Ontong Java: I sailed with the last pirate on his self-built wooden catamaran


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catamaranAt Wakiki beach in Corralejo, north-east of Fuerteventura, sunset tinges the sky pink and illuminates the rocks in a pastel colour.

How I met Hans

When the tide is low, beautiful waves form where the bottom rises, waves suitable for everyone, even beginners like me. That’s where I met Hans, he was on his “long” and surfed the sets that came up with style. Hans wore a cap with a visor that went all the way around his head, like those of sailors or fishermen, in the middle was embroidered a name, Ontong-Java.

The inscription was similar to those found on classic racing polo shirts, with the name of the boat on the heart. I began to talk to him, discovering that he was in a boat, moored at the buoy field in front of the harbour, and after a few minutes, he invited me to see it.

The next day I rented a sup and approached where I was told, the distance was considerable and from the beach I didn’t really understand either the size or the shape of the boat, but when I got closer I found it hard to realise what I was seeing: a wooden catamaran twenty to twenty-four metres long with three girls on board who were training and dancing to the rhythm of music.


Tommaso Oriani
Tommaso Oriani, the author of this article, with his daughter aboard Hans’ catamaran

I approached from the starboard side and asked for Hans, the girls called him politely in chorus, he came out from below deck. He was a tall man, of indefinite age but not young, dark hair, slim build, big jaw. The scene before me was unique, so unusual. I asked him if he could arrange an outing one of those days (I was on holiday with my family and some friends), he wrote his number on a card and said to call him. After two days we got on board and set sail. The experience was unique, that’s why.

Hans’ boat

The catamaran falls into the category of revisited “Polynesian pirogues, it was self-built on the island of Ontong by Hans and his host villagers. It is 24 meters long and 7 meters wide.

Tommaso Oriani catamaran

It is entirely built in wood using mostly recycled materials (the mast was a light pole, the boom a long branch (broken several times) found in the jungle, the sails and deck equipment are also recycled: the mainsail is a set of three stitched sails and the jibs were salvaged after storm surges, as were the winches and blocks; “it’s amazing what you can find after Caribbean hurricanes, there are people who abandon boats still with everything on board, they pay the insurance anyway” said Hans.

last pirate

The interior is rather basic, of course, but not uncomfortable. They are arranged along the two hulls: on one side, the galley, living room and a couple of bunks; on the other, bunks, reading area and “leisure area” with surfboards and the like, wetsuits. Water is collected in large blue containers and there is no fridge or icebox, but there is a gas bottle. “The wooden boat is the best,” says Hans, “if something breaks, you just have to change the plank(s) in question, which is much better than fibreglass.The Ontong-Java catamaran has sailed four times around the world.

The crew

Imagine the ‘raft’ I’ve described (with the imagination and the pictures in the article) and add three girls aged between 20 and 26 from Spain, Mexico and England who live on it, travelling the world. The first thing that springs to mind is “what a sui generis situation… “The girls’ duties are to assist Hans in navigation, keep the boat tidy and cook.

How did they get on board? Through a boat stop website (crewseekers) and by word of mouth. The most imaginative of the three is Blanca, a Spaniard from Barcelona, who lives on a 6-metre boat moored in the Caribbean and has been sailing on Ontong Java for a while. After a few beers, we got to know her a little better and discovered that she was not only a sailor but also a tattoo artist and avocado stone carver…

The English girl never spoke and looked at you in a shy way, the Mexican was the youngest and apart from her Apulian past, I didn’t know much. To the question: ‘What is the relationship between you and the girls’, ‘better not to ask’, said Hans.

The Captain: the last of the pirates

Hans is the son of a Swiss mercenary, enlisted in the Foreign Legion, who, after the battle of Algiers, decided to quit his ‘job’ and devote himself to his passion: sailing and treasure hunting.

Captain Hans

So they left with their wives and children. After a few years they found what they were looking for. The Portuguese galleon Santiago, sunk off the coast of Madagascar and hiding a real lost treasure in its holds. They lived on it for a while, but it goes without saying that they squandered most of it on enjoying life.

His father returned to dry land, while Hans tried to get into Marine Biology in New Zealand, but failed because he had not had a “classical” education (although he knew everything about fish and marine biodiversity): “if you can sail, you don’t need to learn anything else”, his father claimed. He thus resumed plying the seas halfway around the world, he was known and respected from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, “you can come sailing with me in all seasons”, he would tell me, “I always know a shelter available, even if it’s stormy”.

He has shot at pirates in the Philippines, smuggled alcohol into South Africa, has children he hasn’t seen for years, and has been in jail for a few years.

And here I’ll stop because the story is already beautiful as it is, for those of us who mostly go sailing in expensive fibreglass shells on Sundays, have a desk job and get excited about winning a regatta. It comforts me to think that there are people like this and that perhaps, deep down, there is a small part of us that is like him, a pirate soul, an anti-hero who dreams of living outside the common laws, roaming the world’s seas, free.

Tommaso Oriani

Photos taken on board the Ontong Java

VIDEO Boat Construction

VIDEO Sailing on the Ontong Java


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