Hans Klaar on Building and Sailing the Polynesian Double Canoe Ontong Java

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After many years of sailing adventures in his 51-foot Wharram catamaran Rapa Nui (described in Part One of this series) in 2007 Hans Klaar set out to build himself a new type of boat. He based his unusual full-scale design on descriptions of ancient Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoes, particularly the Tuamotuan double voyaging canoe. In 2012 he built a second version of this design he named Ontong Java and then sailed it from Africa to Portugal within the same year.

HansOntongJava09kb76The latest Ontong Java under sail in the Azores


Near a village on the shores of Gambia, West Africa, Hans and his hand-picked crew of European and local helpers built and rigged the first Ontong Java in just seven months. From two massive tree trunks they carved out the asymmetric keels and planked the sides of the hulls, ending up with a 71-foot port hull and 57-foot starboard hull. Each canoe had a beam of about 8 feet, joined together with beams and a deck platform of 42 by 21 feet, giving a total beam of 22 feet. The single-masted rig was a refined version of the Polynesian crab claw, which Hans had developed and used with great success on his earlier catamaran. An outboard motor provided auxiliary power to enter harbors and transit the Panama Canal.

When asked if the design could be referred to as a "tacking outrigger" or a "tacking proa", Hans replied, "No, the plan of my Ontong Java is close to the original professional drawings by French Admiral Paris from his visit to the Tuamotus in the 1840's. This type of tacking double canoe was never fully explained as they were seen only very briefly and never under sail. Much of the Europeans early explorations of the Pacific islands was actually done with telescopes from the decks of their ships, particularly in the reef-strewn waters of the Tuamotus, as it was often too dangerous to make a landing due to the lack of safe anchorage or fear of hostile islanders.

The only models we have of these voyaging canoes leave us wondering about how the original sail rig was set up, as they where mounted by museum curators in Europe rather than by persons in the know. If one looks at Rarotongan canoes and Marquesan canoes, even Tahiti canoes of the same era, they where all tacking canoes. The shunters came in via the Tuvalu islands to Samoa on to Tonga and then to Fiji, so no way they where used in the Tuamotuan islands without first having been used or assimilated on the islands in between.

ancient_canoe_in_doldrums By Herb Kawainui Kane
Ancient Canoe in Doldrums By Herb Kawainui Kane


I believe I managed to remain about 90 percent true to the original design. Of course, 40 years of learning by doing will always stand you in good stead to deal with inevitable engineering challenges. For example, the Polynesians didn't have the wheel, let alone multi-purchase blocks, so that alone saves a lot of man power. With five blocks spreading the loads on the 40-foot top spar a 50 kg person alone can hoick up this mainsail."

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Canoe drawings circa 1848, Admiral Paris
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Canoe as seen in Tuamotus, Admiral Paris


From Africa he navigated Ontong Java to Brazil, then to Trinidad, motored through the Panama Canal and then across the Pacific in 2008. With him was his Dutch girlfriend, Houkje van Hoek, who had helped him in building the boat. Friends came and went. Halfway through the Pacific his girlfriend decided the rigorous and spartan voyaging life on this big primitive boat was losing its appeal and so returned home. After she left, Hans sailed several long passages alone using basic sheet-to-tiller self-steering. In October 2009 he sailed from Fiji to New Zealand where he sold Ontong Java with the understanding that Hans would keep the name for his next boat.

There followed some tribulations (see Part One) that might crush the spirit of a lesser man, but in spring 2012 we heard exciting news from Hans. The iconic sailor, artist and boatbuilder remained undaunted as he started building a new Ontong Java outside Banjul, Gambia in Western Africa. Picture Gambia as sort of a poorer African Hong Kong, being an ex-British colony where fortunes were made in the slave trade. Its narrow borders run along the Gambia River and except for its river mouth on the Atlantic it is entirely surrounded by the country of Senegal.

Hans reported the keels were laid in April and by May the hulls were complete: "New boat in full swing, busy as all hell cracking along. Started at long last on the first of April with my assistant shipwright laying the keels and dressing down the raw logs. Now hulls are almost water tight, ribs in, the lugs all mounted and the beams should arrive soon.

First several weeks had me running around like a blue-assed fly but to good effect; got my paint, sail canvas, all my stainless screws, most of my timber from a mill four days upriver, and a 5 month lease on two bungalows 50 yards from the sea where the land owners gave us permission to build.

Along the beach to one side of me are thousands of fishing canoes spread over two and a half km of beach. On the other side is a horsemen's encampment. When the canoes are back with fish there is quite the rush of people and riders on horseback coming and going all around me - a wild, wild West with a touch of the middle ages. Went walking over a huge ancient shell midden this morning and promptly found a Neolithic-style stone axe head."

Much of the wood used was a dense local mahogany shaped by hand saws and adze. "A bit heavy when wet," Hans said, "but once dried it floats high enough. The planking is standard caravel edge on edge, with ribs added on once the shape is achieved to freeze it as it where. The caulking is oakum with a special mastic and nailed over with conveyor belt material cut into long 70 foot strips. By and large my construction method is only suitable for hulls over 50 feet as smaller than that, weight becomes an issue. Also building large boats structurally sound needs long planks 8 meters plus, all getting harder to find every year."

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Hans with the hulls nearly finished on day 20
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In July, a gang of workers rolled the 72-foot main hull and 60-some foot second hull of the new Ontong Java on empty propane gas bottles from the beach into the sea for final fitting out. Hans describes, "As the bows hit water the momentum carried them away, dragging the stern with them, the whole 70 plus feet shooting off so that we had to give chase like to some runaway horse. All that in less than 2 feet of water, amazing really.

"I used as much local labour as possible, including a pretty paint and varnish girl, who came of her own account and demanded a job, which is unheard of in this super conservative male-dominant region. She turned out to be a godsend, dependable and full of common sense in this otherwise goats-and-donkeys business of building boats in the sticks.

My son, Florian, now a typical western teenager clocking 19, came along to help. It took all my cool the first few weeks but he worked out just fine and we had a good father son experience. Another big help came from John Caprani, an Irish carpenter of sorts. He's a bit of a multi talent who took the whole job very seriously, maybe a bit too much, so that my son once advised me to put a leash on him. Then there was the inevitable mad English expat, money-obsessed and no manners, breathing down our necks. All in all, not a bad crew and we made good progress.

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Sealing the planking seams.
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Decking over the hulls.


At one point, the varnish girl, who knew I was fond of her and her slightly crazy ways, insisted I buy her a bus ticket as she wanted to see the big city of Dakar. She never had been further than Banjul so I complied. Later she came and stayed on the boat without chaperone. She was quite pretty in all her fine Sunday town clothes and all. She saw me as some father Christmas, demanding I take her shopping so I bought her some shoes and some milk powder and loads of little presents for all the kids and sisters at home. Four days later she went back home again without even a kiss goodbye. Guess I was in love with that crazy number. Her mother phones me later and says she will give me the varnish girl for my wife so it seems I have a wife waiting for me in gods own country, the Gambia."

So what does it cost to build a boat like this in Africa? No one I know is as resourceful as Hans when it comes to stretching a dollar and of course it depends on many factors, or as Hans put it, "Cost was as much as you could throw at it. But having built one before, I managed to streamline the logistics here and there and so cut several months in construction time. This time it took all the silver and labour I could chuck at it and near the end I ran out of money anyway. If any one wants to tell me that he could build for nothing in Africa or anywhere for that matter, then he is a fool who knows naught."

When building a large boat in any undeveloped country, your industriousness is bound to attract unwanted attention. Hans recalls, "Once the hulls where painted black I had the secret police come visit me twice wanting to know the what and when of my plan. They where worried we were building an attack craft and that we might be mercenaries. Adding to the stress was the local marabou witch doctors prophesy that an invading army would come from where we were building the boat. Those bastards had me worried. To appease the witch doctor I followed his advise and forbade my team to cut their hair. I also reminded them not to even utter the words army, guns, mercenary.

It was touch and go and in the end I kind of became paranoid that the powers that be might confiscate the boat on some corrupt African bureaucratic nonsense pretence. And everyone was very exited when the USA Secretary of State woman came past demanding Africans be more vigilant as the area was fast becoming the Colombian turntable. It is no doubt on that, but just leave me alone, I have nothing to do with that. I am just an artist following a dream. So we left in the middle of the night. Didn't even get to say our proper goodbyes due to all that madness that is by all accounts getting worse there."

Some changes he made from the first Ontong Java were setting the mast farther forward and to angle the hulls about 3 feet closer together at the bows than at the sterns. The last boat's hulls were slightly narrower in the water and 6 feet apart hull to hull. The new boat's hulls are about 4 feet apart. Both boats rely in their v-shaped hulls to reduce leeway and do not use leeboards or daggerboards.

Hans describes how he came up with the design and construction of the rudders: "The rudders where a potential weak point in my design. In fact, on the first boat I had all kinds of wacky ideas on how to mount them and I was almost finished with the hulls and still I hadn't come up with a good solution. Then by accident I picked up a magazine in the waiting room of a dentist and saw a fictional sketch of a Viking rudder boss with a hole through it where the rudder was attached by means of a pulley. It made absolute sense almost like a flash going off in your head. So the next day had my adze man shape me two bosses, half of an egg-shaped lump, drilled 3 sets of holes vertically through them and bolted them onto the sides. Then by using 8mm spectra, the best for the job, and some tensioning wedges, I lashed the rudder blades, fixed so the only way to get them clear of the water is to take an axe to the spectra.

The rudder blades are not so straightforward as they look. I perforated the underwater portions of each with a line of three, 5-inch diamond-shaped holes. These slits tend to stabilise the blade to reduce wobble as the water is flowing around them. Another reason is once you pull the rudders hard over you get rid of the suction on the one side without hampering the flow of water over the blades surface. Also, they make an excellent foot step to climb up onto the stern from the water."

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The rudders of Ontong Java.
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The crew with the rudders taking shape.


Pleased with the initial sea trials, Hans stated, "In a way she reminds me of my first catamaran, a 36-foot Rudy Choy racing cat from Hawaii. My best in her was 120 miles in nine hours, so it remains to be seen how fast this one will turn out. I expect the moon and stars. Mast up, sails on and 5 days later we took her for a first sail. She did perfect, all my worries for naught as she pointed high and shot up into the wind like a racing dingy and came about with no hanging back, what a lark."

In September Ontong Java set out from Dakar for Portugal via the Azores to avoid beating into the Portuguese Trades as much as possible. With a single crewmate to help in watch keeping, Hans described the passage: "The trip was a rough one. We had a good south wind to start, which pushed us up to Mauritania but then we got hit doubly from re-curving NE trades and heavy dry thunder and lighting storms, mostly at night. Almost impossible to crank up speed due to all the leftover waves.

One funny incident - we were piling along with a brisk 20 knots over the bow, main slightly feathered, storm yankee up and very, very uncomfortable when I saw this research type vessel 10 miles ahead crossing our bows. To the east of it with a bone in her teeth a smaller 80-ton chaser boat making a hurtling bee line for us. You could see he had it in for us. We continued and in due course the chaser was up on us, loud hailing us to turn about immediately as the larger vessel was dragging a 6-mile sonar line. The boat was still 6 miles way and fast crossing our bows so she would have been well clear and I was damned if I'd go about in this messy weather so I initially just slowed the boat. But that wasn't enough for our motored friend who started loud-hailing us to turn about. I waved him off with a flip of the finger and before we knew it there he was upon us again, sirens howling, lights flashing, and I kid you not, firing flares over our bows. By that time my mate John had enough of my bravado and started taking to the other side, hahaha. It was worth the drama to make our miserable day more interesting. Needless to say, we turned about after that.

The untried boat held up well, but made loads of water through the anchor deck, bad job on the planking there; boy did it piss in. My friend John became quite worried and in his over-cautious way woke me up for ships that already passed us and let me know of every dark cloud he spotted way before it got to us. He made a good effort anyway, but we both decided it best for his peace of mind to turn downwind to catch a break at Sal Island (Cape Verde) where he flew home 4 days later.

In Sal I bought a bag of cement and sealed the anchor decks down tight. I'll rip it all out later or leave it as it's doing the job well. I spent a few more days fiddling with this or that and got used to waking up in the morning alone. Everything sorted out, I took off on my own and sailed smack into the tail end of that failed hurricane Nadine which gave me a nice lift into the Azorean high where I was reduced to 30 to 50 miles a day sailing on moon wind. By and large it was pleasant and perfectly easy to handle the boat alone. The self-steering works extremely well; bungee cord and string to jib. Guess it's the sail area and the hull configuration, how the hulls don't run parallel but angle in on each other to the bows. My only gripe was my Sony short-wave receiver gave up the ghost totally so I didn't get my daily soap from BBC or Radio Netherlands. Ah well, it gave 7 years of good service."

Sailing alone now, Hans faced the full brunt of the Portuguese Trades, that persistent North wind that makes it so easy to lay a course south to Cape Verdes, but near impossible to sail directly north from there. Patience and good luck allowed Hans to gain ground to the NW when hurricane Nadine, at that time still a tropical storm, altered the wind patterns enough that Ontong Java gained 700 miles in 5 days. Then the winds went light and fluky giving them barely 50 miles per day for another 7 days.

At this point Hans recalls: "Approaching the Azores I got a strong north wind again and all I could do for four days was tack backwards and forwards to maintain position, praying for the westerly to click in. I was close to tears as we were only 190 miles south of Punta Delgada and due to wave and wind action making hardly any progress in that direction. I was about to give up and bend off for Madeira when the wind changed in the morning. The westerly kicked in and 24 hours later we anchored in Delgada."

HansOntongJava08kb91Ontong Java at sea.


Staying a month on San Miguel Island, Hans got reacquainted with the good times a sailor finds in a friendly port. "I didn't get much to bed before 2 in the morning," Hans said, "Rediscovered red wine and fell madly in love again, what a good life and to top it up my father, or was it mum, put some silver into my account to tide me over until something profitable comes along."

Besides the sweet wine and friendly girls of San Miguel there was also the inevitable curses of modern European society to deal with. Hans said, "P. Delgada was unrecognizable from the sea this time round. Two huge marinas here now and no more anchoring allowed, and they don't provide a visitors dock. The bastards who built the marinas went bust two times and then once in place exercised the monopoly trick by outlawing anchoring. How original, real "farmer clever" we say in German.

I saw grown men worrying themselves sick over cancelled EU work contracts as funds dry up. What a crazy artificial system we live by. And this in the Azores where people have worked out a life over the last 400 years that works: farmer summer, fisherman winter. Even they have been suckered into this easy money bullshit.

But I can't complain too much. I met a number of people who where over the moon to see such a vessel in their harbor. The boat is quite the sensation. I take it for granted but it definitely fires up people's imagination. They tell me they all want to be free as me and sail away from all their obligations, which is how they see me. The tugboat captain came by with old flares of which I had none and some rope, which in turn freed up the anchor rope which I had been using alternatively as a main sheet. Even donated his wet weather trousers that he never used, a blessing - I thank them all.

And boy did I get the run around for the first 5 days by the policia maritime. Like pesky flies they wouldn't leave me alone, on to me at breakfast, back again for lunch on all kinds of pretexts - have I paid the lighthouse dues? A whopping 2€. And where is my third party insurance? We want to see one. Of course I could paint out what was going on in those provincial heads of theirs: "we see big man, we see big black boat, ergo must be something fishy going on here, DRUGS". So the police searched my boat secretly while I was in town having a cup of coffee and doing internet. This is the first time this has ever happened to me - searching a boat without the owner or captain present - in all my 35 years at this business. And after I had offered them the option to search the day I arrived, proud to show off my new boat, so they even stole that pleasure from me. How unprofessional is that?"

Setting off alone again for the Portuguese mainland, Hans noted in his journal: "Just spent the better part of 4 days flying along, hammering, doing the skip-hop thing these last 800 miles to mainland Portugal, still shy by 80 miles to Lagos Algarves. Had 7 ships all about me in a space of 2 hours. Wind is now slowly falling asleep. What a ride it's been, what a noisy boat, what mad surges of speed, my nerves on edge 24/7. I set sail, aim her to her course and go lay in my warm bed, looking up every so often. Self-steering by rubber band at a constant 9 knots. As the squalls pull over me I go up dressed to kill and re-angle the claw and boy can she pull; all 80 square meters of it.

I am also relearning old truths about sails and materials that I knew 35 years ago, but due to always making do with cast-offs and newer materials I found that I was ignoring my old hard won facts. The yankee is the right foresail for me. Forget the No. 2 hank on genoa, just not enough tolerance in wind speed changes. It had me bringing it up and down several times a night, madness really, looking at the safety factor of exposing one self to falling overboard half asleep battling some two bits worth of canvas. And I want reef ties stitched into all the foresails from now on. Also, look at my new mainsail, hand made from real medium canvas, cost overall 200€ and it bags just perfect where it must, it flogs softer, I am totally in love with that sail and am dreaming of a spare made even better."

For auxiliary propulsion Ontong Java carries a 40-hp long shaft outboard mounted in a watertight well. Hans reports, "It works very well in almost all conditions. I can even make headway into a 40 knot wind if there is not too much chop, very effective in turning the boat as I can swivel the engine so I almost turn on a dime in harbour. Good speeds too and I have motored at 9 knots in calm flat water. I can even stand up on a wake board being towed behind."

HansOntongJava10kb104Ontong Java in port.


His future plans include another voyage with the new Ontong Java into the Pacific if nothing turns up to hold him in Europe this coming year. At some point Ontong Java may be for sale to the right party and is ready now for charter trips or film making projects. Interested parties can contact Hans through this website.

Once back in the Pacific, Hans sees Ontong Java as perfect for work in the tourist trade. With her shoal draft for getting over the reefs, enormous deck space suitable for 50 people and stability to match, she's ideal for cultural evenings, sunset cruises, whale watching, even as a missionary ship or trading canoe. Hans added, "Being a seaworthy replica of the Tuamotuan voyaging canoe, rigged in the Marquesan style with an optional jib, she'd be an absolute winner in firing local imaginations from French Polynesia to the Solomons or Vanuatu region."

Through our recent conversations I came to see that since I first met him many years ago in South Africa, Hans has moved on from that previous life of trader, treasure hunter, family man. Now the man is on his own, this year building canoes on far away African beaches. Next year, who knows, but always moving forward with great energy of spirit. As for past problems, when media and even some friends let him down, Hans has shrugged it off and is enjoying his extremely creative life to the fullest.

Where the timid see arrogance, a deeper more realistic view sees in Hans a Nietzschean "will to power" philosophy; an ability to channel his passions creatively. Where most of us go on day after day motivated mainly by negative desires (we want not to have this or that problem in our life), Hans moves forward with uncommon confidence and purpose.

Hans writes "Man creates his own destiny and need not waste energy cursing others for they are damned enough as is; they too make their beds to end up sleeping in them. Why should we consent to those fools who hold us back? Stand to your humanity and abilities; no one else will do it for you. Be aware and observe. Ask the right questions, at all times. Act, don't react. Above all, do not let yourself be herded."

OntongJavaSailing01kb87Hans checks out his new sail ("paid for with South Seas pearls") as Ontong Java
sails out of Portimao on the south coast of Portugal in May 2013.

Time-lapse video of Ontong Java construction

Hans Klaar's Ontong Java Website