Books

A high-seas education

Tanya Pampalone

Growing up in the global yachting community made for a great memoir.

Ups and downs: Martinique Stilwell as a child on her family’s yacht.

THINKING UP A HURRICANE by Martinique Stilwell (Penguin)

In January last year Martinique Stilwell was well into her memoir of a childhood at sea. In fact, she was nearing the end of it, writing about her 18-year-old self who was preparing to go to medical school — an astonishing feat considering much of her learning came from a few hours of maths and English a day. She was boat-schooled, as it were, by her mother and, for a period, through a string of marine biology lessons from a young woman who hopped aboard her family’s yacht in Puerto Rico and stayed for several months.

So when the local papers splashed an oversized photograph across the front pages that same month of convicted rapist Hans Klaar — hand-cuffed, tattooed, a sneer across his tanned face and surrounded by armed guards as he landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg — the timing was disturbing. Or perhaps auspicious.

Stilwell had known Klaar from the global yachting community. But all the local papers were saying about him was that he had been extradited from New Zealand, where he was picked up after being on the run for 11 years following the rape conviction of a Pietermaritzburg woman in 1996. Stilwell pitched the Mail & Guardian an article about the mysterious Swiss-born Klaar.

The piece was about a renegade sailor who had spent his life at sea, a man Stilwell referred to as “having a feral quality”, even as a teenager. Klaar grew up on a traditional Thai junk called the Maria Jose, along with his mother, brother, sister and a father who, according to Stilwell, thought the only education his boys needed was a life at sea. The family bartered their way around the globe, surviving on rice and beans and fish caught at sea, until discovering a 16th-century shipwreck in the Mozambique Channel. Stilwell also mentioned the 2006 rumours that ran through the sailing community that Klaar’s brother, Alex, had allegedly been jailed in Madagascar in connection with the murder of another sea-faring trader who had been found, Stilwell wrote, “decapitated on his yacht with his head in his lap”.

The endnote of the article said that Stilwell was working on her memoir. A few days later Alison Lowry, then the chief executive of Penguin South Africa, called Stilwell to arrange a meeting. And a book deal was born.

The result was Thinking up a Hurricane, a gripping memoir-cum-travel adventure that takes the reader through a built-in narrative of a pre-globalisation circumnavigation of the globe that began in the 1970s in Durban, via Benoni. It is a child’s sea journey, featuring a complicated family scraping by on very little cash, riding out terrifying storms, swimming in turquoise waters and stopping on idyllic sun-drenched islands (and some not-so-idyllic ones) alongside a cast of ­better-than-fiction characters

The Klaar family is one of many in the book that Stilwell and her family meet as they travel the world. There are also the French-born brothers of the Dou-Dou Diop, who grew up in Senegal and survived by stealing, begging and fishing. There is the snobby American woman who lived on an elegant schooner with Persian carpets and the yachtie who introduced Stilwell to the world of shells — a hobby that would have her amassing an impressive collection. There is also the sailor from Montana who pulled her out of the sea as a storm hit the shore in Tahiti, something her father would never let her forget.

“Bunch of bladdy rats,” he hissed at Stilwell and her twin brother Robert for jumping out of their yacht, Vingila, to save themselves.

Family ties
Her father Frank, an electrician, is the antihero. A stubborn man with an explosive temper and a motto that “fortune favours the brave”, he takes his family on what is supposed to be a two-year journey with no experience at sea other than 10 days sailing with friends in Mozambique.

“I didn’t want to write a misery memoir … but we had a slightly difficult family,” said Stilwell, who is now a medical doctor in Cape Town. Writing about her family was the most difficult part of crafting the memoir, she said. And it took its toll on them as well.

The complicated family is reminiscent of Jeannette Walls’s in Glass Castle and Alexandra Fuller’s in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Like Fuller’s mother, who referred to her daughter’s bestseller as “that awful book”, Stilwell’s father — who named her Martinique after the island he had planned to visit on his circumnavigation of the globe — read two chapters and had chest pain. After being given a clear angiogram, he is now back to reading the book.

“He was so set that I had written this hagiography that not until he started reading it did he realise it might not be about how brave and wonderful we were.”

Just as the book was going to the printer, Stilwell gave the final proofs to her mom — a well-intentioned woman who nonetheless followed her husband’s sometimes callous orders — with the caveat that she “could have put a lot more in it”.

Her mother spent the morning on the couch, reading and laughing and crying, and then called Stilwell’s father, who lives in the Zululand Yacht Club in KwaZulu-Natal, to say she read everything but the sections about the storms. True to character Frank replied: “Storms? What storms? We didn’t have any storms.”

The book is drenched in such crisp detail it makes one wonder how Stilwell recalled it all.

“I had the ship’s log,” she said, “and I remember things in pictures. I have strong textural memories and as I sat down more memories came about.”

She also used Google Earth to remind her of some of the more remote settings and had a handful of diaries that survived, along with the Vingila’s visitor’s book and photos from Lynnath Beckley, the young woman who taught her marine ­biology and is now a professor of the ­subject in Perth.

At the beginning of the book Stilwell quotes Joshua Slocum, who wrote the yachting book Sailing Alone Around the World in 1900. “I once knew a writer who, after saying beautiful things about the sea, passed through a Pacific hurricane and became a changed man.”

Stilwell writes in her epilogue that she still dreams of being back on the Vingila, watching palm trees on the shore as schools of fish swim underneath in the clear water.

I asked her how her childhood had shaped her. “I think I’m stronger,” she said. “I’ve got that self-reliance. People think it’s glamorous, but it’s hard for children to grow up at sea. It can make them strong but can [also]break them. Look at the Klaar boys — there are more of those kinds of guys around.”

In her Mail & Guardian article Stilwell wrote about one of the last times she had seen Klaar at the yacht club in Richard’s Bay.

“One night on the beach ... I learned to my detriment that Hans was not very good at listening when a woman said no.”

That was one of the things that Stilwell chose to leave out of the book. One can only wonder what else is missing. But it does not seem to hurt the narrative, which pulls the reader all the way through with well-crafted prose.

As for Hans Klaar, he was given an early release. He ended up serving just half of his three-year ­suspended sentence and was reportedly deported back to his native ­Switzerland.

According to the yachting website Sail Feed, in May this year he was in Gambia, building another boat from raw-wood stock and hoping to head out to sea.

Stilwell is an occasional contributor to the M&G. The launch of the book takes place on October 23 at 6.30pm at Love Books in Melville and features Stilwell in conversation with M&G editor Nic Dawes


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