Portions of this article first appeared as Found Treasure, Will Travel in Cruising World Magazine


by James Baldwin



The peculiar crab-claw rig of Rapa Nui is an eye-catcher.

I first saw the distinctive crab-claw-rigged catamaran Rapa Nui, as she tacked her way gracefully into Richards Bay in South Africa. I had heard so many stories, true and doubtful, about her skipper Hans Klaar, that he seemed larger than life. Indeed, there was hardly a port in the entire tropical Indian Ocean this cruising trader and treasure hunter had not visited several times over.


Recently, while refitting my boat Atom in Trinidad, I was thrilled to see the 51-foot Wharram cat Rapa Nui sail into Chaguaramas Bay and anchor nearby. When I first met Hans, his wife Cathryn, and young sons Florean and Tristan, they had just returned from another trading trip to Madagascar and the Comores Islands. As I got to know this tall and lean 33-year-old Swiss-German, he confirmed my impression that on an unconventional boat you will surely find unconventional people.


Hans has been living and cruising aboard boats since the age of eight when his father Ernst abruptly gave up his career in a Swiss chemical company and bought one-way tickets to Thailand for himself, his wife and three children. Though they had no sailing experience, Ernst bought a 52-foot Thai cargo junk, named Maria-Jose, and moved the family aboard. They installed an 8-hp diesel engine and planked shut the open deck. With all their money spent, they set sail for Australia. On their maiden cruise through Indonesia Ernst quickly learned the necessary sailing skills and became acquainted with the island traders who made their living carrying any cargo that would pay. None of this was lost on the eldest son, Hans, who was expected to work as hard as the adults.



Hans Klaar on deck under sail.

On a slow passage down the west coast of Australia to Perth they were caught in a storm that dismasted the junk. Unable to make Perth under jury rig they drifted around for weeks until making landfall in Sumatra. After rerigging the junk they wandered slowly through Indonesia to Darwin in northern Australia.


Ernst found work as second mate on a Northern Territories supply ship. He had hoped to make a permanent home for the family in Australia until typhoon Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974. "The hurricane completely wiped out the city and drove our junk ashore where she was badly damaged. My father was terribly discouraged and decided we should move on," recalls Hans. Once again they packed up and sailed west into the Indian Ocean. On an island in the Seychelles they careened the junk on a beach and replaced the damaged hull planks.


In 1976 the Klaars were in Durban where Ernst labored as a roofer to support the family. In spare moments he did archival research on the ancient treasure ships that plied the sea routes from Portugal to the Indies. He became obsessed with finding the Santiago, a Portuguese galleon laden with a fortune in gold and silver that was wrecked in the Mozambique Channel in 1485 while en route from Portugal to Goa.


With only rudimentary diving and salvage gear, the Klaars set out to find this treasure ship. Against incredible odds they located the Santiago on the Bassas da India reef in the center of the Mozambique Channel. Fourteen-year-old Hans discovered the wreck when he spotted some coral-encrusted ships' cannon protruding from the reef. In three weeks of brutally hard work they brought up several cannon, silver pieces of eight, gold jewellery and other assorted artifacts.


The Natal Museum, which later purchased some of the cannon, positively identified the seals on them as belonging to the Santiago. The Klaars then sailed back to Europe where they lived well for a few years off the proceeds from the artifact sales. In 1983 the Klaars sailed down the Red Sea to resume the search for treasure ships. Although they had purchased more sophisticated salvaging equipment Ernst luck had run out and there were not to be any more big treasure finds. They were once again in Thailand when their hard-earned savings finally ran out.


Soon after leaving Phuket, bound for the Comores, both Hans's parents became incapacitated with malaria. "These were very lean times," Hans remembers. "We had left Sumatra with $100 in cash and 80 boxes of whisky for trading and nothing else. My parents almost died because there was no medicine on board." The children sailed the boat west until they were able to reach the US Navy base at Diego Garcia where their parents received treatment at the navy hospital. Once they had recovered, the family sailed on to the other atolls in the Chagos group and Hans began collecting seashells for selling later to collectors.


On returning to Durban, 22-year-old Hans left to go his own way. Through some successful salvaging and clever trading, Ernst has prospered once again and continues sailing around East Africa with Maria-Jose.


Back in Durban with the proceeds from delivering a yacht to Florida, Hans purchased a second-hand 36-foot plywood Choy-design catamaran. Two South Africans joined him as crew on his first trip to the Comores with a load of clothing and soap to swap for rare shells. On the way back to Durban they ran into a cold front that hammered them for two days with storm-force winds. When the wind shifted to southeast they were in immediate danger of being driven ashore. As Hans described it: "I could see it was futile to keep tacking into it. One hull was leaking so badly that my terrified and seasick crew were bailing water non-stop. I had no choice but to try to enter the St. Lucia River, which is normally completely closed by a sand bar. We turned downwind and surfed through breakers foaming chest-high clear across the decks." The locals later told Hans that his was the first sailboat to cross the bar since the 1940's and that he would probably never get out again. Luckily Hans made his escape by following a temporary channel scoured out by a massive flood.


During the next two years Hans made numerous trading trips to East Africa and the islands in the western Indian Ocean. All these miles were sailed without an engine or any electronics whatsoever. He had made some profit by the time the cat became so rotten he was forced to get rid of it. What he now needed was a bigger boat -something large enough for hauling profitable amounts of cargo.


When Hans saw a 51-foot Wharram Tehini ketch advertised in England he flew there at once and bought it. "The owner had spent eight years building her out of plywood sheathed in epoxy-glass. Once it was finished he decided he didn't want to sail after all," Hans said.



Hans at the helm of Rapa Nui


Hans, Cathryn and the kids
going ashore in Trinidad.

Hans had recently married his long-time companion Cathryn, and together they loaded all their possessions, including a small black terrier, onto the new boat they named Rapa Nui. They departed Liverpool with two Swiss friends on a cold grey January morning bound for the tropical waters of East Africa. It was a rough miserable trip as far as Madeira where their crew jumped ship. They told Hans they couldn't stand the cold and seasickness and said, "For Chrissake, Hans, there's not even a toilet on board." With open contempt for soft landlubbers, Hans says: "Complainers and pleasure babies must just stay out of my way. I have no time for them." Fortunately Hans and Cathryn found they had no trouble handling the 51-footer on their own and were delighted to find they could usually get the cat to self-steer by balancing sails and trying various sheet-to-tiller rigs.


When they reached South Africa in 1994 the Klaars undertook a major refit of their nearly new catamaran. To better suit their needs the interior accommodations were completely rebuilt. They added an outboard motor in a well between the hulls. Hans, a skilled artist, decorated Rapa Nui with woodcarvings, animal motifs and impressionist paintings. He also cut larger hatches in the deck to provide more ventilation and easier access for loading heavy cargo such as the two refrigerators he later delivered to Mayotte. He replaced the worn out rudder pintles by ingeniously lashing the rudders to the hulls with non-stretch dacron lines. Hans works on the rule of thumb "If it looks strong, it is strong."



Hans points out the rudder
attachment lines.


The rudders are lashed to the hulls with dacron
lines woven in a figure-eight pattern.

They removed and sold the original aluminium masts. "I always wanted to experiment with a traditional Polynesian crab-claw rig," Hans explained. "It's a lower aspect rig, which makes it safer while still giving me the same total sail area of 72 square metres. The masts are made of gum trees. The main mast is 8 m and the mizzen 4.5 m. I tried a freestanding rig but found the masts were whipping, so I added shrouds. The horns on top the masts are mainly for aesthetics. The Polynesians probably used them to retain the sail halyards. I somewhat butchered the Polynesian-rig concept by using European-style rudders, but I consider that an improvement."


The sails are simple flat-cut triangles Hans made from polypropylene material used in Africa for bulk sugar sacks. A snotter line holds the upper yards to the masts and a kicker pulls the bottom yards down. Wind tunnel tests show the crab-claw rig to be highly efficient and it develops its lift in a way quite unlike other rigs. It looks similar to the lateen rig of the Arab dhow, but is different in handling. Unlike the loose-footed lateen, the crab-claw has a yard or boom running along its foot and the sails are cut at a smaller angle.


As Hans explains: "When you've got this rig you must forget everything you have learned about European rigs. It's all different - very much a question of balance. The beauty of the crab-claw is how it pulls upward like a kite, lifting the bows up so they surf instead of burying. She balances well for self-steering and points close in strong winds. The weak point is that she does not point so well in light winds. For beating I tilt the masts forward and tighten the kickers. To keep balance in strong winds I drop the main and use mizzen and storm jib."



Rapa Nui wearing her new sail
in Durban, South Africa.


Rapa Nui approaching the
Indian Ocean's African coast.

Since the Polynesian-inspired rebirth of Rapa Nui the new rig has proved itself on several passages up the east African coast, on a circumnavigation of Madagascar, and on this years passage around the African cape to Angola and across the Atlantic to Trinidad. Of the largely untrammeled Angolan coast, Hans said, "Most of the coast is beautiful cruising and completely undeveloped. But whenever you come to a town there are armed children walking the streets with machine guns - very depressing."


Aside from the cargoes he carries from time to time Hans makes a point of sailing light and uncluttered - that is without complicated modern gadgets or typical yacht safety gear. His life is similarly uncomplicated. Commitments, like nine to five jobs, he avoids at all costs. To be as self-sufficient as possible, Hans is often out line-fishing and occasionally hunts goats and wild pigs on the islands with his compound bow. Because of their increasing scarcity he no longer collects seashells.


As we sat on deck sharing a pot of bean soup and a loaf of Cathryn's rye bread, Hans sketched out their future plans. "We plan to sail up-island to Martinique soon and then back to Europe. We may sail west into the Pacific next year. I have an idea to build a 75-foot traditional Polynesian voyaging catamaran to do some exploring in the Pacific."


Updates: In 2005 Hans did sail Rapa Nui across the Pacific to New Zealand where he sold the boat. Her new owners have been sailing Rapa Nui out of Australia and the Coral Sea. 


Update from Hans Klaar after his release from South African Prison in June 2011:

I've been in contact with Hans since his release this June after serving several months in a South African prison for a rape he claims he did not commit. The other side of this story has been all over the international news and sailing blogs since his arrest in New Zealand in 2009 and his extradition back to South Africa where he had been convicted of rape in 1998. Han's statement is below:


"My arrest and subsequent extradition to South Africa to serve my sentence is by now old news; I am however saddened and shocked at the outcry and cheap sensationalism it has sparked amongst the sailing community and even some of my friends. I have decided it is time to break my silence and tell the truth about the events of that evening.


I had met the complainant, Ingrid Martyn, the previous night at a party hosted by a mutual friend and we hit it off immediately. We agreed to meet the following evening at a prearranged place in order to spend some time together. Ingrid Martyn arrived at this rendezvous as a completely voluntary and willing participant in what was to be an evening between lovers.


With her agreement we took my small dinghy out to the middle of Durban's harbour and before long were kissing and fondling in the way mutually consensual lovers normally do. Ingrid removed her clothes on her own volition. What followed was that she was an active willing participant in a sex act that did not include intercourse. We got dressed, I started the outboard motor and proceeded back to the quay. I noticed that she was all of a sudden very quiet and broody, but ignored it, putting it down to disappointment on her part really.


You cant imagine how many times I have wondered why this woman lied about and exaggerated this incident and took it so far. I believe she had an axe to grind with men in general and had recently been dumped by some man. She also slept with my good friend two weeks prior to our incident and basically kicked him out of the flat by morning. He was quick to point out that he was amazed at her aggressiveness.


We were somewhat alcohol influenced - 3 beers at the time. But only thing I can come up with was the girl friend she was flatting with was a school mate of my wife and somehow jealous of our family and felt she should encourage her friend to make an example of me. It was this woman who went with Ingrid to the police and basically prompted her to such an extent that Ingrid couldn't back down without losing face to her friend. She seemed to be easily lead.


She was somewhat mentally unbalanced, just considering her reactionary conversations concerning men. Today I would run a mile if some woman started talking about men like she did or at best tap my head but then I was 32 and filled with the firm belief nothing would harm a good easy going guy like me.


I was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a lower Court who had ostensibly ignored the following:


1) The medical statement was inconclusive no proof of penetration whatsoever had been established.


2) The official from the police who took the statement came forward on her own accord and testified in Court that she didnt believe that Ingrid Martyn had been raped.


3) The statement of this alleged complainant was so crossed out, rephrased, and rewritten as to render it, quite frankly, ridiculous.


4) The Court ignored the evidence of a maritime expert who testified to the fact that such a small boat would have been swamped with water, if not capsized, had two people of the size of Ingrid Martyn and I been entangled in any struggle, let alone the type suggested by rape.


My legal team appealed against the conviction and sentence: the High Court found that there wasnt enough to set aside the conviction, but did reduce my sentence to only three years imprisonment. This ridiculously low sentence for such a serious offence is obviously indicative of the views of the Court of Appeals on this incident.


I have had several legal experts look into the proceedings who have all shook heads in disgust as to the miscarriage of justice that occurred here, and I was advised to take my plight to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg.


As for my running away, well my fault is I just did not give it the gravity it deserved. The whole thing was an attention seeking fracas from the beginning. It wasn't much of a secret either as many of my then close friends knew all about it. And by the time we got word of the verdict, we where in Namibia and I was sure as hell not going to fly back and leave my wife and three small children alone in the middle of nowhere.


As for being a fugitive, well I never in my wildest dream thought that the SA police would bother with such an expensive quest and they didn't till January 2008. Also my then lawyer told me not to worry, that nothing will ever happen about it. I didn't act or feel like a fugitive either. I should have gone for a third appeal - might have taken another two years but I wasn't going to chuck any more money down this stupid hole.


In the end, penny wise pound foolish, I had a cheap cooperate lawyer and should have got my self a proper criminal lawyer. But at the time I thought why should I when I didn't rape anybody. But I completely under estimated what a rape obsessed country like SA is and how tired the system was of convicting all these black on black rapists. Can you imagine how happy they where of being able to handle their first European case - a real Swiss sex tourist, that's how I was portrayed."


Hans Klaar