar looks like a kayak with her round hatch and no cockpit. It’s fascinating watching her slice through the waves, self-steering with the tiller lashed. A heap of steel, a few ropes, and an old tarpaulin. Hardly a triumph of technology, but certainly a work of art.”

The laid-back lifestyle of Darwin suited Kris well. For the first time in his life he joined a yacht club, the members of which were mainly like-minded outcasts from mainstream society. As Kris explained it: “If you didn't have a cupboard full of skeletons, you wouldn’t turn up in Darwin in the first place. In Darwin they don’t ask your name, they ask you what name you want on the application form.” Things happen in Darwin that would be unlikely to happen anywhere else. Kris recalled one day when he walked into a hardware store and asked the elderly woman behind the counter where he could get some canvas. She thought he said “cannabis” and led him to a pub down the street.

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A Trader’s Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness

Three months of brutal labor working as a sandblaster in Darwin enabled Kris to buy a sextant and provisions for his voyage to east Africa. From Darwin he enjoyed a trouble-free, 41-day passage on port tack all the way to Mauritius. There he began his first of many battles against port officials. His lack of boat-registration papers caused customs officers in each country Kris visited to react with anything from mild annoyance to shocked disbelief. We can imagine the scene: “Boat registration, please.”

“No registration. Built her myself.”

“Inoculation certificate?”

“No papers, mate, but here’s a smallpox inoculation scar on my arm.”

“There are entry fees, port charges, cruising permit required.”

“Sorry, no money.” And so on. Rather than conform, Kris preferred to haggle and outfox the port authorities. He usually got away with it.

From Mauritius, Kris innocently sailed into Diego-Suarez, the most thief-ridden port in all of Madagascar. While he was ashore, light-fingered locals boarded Kehaar in broad daylight and removed every line on deck, including all the running rigging. Because he did not offer a reward as our friend Theo had done, the local police couldn’t care less what happens to you. But at least Kris managed to cheaply replace the necessary ropes at the town bazaar. Some of them even resembled the ones he had lost.

As soon as he replaced his lines, Kris sailed around to Madagascar’s northwest coast where he found the people more agreeable. From there he sailed on to Durban, South Africa, with the plan to purchase some cheap trading goods to carry back to Madagascar. Because he was unable to tack through Durban’s crowded harbor, he dropped anchor right in the entrance channel. A harbor patrol boat towed him into the international yacht jetty. News of his arrival traveled fast, and the port captain decided he would hold Kris in port until Kehaar’s equipment was upgraded to include a proper registration, an engine, a VHF radio, and a pricey life raft. Kris listened politely and ignored his requests.

The slighted port captain eventually sent a marine surveyor to inspect Kehaar, hoping to use the survey as legal grounds to hold the boat in port. But when the surveyor pronounced the boat seaworthy and her skipper a competent seaman, the outsmarted officials reluctantly let him go. With characteristic inability to obey the bureaucratic buffoons, Kris was a one-man travelling protest against those who spun legal webs of restrictions aimed at blocking his essential freedom. Through fear and ignorance most of us remain obedient to the state. Although my methods were less audacious, I was certainly aligned with Kris who daily lived the American motto: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For the rest of us, those words lose much of their original meaning as we settle into total compliance as exemplified in the collectivist Canadian motto: “Peace, order, and good governance.”

Back in Madagascar, Kris predictably ignored customs regulations preventing free trade, as he wandered from village to village selling his South African soaps and clothing. From Nosy Be he took aboard an Italian man who hired Kris to sail him to the Comoros to renew his visa. On arriving at the Comoran capital of Moroni, Kris was met by the harbormaster, who demanded a bribe to allow Kehaar to anchor. Kris ignored the demand and simply sailed away the next day at high noon after his crew had gotten his visa stamp. As Kris told it: “We were about four miles offshore, congratulating ourselves on beating out the harbormaster, when we saw a little fishing boat charging towards us through the waves. The chase ended with Kehaar being boarded. The struggle for her helm was settled finally for $35 US in cash. Actually, I quite liked the young gendarme who boarded us. He certainly didn’t lack guts. Fortunately it was a Friday, and being a Muslim, he was prohibited from carrying his gun.” As another notoriously independent-minded sailor, Tristan Jones, expressed it: “When in danger or in doubt, hoist your sails and bugger off out!”

 

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Kehaar under sail (courtesy Kris Larsen)

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Don’t Ask Why; Shadows of a Trader’s Life

Whenever I pressed Kris for more details or probing questions on his motivations and controversial actions, he inevitably replied with, “Don’t ask why.” His reticence made it challenging to fill in the blanks of his story. On some subjects he was as secretive as a hunted outlaw, which at times in the past he may have been. But in the journal he lent me, he frankly recounted more than he wanted to express verbally. Describing his sailing trader’s life in Madagascar, he wrote: “The Madagascar coast is utterly black at night, no lights. Arriving in the middle of night I sailed past the dark sentinels of the entrance and deep into the Baramahamy Bay, anchoring near the mangroves for a few hours of sleep. I had no time to rest after the crossing. Malgache are direct, inquisitive, and not shy at all. Wherever you anchor, there will soon be a dugout coming to see what they can get out of you. The usual combination is an old man and a young boy, both in tattered clothes, paddling the most derelict canoe they could find in the village. They come a-begging, with the opening moves of what I call the Malgache Gambit. Cigarettes? Fishhooks? T-shirt as a gift for my boy?—Sorry mate. No cigarettes. No fish hooks. No gifts. I do have some clothes, but that's for sale. I want money.—How much?—I show him some choice pieces and tell him my price. Reaction is always same. Shock.—Hay, man, that's cheap. Gambit accepted.—Hang on, mate, I am going to fetch my missus with money, I'll be right back!

“They always come back, a crowd of them, in a bigger, better canoe. I make my first sale and I have free advertising. Mama is quick back in the village, showing off and bragging what a buy she made. I descend on the village an hour later. I need no introduction. They are all waiting for me, unrolling a reed mat on the ground to spread my wares. I have never met an ill will or animosity when bringing merchandise. Bypassing import duties, wholesalers, and tax, I can undercut anyone. I sell only quality goods, no rubbish.

“As a trader you cease to be an outsider. You become part of their economy; you enter the fabric of village life. Tourist remains an observer. Trader becomes a participant. You eat their food, you drink their water, you sleep with their women, you take away their money. People deal with you differently; they tell you things you’d never expect to learn. I like to sit back on a veranda in front of someone’s hut, keeping an eye on my wares, gossiping with the old folks, absorbing the lazy atmosphere of the place. It’s fun.”

From one of the books Kris later published out of his journal notes, he describes the thrill of discovering the working sailing craft that still existed in Madagascar: “Waking up on a passage one morning I found Kehaar racing an 80-foot, three-masted sambu under a full sail, a half a mile from us. I sat there in my hatch, spellbound. I felt I had finally arrived; I went through time backwards where I had always wanted to be. I missed the time of square-riggers and downeasters, and often when travelling, I felt I was born too late. All I had left was chasing romantic images of the past. Travelling two decades ago in Asia I got close several times but nevertheless, late I was. Questionable progress and tourist development managed to alter the places. In Eastern Indonesia I got very close, sailing on huge two-masted pinisis of Buggis people from Surabaya and Macassar to the Islands of Spice and New Guinea. Yet even then, I felt there was not much time left for them. Indonesia, lying in the equatorial doldrums, is famous for its calms, and everyone was talking about engines. I was right. In the eighties they indeed converted to unreliable truck engines, cutting down their masts. I was late again.

“Now, here, in Madagascar, watching fascinated how the sailing master of a butre tried to get the best out of the morning breeze, I felt that was IT. For once I was not late. These guys were direct blood descendants of Arab traders from Oman, blokes who were sailing in the same way since King Solomon’s days, ignorant, raw, brave and wise, the last fleet of working sailing ships anywhere. And nobody is talking about installing motors into rickety leaking hulls. They’d shake and fall apart. And with $12 a month average wage there is no money for engines and fuel in Madagascar.”

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Monsoon Dervish; Timeless Zanzibar; Losing One’s Soul

Back when Kris first approached Mauritius after his Indian Ocean crossing, he wrote about the draw of an elemental experience at sea: “I was watching the mountains in silent wonder, a childhood dream coming true. We had crossed our first ocean, without using a compass, GPS, or even an electric torch; 41 days of tranquil solitude, undisturbed by idle chatter on a two-way radio. A simple profound experience that justified itself. Precisely the way I want it.

“Every generation of boat bums grows up with their own heroes. I grew up on tales of Chichester, Knox-Johnston, Tabarly, and above all Moitessier and Lewis. Those guys expanded the field of small boat navigation to the regions undreamed of until then. After their exploits there was virtually nothing left that has not been done. The following generation concentrated on speed, a bunch of young French dragons who were using the latest technology, sailing improbably fast multihulls, slicing days off the fastest times, always pushing for more speed. 80 days around the world. Fine. What next?

“There comes a time when our heroes disappear at sea, lose their boats, or die of old age. One morning you wake up looking over a quiet anchorage, and you realize it’s up to us to carry on. We are the generation who is DOING IT. Right now. I believe it’s time to put a bit of magic back into sailing, for sailing is not about hardware. It is about interaction between a man and the sea. The more gadgets you put between yourself and the ocean, the colder and more diluted your experience becomes. And there is nothing in this world but firsthand raw experience. Reality, if there is such a thing, is experience at first hand, and on the quality of that experience depends what you get out of life.”

A few days after his latest arrival in Nosy Komba, Kris pulled Kehaar up to the beach at high tide to dry her out upright on her bilge keels in order to apply a fresh coat of bottom paint. When the bottom was finished, he used the leftover paint to add an eye to each side of Kehaar’s bow. What I didn’t fully realize about Kris at the time was that he was a well-read creative genius who would later publish four books from his journals, complete with his own pen-and-ink drawings and hand-crafted book covers decorated with his artwork. Later I learned from his book and blog that after years of professional-grade “doodling,” he had taught himself oil painting, sculpture, and the art of paper marbling, among numerous other creative pursuits.

Before leaving Komba, Kris loaded Kehaar with dried vanilla and cocoa beans to trade in the nearby French island of Mayotte. From there, he planned to catch the southwest monsoon to Kenya and then perhaps sail on to India. In 1997 friends told me they had spotted Kris at an uninhabited motu in the Chagos Archipelago. Someone reported he had run out of food and was surviving by fishing and by foraging through the abandoned native gardens. From Chagos he sailed on to Sri Lanka where he was arrested for a short time as a suspected terrorist. Soon free again, he sailed to the Philippines and Japan. Five years after our chance encounter in Nosy Komba, while in the Philippines, Kris wrote and self-published a limited production of his first book about his voyages, called Monsoon Dervish.

In an excerpt here from his brutally honest book, Kris reveals a writing style and artist’s view akin to the writings of French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin’s attempts to describe the mix of modern and primal life of Polynesia: “Zanzibar is an island 60 miles long. The main town, also called Zanzibar, has about 100,000 people. What makes it so attractive is hard to define. It is not one particular thing that arrests you. Many small details combine to creep up on you. Zanzibar has always been the distribution center for East Africa, trading hub, dealers’ place. The Stone Town is well preserved. Many buildings were restored or are being restored. Famous carved doors, old and new, convoluted narrow lanes struggling to accommodate modern traffic, bazaars, spice shops, coffee-vendors, dhow sailors, tourists. Everywhere distant and recent past is mingling with the present, a jumble of most diverse influences. I can’t think of a more depressing combination than Islam and Communism together, a drab unimaginative negation of life. Yet African zest survived it, absorbed it, and sprang back. A number of whites fell under the spell of Africa and stayed, but ask them why and they can’t put their finger on it. How can you explain that intelligent and capable people are barely scratching out a living in countries where they are not welcome, where they lack basic comforts and securities, where general poverty and illness reflects in their own conditions? There is no way to explain it in a rational way without experiencing it yourself.

“You wake up one morning in the anchorage in Zanzibar at dawn, hearing drums over the waters. Ngoma. Africans returning from fishing the reef, beating their drums, and chanting. And you know—this is it, the life itself, before communism, before Islam, before Aristotelian logic, a primal chant of humans alive. And you want to be a part of it, this “to hell with tomorrow” attitude making our philistine prudence appear sterile and lifeless. Watching them joyfully crowding into an already overfilled taxi, loudly arguing the price of a single mango, or shoveling greedily rice gruel from a cracked plate into their mouths, you know that nothing is alien to them. They live now, in total abandon, poor, dirty, futureless, free of neurosis and agonizing indecisiveness. Imperceptibly you are drawn into it, however out of place you may feel at the start. If you are not tough and cynical enough, you can quite easily lose your fragile identity, without gaining another one. In such a place, having your own boat outweighs any inconveniences it may bring. Wherever you are, you have a refuge to go to. Not just any hotel or some other impersonal shelter. You carry your own home with you. After a day’s bustle you return into the sanctuary of your own hearth, your own home. It makes it easier to preserve your identity in powerful or overwhelming circumstances. I found this nowhere more important than in Africa. There are few things more pathetic than a white man who lost his tribe.”

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One by one, Kehaar's sail panels blew away in the storm off Japan. (photo by Yonemitsu Motomi)

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Stormy Waters; Tattered Sails; Life as Art

During a passage to Japan, Kehaar got caught in a typhoon off Taiwan where a monstrous rogue wave rolled the boat. But steel-hearted Kehaar was indestructible. The massive Douglas fir mast emerged from the sea unbroken. Once the typhoon had passed, he hoisted sail and resumed his trip. While on a second trip to Japan he was caught in another storm when a winter monsoonal high over central Asia clashed with a deep low over eastern Japan. For two days he battled freezing 50-knot winds and higher gusts. Ships passed threateningly close, in visibility reduced by sleet and spray. Normally, Kris reefs down his sail and stays below in a storm, getting underway again when conditions improve. This time Kehaar faced destruction on the nearby lee shore of Kyushu Island, so he had to keep up enough sail to drive the boat to windward. Kris wrote: “The Madagascar cotton had rotted away, and panel after panel of our sail blew away as I was pushing the girl through the swell, clawing our way to windward close-hauled. We gained a lot of ground, and after weathering the bottom of Kyushu we ran to the nearest downwind port, in Amami Oshima. We sneaked into the harbour unassisted, ribbons of canvas streaming from the bare spars, 70% of the sail missing. It made a great photo—Flying Dutchman has landed. The following two weeks I spent in a park adjoining the Nagahama fishing harbour, stitching up a new sail from old Dacron I picked up from the garbage in Fukuoka Marinas.”

In his second book, With Mermaid up a Moonberry Tree, Kris recounts living his island dream for five years on a remote island in the central Philippines: “Sapphire water of a coral lagoon, coconuts swaying in a breeze, warm sand trickling between your toes. There is something primal and satisfactory in this image. You believe that if you can go live on a beach, you could easily forgo the amenities and conveniences of the big cities. You think, just give me a simple fisherman’s shack, a bowl of rice with fish, and a dusky partner to share my time with, and it will be enough for the rest of my days.”

Kris lived there happily with his local “Mermaid” (as he referred to her to preserve her privacy), and busied himself with his writing and art. I can only guess whether he renewed his visa for five years, or sailed to neighboring countries when it expired, or ignored the whole mess as he had in the past. Among his many projects on his adopted island were countless hours he spent compiling a Bestiary, or “Teratologus,” his compendium in words and illustrations of mythical beasts of the ancient world. The book lived on a shelf under their hut and studio where the pages became stained by the smoke from coconut husks, which they burned continuously to drive away the malarial mosquitoes. In his blog, Kris explained that the work was not intended to be an exhaustive encyclopedia but rather, “a mind teaser, an inspiration to an artist, an idle curiosity.”

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Bicycle Dreaming; The Chronic Car-Hater

From the Philippines, Kris and Mermaid sailed back to Darwin where they moored Kehaar and moved aboard a more spacious old trawler named Son of a Gun, from which they both continued their collaborative art and writing. While Mermaid remained with the trawler at their home base in Darwin, Kris made several solo land excursions and sea voyages. His third book, Bicycle Dreaming recounts his arduous 6,000-kilometer solo journey crossing the Australian outback on a recumbent bike that he built out of scrap from the city dump and named “Kraken.” The book is illustrated with his meticulously detailed, whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations, including cars represented as half crocodile, hunting down bicyclists, or as wheels on the backs of snails (titled tyred slugs) fleeing the city on concrete ribbons that dump them into an abyss.

An “adventure” without reflection is a pretty shallow experience and makes for a shallow story. In an excerpt from the book, Kris explained his anti-car philosophy: “I do not like what cars do to people, especially what they do to their heads. Without cars our Western society would cease to exist. But just because something seems to be essential does not mean that I have to like it. Cars made people lazy, arrogant, obese, blind, and deaf. Car defines our modern life as nothing else does, from oil exploration and refining, car manufacture, highway construction, to demographic distribution, spread of suburbs and megamarts, international politics of oil wars, down to global warming and climate change.

“I love cycling. It’s the only time I have completely for myself, when nobody can reach me, and my mind can whirr undisturbed. I feel that not having a car, I am definitely ahead. I am not preaching the gospel according to pedal. I do not perceive world’s salvation through riding a pushie, but somehow today people seem to be running around much more, just to stay on the same spot. All that cars have achieved is to move faster, but they did not save any time.”

Stopping to rest during the hottest part of the day at a billabong (waterhole) on a particularly long, hot, and dusty section of the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley of western Australia, Kris swam and spread his rinsed clothes on the hot rocks to dry. He wrote: “Sun was far too high in the sky to climb back into the saddle, I had plenty of time, and I started scribbling about bicycles in my notebook. I was going to write about interesting things and marvelous places, about great and crazy people, and their legendary exploits, all of it in one way or another connected to bicycles. I was going to describe how I see the world and how it affects me.”

The following passage is classic Kris the chronic car-hater: “At that waterhole in the Kimberley I was at peace. Every half an hour a dusty 4WD would roar past, windows rolled up, rattling their way over corrugation as fast as their suspension would allow, looking dead ahead, watching for stray cattle on the unfenced road, oblivious to the countryside. Some of them noticed my bright red bicycle leaning against a tree, but none of them noticed the waterhole I was sitting at. They came here to see the country, but their cars made them blind.”

On another day Kris described the big open country that makes up the outback: “South of the Granite mine the true face of Tanami desert shows. Not a tree in sight, not a shrub either, not even a dead one for firewood. Mile after mile of totally flat treeless plain. If there was a place to be called Nullarbor, central Tanami it is. Nullarbor is not a local name of Aboriginal descent, it is a pig Latin for “no trees,” (null-arbour)." Tanami feels old, weathered, worn down by time; your only company are low distinctly lumpy termite hills, and omnipresent spinifex. Most travelers complain of spinifex. I admit I like the bastard. 90% of Australians have never seen spinifex, even though it is our most abundant grass, and it covers a quarter of the landmass. It lives only in the driest, harshest, most barren, and weather-blasted country. I like spinifex for its flammable properties. Travelling through spinifex you never doubt your ability to light a fire for cooking, no matter how hard it rains. Spinifex will burst into flame if you look hard enough at it.”

A short paved section of road in the middle of nowhere gave Kris a teasing reprieve from the rough gravel road surface, and highlighted the hilarious to horrible aspect of outback travel: “And in the middle of nowhere, without rhyme or reason, by an administrative decision free of religious significance, you hit a 10-km stretch of perfect bitumen. It starts nowhere, sports no branches to anywhere, and ends abruptly the same way. A road gang told me once that those arbitrary patches of tar are inserted by government thinkers to relieve the boredom of the drivers who are not used to the monotony of a deserted gravel road. A good joke, I say: give them 10-km of relief, let them build up a hope that the cursed dusty gravel is over, then hit them with 500-km of murderous corrugation.”

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For One’s Own Sake, Enjoy

Later he summed up his freewheeling outback experience: “It was crazy, it was insane, it had absolutely no meaning, there wasn’t even anyone watching the comedy unfold. I was alone at Lake Eyre, and I loved every minute of it. It felt like the essence of this whole trip. I was not playing at Stuart the explorer, I wasn’t retracing wheeltracks of Murif the overlander or aping Freddie the speed supremo. I was playing myself, Kris Longrass, aging carpenter and navigator, having the time of his life. This whole ride from Darwin had no meaning for anyone besides myself. I achieved nothing worthy, yet it filled me with pride. It’s a shame that these days you can’t just put on your shoes and go on an expedition any more. It has to have a socially relevant goal, it has to be in support of some charity, dedicated to some noble cause, well connected, word has to spread out, blog, website and school curriculum informed regularly by satellite phone, sponsors roped in. Why can’t you just stand up and say: ‘I am going because I feel like it. Because I’ve been dreaming of it for years?’ Instead of hiding behind an eight-letter acronym starting with UN? As if everything we do needed logical reason behind it, as if pure wish of doing something or going somewhere wasn’t a justification enough.”

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Out of Census; Soul of a Mermaid and Mayans

Kris followed up his bicycle adventure with another book, Out of Census, an autobiography that reveals the making of Kris Larsen in his various guises. From the book’s introduction: “Growing up in Eastern Europe under communist rule, as a tramp and a rock climber, his escape into the West, then going half way around the world on other people’s papers, an illegal alien overlanding to India and beyond. A humorous take on the life of a would-be refugee that nobody wanted to know, showing how little you really need in order to do the things you always dreamed about. You want to get on an expedition? Put on your boots and go.”

In another excerpt from Out of Census, Kris wrote: “If I could choose one thing to take with me on a round-the-world trip, I would take a warm sleeping bag. If I was allowed two things, I would add a good passport. In that order. I formulated this doctrine 35 years ago on the road, as a hungry illegal refugee from Eastern Europe, hounded by cops from country to country, feverishly learning basic survival skills I needed when it became clear that nobody wanted me.

“It was to be the opening paragraph of a book, The Book that I was going to write one day, when I was finally caught and temporarily restricted behind the bars of some friendly nation. There was no point in writing more in those days. Manuscript would not survive my lifestyle. Several times I abandoned everything I had in life, and started somewhere else under a different name. Several times I was relieved of everything that I owned. I had no family, no settled friends with an address, no country wanted to know me as their own. Where would I keep my precious work? There was no Internet then, to store a copy in public domain, as I do now.

“Mermaid has been saying for a while that I should write down my early years. She is right, but it will not be easy. I have no records, and my memory is capricious. It likes to gloss over the inconvenient. And as I am aging, it is starting to resemble a Teflon pan. Nothing sticks to it.”

Kris’s lust for life and art was matched by his need for a woman to come home to. I had learned firsthand in my own life that for a man with a strong sense of individualism, having a life partner means finding that uneasy balance of acceptance, independence, and submission. If lucky, we find that balanced middle ground where needless pride is put away. Kris went on to describe the dilemma: “I am an average red-blooded male, with an average hormonal process, which periodically needs readjusting to reach a balance. I love women. I love their company, I love their bodies. I love what they can do to you. I know that they are crafty manipulative bitches, who can be perfectly happy if they made you suffer in your private Hell, but that makes the life interesting. For most of my adult life there was a woman somewhere around. Sometimes they played important roles in running my life. Often it was not easy, reconciling my lifestyle with domestic harmony.”

In his blog from 2015, Kris wrote about his recent adventures: “After a long silence I am back with new doodlings. We are currently in Jacare, in northeast Brazil. In the past 8 months I sailed Kehaar from Darwin across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. Then I took my recumbent bicycle for a 5,000-km ride around six countries sharing the Kalahari Desert. Done no art work on the way, life was fairly hectic without it. My love flew to South Africa, and she found me in Saldanha Bay, 50 miles north of Cape Town. We sailed together across the “Housewives’ Ocean” to Brazil, just in time for the Carnival in Paraiba-Pernambuco, a full-on street party going on for 11 days straight. Second week in the country, recovering from Carnival, I did all the paperwork to clear in, and finally we have time to catch up on a bit of art.

While in South Africa, Kris wrote a Manual of Sextant Operation, in which he pared down the technical jargon found in most tomes on navigation into an easily understood, step-by-step method. Although celestial navigation has become a lost art as arcane as witchcraft, in the early days of GPS during the 1990s it remained the hallmark of a fully competent navigator. Even today, there are sailors such as Kris who refuse to buy electronic gadgets and prefer the more challenging and satisfying position-finding method of astronavigation.

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One Soul’s Journey; the Majority of One

In 2016 Kris explored the lands of the Maya civilization in Central America and created art inspired by the ancient Maya. I can easily picture Kris immersed in the local scene: studying the enigmatic Mayan script and art, living among the poor farmers as he did in Africa, and seeing in them the same mysterious people who built the Maya ruins he walked through.

Kris knows something about living. Few of us could or would choose to follow his path. Modern trivia and materialism are nothing to him. He gives a ray of hope to any who dare to look outside their consumer cocoon.

Whether sailing on a shoestring budget to remote islands, living among rural tribes in Africa, or drifting among the contemporary Maya, people like Kris rediscover the truth that the less you own, the less you owe, and the freer you are. It can be a hard road to follow, but therein lies the irony of the richness of supposed poverty.

A self-sufficient person is a threat to those who would govern him. They want him on wages, burdened with taxes and debt, forced to labor to buy insurance because other people want you insured, and dependent on an ever-expanding government that now exists mainly to enrich itself. From Kris’s perspective, the yoke of contemporary civilization causes us to seek an escape from lives as mere automatons of an empty culture and progressive education. But people cannot let go of all the things that are killing them. Despite their beating hearts, they might as well have “Recently Deceased,” tattooed on their foreheads.

Kris is one of the few who managed to side-stroke his way out of a standing wave of wage-slavery and compliance. Although time has likely mellowed his views and better integrated him to society, I like to imagine Kris continuing to wander the world as he was, outfoxing bureaucrats, immune to naysayers who stand in his way, on a journey of discovery without end. His glorious indifference to societal constraints, his passionate energy and creativity, and the pathos of his hard life experience place Kris alongside Henry David Thoreau or Edward Abbey. Although Kris’s delivery is less polished, he certainly shares the essence of those naturalist authors’ vision of independence, their powers of observation of the natural world, and their sense of man’s lost place in it. His prose style is a clipped cascade of ideas and experiences. It breaks with convention and pushes boundaries in the same way that he does in life.

Even though I have not seen him in years, I retain a deep affinity for Kris. His life intrigues me so much because he was and is a braver version of myself. Perhaps we share a vision of personal responsibility that is aligned with Thoreau who was incarcerated for refusing to pay a tax that funded government actions of the time that he did not agree with, such as the Mexican-American War and the perpetuation of slavery. To place your vote with the majority or minority opinion is a starting point, but by itself voting is a feeble gesture. As far as possible, I live by the moral code of individual conscience and the creed that Thoreau described in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.” Kris, I feel, would surely agree.

Excerpts from Kris's books and ordering info at: http://www.monsoondervish.com/