Dear Anthony : In the aftermath of a dirty little media scrum

Yesterday I found a dozen facebook Messenger requests from people I didn’t know …all claiming to be “glad to hear that Kris is safe” and then wanting me to call and “answer a few questions about his ‘amazing voyage'”. They were pushy af, insincere, asked loaded questions…but didn’t know how to listen to the answers. They were annoying, to say the least. I left my phone and laptop downstairs (I am supremely capable of ignoring a ringing phone…it is one of my greatest pleasures and strengths), and went to practice oblique pen calligraphy.

When they couldn’t get hold of either me or Kris, they trawled the internet for every little thing they could find about him, took what they could use, presented it—naturally— out of context, misquoted, and made shit up to fill in the gaps in their reports and create an aura of verisimilitude. The title everyone seemed to settle on was coined by the Maui News, repeated by The Guardian, and this of course set off a case of echolalia among all the other news sites. It read:

“Disoriented” Australian man Kris Larsen rescued in homemade boat off Hawaii”

It’s not important, in the end, what was written, what was true, what was untrue…the reports—even tarted up—were only moderately interesting to the internet, and activity faded away by evening. Internet news reporters are trained to take stories without substance, research, information or nutrients, pump it with steroids, prop it up and get it online within hours. Quantity, not quality, is their fare. But never mind all this, everyone knows that reporters are not journalists. What I want to share here is this:

This morning I found a copy of this letter in my Inbox. It had been sent by Dene Waring, a reader of The Age, to Anthony Colangelo…the byline for the article on the news site. His open-minded and intelligent approach—well-versed in the history of sailing and courteous to the reporter—from someone who clearly “gets it”, prompted my grateful reply, and I’ve included both our e-mails in this post, because they give me hope that not everyone “out there” is a 2-minute opinionated dunderhead.

Dear Anthony,

I read with interest your article “‘Disoriented’ Australian man Kris Larsen rescued in homemade boat off Hawaii”, and wish to broaden the perspectives expressed and inferred. I should add I had not heard of Mr Larsen before this morning.

In an industrial first-world culture that depends upon a large number of conformists to support its infrastructure that in turn support its conformists, we have come to hold up as heroes a small handful of intrepid adventurers – but not, it seems, during their own lifetime. However, there are exceptions in the sailing world of world sailors, such as Joshua Slocum, Lin and Larry Pardey, Robin Graham, Bernard Moitessier, and many others. My wife and I have also met more of whom the world will never hear during our own modest ocean voyages – those sailors want it that way. It seems Kris Larsen may be one of those quiet adventurers who has proven, with every one of his honest ocean-crossing miles over many years, that he is an intrepid man who sails under his own flag – the hard way – and thereby keeps alive that unique quality of human nature that drives the strongest of us to attempt great adventures with no absolute guarantees. Indeed, what great adventure would be a great adventure, if it also guaranteed being home by 5:30pm for dinner?

There are some issues with your article and its premise that you may find warrant (what I hope will be largely constructive) critique from some of your readers, which I also offer below. The article will also garner a large number of comments calling out Mr Larsen as “an idiot”. Those comments will come from those who are inflamed by the emotive angle of your piece. They may not research their subject before making their judgements.

It may have been a more interesting story both to write, and to read, if the context of Mr Larsen’s voyage had been explored and put forward. He appears to be an experienced sailor who chooses to circle the globe the way it has been traversed for millennia – on its own terms, without the assistance of such recent advents such as GPS and long-range communications.

Let us examine those key elements of the article that will elicit the most emotive responses from your readers: “Disoriented”. “Rescued”. “Homemade boat”. “Mr Larsen’s boat did not contain communication equipment, electronic navigation instruments, an engine or a toilet and his sails were in poor condition.”

“Disoriented”: Are we talking about knowing one’s exact position on the planet to within a metre, or are we talking about the strangeness of the first words one utters in the first human contact for many weeks or months? If the former, navigating as all master mariners have over the centuries with a sextant and a timepiece – Captain Cook comes to mind, but let’s not go into Christopher Columbus, poor man had no reliable timepiece – is a challenge many of us are not adept enough to be able to perform. I myself was required to demonstrate that I could navigate using traditional methods as part of New Zealand’s Cat 1 regulations when departing overseas on our own vessel; I had to strain considerably to demonstrate this just the once, and from then on depended on the U.S.’s military GPS satellites and prayed that war would not break out, thereby leading the U.S. to scramble the signals for civilian use. If that happened I would have been helpless and require “rescuing”. Mr Larsen in the same situation would have just carried on his way, undaunted by the loss of complex systems that depend on the actions of others.

“Rescued”: Asking for a tow into harbour when you have navigated across the Pacific to within 6km of shore does not always constitute “rescue”. Almost all engineless vessels for centuries have been towed into harbour by pilot boats as a matter of course – this is prudent seamanship, and still applies to most cargo and passenger vessels. In modern times, Lin and Larry Pardey ( voyaged the world in their series of engineless yachts and were towed into almost every harbour, including Australia’s; they are regaled for their choices and their voyages and have received many achievement awards.

“Homemade boat”: As any world-girdling explorer, stunt-person or cave diver will tell you, you must be responsible for your own equipment and its preparation. There is likely no factory-made, mass-produced vessel that would be suitable for Mr Larsen’s purposes, and let us remember that his life depends upon the integrity and the fitness for purpose of his craft. He appears to have designed and hand-built a craft that has successfully taken him around the world. How many people can claim that badge of honour? The answer lies upon the library shelves, with a small but valiant range of books describing the achievement. Please do read Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone around the World” ( – the true story of an astounding human being who stands tall as the first in his field to prepare his own craft and sail the world.

“Mr Larsen’s boat did not contain communication equipment, electronic navigation instruments, an engine or a toilet and his sails were in poor condition.”: Research into the nature of Mr Larsen’s epic undertaking and the manner in which he has performed it may show that he has wisely chosen the most dependable technologies and methods that have been proven throughout the ages. Indeed, if he had made himself dependent upon modern communications and navigation equipment (which often fails upon small craft due to salt-water damage etc and requires flawless performance of battery, wiring and charging systems), he may not have succeeded as far as he already has across many tens of thousands of ocean miles.

Likewise, engines on small vessels are disproportionately heavy and space-consuming (space that is better used for essential supplies) and often they are used for only a few hours – if at all – when circling the globe over many years. After all, you can always ask for a tow for the last few metres if you really need it? In this case, at your own peril it seems – you will be judged.

As for the reference to no toilet, a marine toilet (“head”) is a system of flaps, valves and underwater through-hull fittings that regularly fail and can sink a vessel very effectively – ask any marine insurance company. Nothing is safer or more wisely chosen in Mr Larsen’s case than a bucket; please refer to the hard-won wisdom of such circumnavigators as the aforementioned Slocum and Pardey, who extol the “bucket and chuck-it” approach themselves. However of course, if one is pottering about in-shore, it may be more polite and would certainly comply with local regulations to use a marine waste management storage system, but that is an entirely different matter.

Indeed, ask any experienced hard-nosed world cruiser – Mr Larsen seems to have made all the right choices, but he may yet be held up as a reckless fool. The fuller picture may reveal an experienced, intrepid adventurer of integrity and independence who has already achieved epic voyages with a minimum or no outside assistance – who among us is capable of these feats of human endeavour? Therein lies a much bigger and braver story to be told.

I put to you, are these not the very people we – eventually – hold up as heroes?

Kind Regards,
Dene Waring | Creative Director

Dear Mr. Waring,

Thank you so much for this lovely piece of writing, it was a beautiful thing to wake up to and read with my morning coffee. I have forwarded it along to Kris as I’m sure it will gladden him, and probably give him a few new ways in which to express himself (English is only his fifth language. He is perfectly competent, but not eloquent) should he ever need to ‘defend’ himself against any authorities who might try to prevent him from leaving Hawaii on the grounds of being incapable of sailing.

You absolutely “get it”, and this gives me hope that others who may have read yesterday’s little breakout of sneering news reports got it, too. Not that it matters whether the fickle cheerers-and-jeerers of the internet get it or not…heavens, no!

Kris is one of those unusual people who refuses to surrender his dreams, no matter how daunting they may seem at the outset or how much society disapproves of them. He’s had to fight his way through so many things in his life—not just to fulfill big dreams, but to enjoy ordinary privileges that others take for granted, such as being a legal citizen in a democratic country—that he’s acquired an interesting set of survival tactics and characteristics, among which are the calculated elimination of anything remotely superfluous to the goal or purpose (his personal interpretation of Occam’s razor), the readiness to put up with the inconveniences that such a pared-down lifestyle entails, and the tough skin one needs to face the onslaught of criticism that the world is quick to heap upon someone who simply sticks to his own path.

Fortunately, yesterday’s media scrum has had no impact on Kris, whatsoever. He is engrossed in stocking up on food and water, the authorities have granted him 10 days waived visa privileges (he only asked for 10…if he wants more, they told him, “Just ask.”) and weather maps for the next leg of the trip. What others say he can or can’t do isn’t his problem…in fact, he quite enjoys playing the “gormless idiot” in the presence of scandalised, angry “proper sailors”. It makes them feel good about themselves, they pronounce him a lost cause, and swagger off with a ripping good story to tell The Boys back at the yacht club…leaving him alone to get on with his plans. This is preferable to being “Likeable”, perhaps eliciting some condescending pity, and having the guy install himself as mentor and advisor, getting in the way while Kris is trying to work and get his boat back out on the ocean as quickly as possible! Mention these men to him, half an hour after they’ve gone, and his eyes take a minute to focus: “What men?” It’s as if the thing had never happened.

Of course, there have also been some very kind people at each port. Regardless of what they privately thought of the boat and its skipper, they withheld judgement and took the time to get to know Kris a little bit, and found him to be a man of intelligence and integrity. Also, they helped in very practical, concrete ways: shared a lift to the supermarket, a quick tow to the wharf in a crowded or windless harbour, tips on where to find things or how to get into the city from the marina. So much more valuable and appreciated than any lecture on sailing!

Unless someone tries to prevent him from sailing onward, he will be quite content, living in his head, making his plans, ignoring the internet. The world will think what it thinks, but you are right: whatever anyone says of his chosen path, he has just sailed most of the way round the world—from Australia to Hawaii—has spent the past 4 years exploring Africa (on bicycle) and South America (on foot), has acquired fluent Spanish as his 8th language, and collected a treasure trove of stories, friends, and unique experiences from all the countries visited along the way. On a budget, I might add, of a few hundred dollars a month. Thanks to a home-built boat that requires no maintenance he can’t do, himself, using materials that can be found in even the smallest Third-World towns, that can take a pounding, and that isn’t worth anything to thieves or pirates but the scrap steel it is made of.

He is that rare thing in these hobbled times: a free man.

I am so grateful that you seem to have intuited all of this—reading with a desire to understand, rather than to judge or label—with nothing but the internet as your source of information…a good indication of the narrow-mindedness and mean-spiritedness of yesterday’s twaddle-mongers, who had access to the same information you did, and managed to do no more than spin straw into horse shit.

With fond regards from us both,
Nat (and Kris)


Write over the edge of a cliff

“So I have two opposing beliefs that exist side by side—one, that communication is possible; two, that communication is impossible—and I swing back and forth, writing or not writing.”   —Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

I’m just going to dive into this post, because if I try to “catch up” with everything that has happened since October, I will never get the job done.

Stephen Dobyns sums up the way I often feel about blogging. The task of ordering my thoughts around the subject matter, and writing them down in the best way I possibly can, takes so much time and energy, it’s almost like having a second (third?) job. And yet, that is the only way to truly communicate something. The point of writing, after all, is to communicate: to take an experience, a thought, a feeling, and express it as succinctly as possible, so that you manage to move that experience or idea (nearly, though never entirely, because everyone interprets words differently) from your own head and into the head of a reader.

If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.

Despite all the care taken to arrange words so that they convey something precise, communication still fails, sometimes. Writers are not the only people guilty of being lazy and careless with words. Readers can also fall short of their roles and speed their way heedlessly through words, misinterpreting them or failing to appreciate that someone has, to the best of their abilities, chosen these particular words, and has put them in this particular order, for a reason.

They say writing, as a profession, is dying, and I believe that.

“Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”
—from The novel is dead (this time its for real), by Will Self for  The Guardian

Forget the debate between ‘dead tree’ vs. ebooks, and how the ease with which anybody can now ‘publish’ a book (because there are no financial risks involved in backing and promoting a lousy writer, whose work is a mere digital file that can be replicated ad infinitum) will make the difficult profession and demanding craft of writing extinct. I believe that even ebooks will die out, eventually, as both writers and readers get lazier, do whatever comes easiest. Any attempts to actually teach critical reading or serious writing in schools will come to be seen as “bullying” the children into learning something that is neither ‘fun’ nor profitable.

The visual image is the real king, these days, because it demands less of its audience. It is instantly gratifying, it titillates with colors and shapes (and subject matter), it does not require an education, a vocabulary, memory (in order to make sense of succeeding paragraphs, one must be able to recall what was said in the preceding ones)…it does not even require knowing a language. It’s wonderful in that way. It will cross boundaries of language, geography, culture, education and class, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful thing, the image—quick and easy to take in—though perhaps responding, relating, and consuming only images will be as detrimental to our mental health as consuming only packets of chips and bite-sized morsels of processed food would be to our bodies.

But nobody’s worried about that, because the great thing about this worldwide and systematic decline in critical reading OR quality writing is that if we are ALL uniformly dumber, then we really aren’t dumb anymore, are we? We may have taken a step backward, but we’ve all taken it together, and anything more demanding ceases to exist as something we have lost, or as something to be regained, because we simply won’t be aware that it ever was. The reference point blips out soundlessly, like the tree nobody was around to hear fall over in the forest.

I am on my way out of the devolving world, and the intellectual futures of people who made something like Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller—with its appallingly bad metaphors, its “sex will make bad writing palatable to dumb readers” strategy, and its author’s (and publisher’s) cavalier abandonment of any standards of quality—is not really my concern, anymore. If anything, I’m merely disappointed by how few of the new and trumpeted books emerging in bookstores and libraries have stolen my heart this year…

But I’ll keep on writing, here and elsewhere, even though the number of people willing to slow down and read a few hundred words with mindfulness has dwindled (and will continue to dwindle). Because I value the act of writing, in and of itself, whether it gets read or not. Because good writing brought me up and carried me through the wilderness of this world. Because I can’t not write.

Where have all the good men gone?

THIS is the standard by which we should be judging our presidential candidates—indeed, all of our government officials.

The great José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, of Uruguay. He has been described as “the world’s ‘humblest’ president” due to his austere lifestyle and his donation of around 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He has also been called “The World’s Poorest President”.

This is what a president should be…a servant of his people, not a celebrity. A man with his feet on the ground, his head clear and unswayed by power or money, and his heart filled not only with his people and his own country, but also with his planet and every other human being on it.

INCORRUPTIBLE. Not because it was his platform or because he was being ‘watched’ but because wealth and power simply did not interest him.

A selfless, simple man who refused to live in the presidential palace, or drive a presidential car (he drove his 25 year old Volkswagen to work every day when he was president) In 2010, the value of the car was $1,800 and represented the entirety of the mandatory annual personal wealth declaration filed by Mujica for that year. In November 2014, the Uruguayan newspaper Búsqueda reported that he had been offered 1 million dollars for the car, which was manufactured in 1987; he said that if he did get 1 million dollars for the car it would be donated to house the homeless through a programme that he supports.

A president who chose to spend taxpayers’ money on a rescue and medical helicopter for remote areas, instead of on a presidential jet. A man who never thought of his own comfort or pockets when he was in government. Who did not allow himself any luxuries that the most ordinary citizen of his country could not have.

After his 5 year term he refused to run again…and he went back to his old profession of flower farming with his wife.