A Law Unto Himself - Kris Larson Sailing his Steel Junk

Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World magazine

A Law Unto Himself

By James Baldwin

With an unlegislated spirit and nary a penny in his pocket, cruiser Kris Larson wanders the Indian Ocean doing battle with bureaucracy.

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

On a cruise around the world, youre bound to meet some interesting people, and the farther you stray from the beaten track, the more interesting they become. While anchored one morning at Nosy Komba, a verdant jewel of an island on the west coast of Madagascar, I noticed a junk-rigged sail on the horizon. Throughout the day the junk drifted on the currents, working in closer, then getting set back again. It was nearly sunset when the flush-decked boat finally entered the bay and anchored nearby. A moment later its skipper had furled his sail, launched a tiny outrigger canoe, and disappeared ashore.

The next day I was invited aboard and met the tall, tanned and bearded 40-year-old Kris Larson, who had sailed Kehaar, his 33-foot engineless steel junk, singlehanded across the Indian Ocean from Tasmania. Kris first left his native Czechoslovakia at age 21 and had gone from picking fruit in Europe to sandblasting ships in Singapore to digging for gold in New Zealand. Eventually he married and settled down in Tasmania, where he worked building houses and shearing sheep. After a few bad breaks, which he now blames 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 then decided to go to sea. He swore off alcohol, returned to work, and started saving money.

One day in a field on the edge of town Kris came across a partly finished steel hull. He made an offer on it and became its owner. To finish the boat without any design to work to, his biggest hurdle was overcoming his inhibitions. Or as Kris puts 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 put a flush deck on the boat and included no cockpit. Instead, he made a small round hatch where he could sit within reach of the tiller and running rigging.

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Looking aft past the main deck hatch

A lack of money never slowed Kris down. Rather, it opened his mind to alternatives. Parts of a discarded conveyor assembly became his deck beams and stringers. He fitted out the interior with 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, then left it to dry for a year. He chose an unstayed junk rig for its simplicity, low cost, and easy handling and sewed his own sail on an antique sewing machine. And given Kriss lack of funds and his intense dislike for smelly, noisy, infernal combustion engines, it was clear from the start Kehaar would be powered strictly by sails.

Some may have doubted Kriss sanity when he finally sailed out of Tasmanias Mersey River in the middle of winter bound for the Great Barrier Reef. He had no radio, electrical system or plumbing. He burned candles for light and kept his drinking water in plastic cans. On that first shakedown trip, he was plagued by vicious squalls, seasickness and self-steering failures. Kris adopted the simple tactic of Lets get the hell out of here! and hand steered up to 20 hours a day.

His navigation equipment consisted of two large-scale charts, a pilot book and a handheld compass that proved useless on a steel boat. He threw the compass overboard and the barometer soon followed, as its incessant fluctuations caused him needless anxiety. Once across the Bass Strait he headed north, steering from one lighthouse to the next, holding his course using the sun, moon, and stars as guides.

For four months Kris cruised the Great Barrier Reef and then sailed to Darwin with the vague notion of continuing on to Africa. In a strong blow off Cape York he ran hard onto a reef, and for 10 hours Kehaar pounded on the coral before floating off at high tide. Most boats would not have survived, but Kehaar was hardly dented - one of the virtues of a steel boat.

Once under way again, Kris climbed the mast to con his way through the reefs. Describing this later in his journal, he wrote, From up here Kahaar looks like a kayak with her round hatch and no cockpit. Its 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.

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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.

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 explains 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 dont ask your name, they ask, What name do 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 understood he was after cannabis and led him to a pub down the street.

Three months working as a sandblaster in Darwin enabled Kris to buy a new sail, a sextant and some provisions for his voyage to east Africa. From Darwin he enjoyed a trouble-free 40-day passage on port tack all the way to Mauritius, where 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 heres a smallpox inoculation scar on my arm. There are port charges. Sorry, no money. And so on. Rather than conform, Kris prefers to haggle with and outfox the port authorities. He usually gets away with it.

From Mauritius Kris sailed into Diego-Suarez, the most thieving port in all Madagascar. The light-fingered locals boarded Kehaar in broad daylight and removed every line on deck, including all the running rigging. A yacht anchored nearby was completely cleaned out-electronics, sails, clothes, even the cooking pots. The local police couldnt care less, but at least theres the chance to buy back your goods at the town bazaar.

As soon as he replaced his lines, Kris sailed around to Madagascars northwest coast, where he found the people more agreeable, and then on to Durban, South Africa, where, because he was unable to tack through the crowded harbor, he dropped anchor right in the entrance channel. News of his arrival traveled fast, and various government departments decided they should hold Kris in port until Kehaars equipment was upgraded to include a proper registration, an engine, a VHF radio and a life raft. Kris listened politely then ignored their requests.

The port official sent a marine surveyor to inspect Kehaar, hoping to use the survey as legal grounds to hold the boat. But when the surveyor pronounced the boat seaworthy and her skipper a competent seaman, the outsmarted bureaucrats reluctantly let him go.

With his inability to obey the bureaucratic buffoons, certainly Kris will never be a candidate for membership in the Seven Seas Cruising Association. Kris said, "when those brown-shirts in the SSCA tried to tell me to 'leave a clean wake, as they call it, or you make it more difficult for all of us', I told them that by spinelessly accepting every new restriction and tax on our freedom, they are the ones making it more difficult for sailors to move around freely."

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Kehaar under sail (courtesy Kris Larson)

Back in Madagascar, Kris took aboard an Italian man named Anchara who wanted to pay for a passage to Comoros to renew a 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 Anchara got 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 toward us through the waves. The chase ended with Kehaar being boarded, and the struggle for her helm was settled finally for $35 in cash. Actually, I quite liked the young gendarme who boarded us. He certainly didnt 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, put it: "When in danger or in doubt, hoist your sails and bugger off out!"

From Kris's journal he frankly describes the sailing trader's life in Madagascar:

"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. Malgash 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 Malgash 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."

When I met Kris in Nosy Komba, he was loading Kehaar with dried vanilla and cocoa beans to trade in the nearby French island of Mayotte. From there, he said, he would catch the southwest monsoon to Kenya, and then perhaps on to India.

In 1997 friends told me they spotted Kris in the Chagos Archipelago. Hed run out of food and was surviving by fishing and foraging through the abandoned native gardens.

From there he and kehaar sailed on to the Philippines and Japan.

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

Normally, Kris reefs down his sail and stays below in a storm, getting underway again when conditions improve. But when caught on a lee shore in a winter storm off Japan he was obliged to push his old cotton sail too hard. When he eventually weathered the lee shore and turned downwind to safe harbor, his only sail was in streaming tatters.

Upon his return to the Philippines, Kris self-published a book about his voyages called Monsoon Dervish. Excerpts and ordering info at: http://www.monsoondervish.com/