The Life and Times of Mark Hassler

November 8, 2001

“The Rio’s a great place to disappear in,” said a bearded old guy with a pigtail one night at a local watering hole in Fronteras, the dusty town on the river near our marina. When you take your time over a beer, and hear the stories about cruisers who’ve passed this way before, you can’t help but shake your head. They were a wild, shaggy-haired lot, who had themselves a ball back when the river was still a rough-and-tumble jungle—before deforestation stripped some of its banks; before rich Guatemalans built their palapa-style homes on the shoreline; hell, before the rest of us pasty-faced gringos showed up.

| | Here and there on the Rio are the vacation homes of rich Guatemalans * * *| We’ve heard stories about people who came for two weeks and stayed years, of folks who went native, of gringos who got here, liked the anything-goes energy, sunk some roots, opened hamburger joints or sail lofts, and tried to rub a living together out of the place. And then you hear stories about Mark Hassler—his boatbuilding, dance parties, giant catamarans, peace signs, and the world of porn. His take the cake.

Douglas and I ran into Mark when we were backpacking around Lake Atitlan in the Highlands. We were sitting in a lancha—a water taxi—waiting for it to leave the tourist-infested hive of Panajachel, across the massive lake to a sleepy village where we hoped to hole up for a few days. A white-haired, crinkly-faced coot hopped in, sized us up, and declared, “You guys are cruisers, right? I know it! I can tell by your glasses straps. Where’s your boat? The Rio, right?”


“Uh, right,” said Douglas, taken aback.

“I’ve been a cruiser all my life.” he smiled. “Name’s Mark Hassler.” This rang a bell. We shook hands. I noticed his gnarled, misshapen fingers, knuckles, and elbows. This was the guy! “I used to live on the river, too. I’m on land now, in San Marcos, with my wife,” and he introduced us to Kathy, a small, dark Guatemalan woman with long black braids, dressed traditionally in embroidered huipile blouse and woven skirt. An hour later, when we reached Mark and Kathy’s lancha stop, which was just before ours, Mark had told us a the beginning of a story so awesome that Douglas and I asked if we could walk up to their house the next day and hear the end of it.

| | Our stone bungalow at Posada Shuman in San Marcos, right on Lake Atitlan * * *| The next morning, unsure of the direction, we came across a young boy, and I tried to ask him in Spanish if he knew where Mark lived. My mangled Spanish was met with a blank look. I groped for a different angle: _”El gringo loco con mano deforma?”_ And I held up my hands and twisted them up like Mark’s. His face brightened, and he pointed the way.


On the gate outside the house that Mark built is the carved symbol of two hands holding the world, a sign of the nuclear free zone. The house is a round, thatched, one-room mushroom bermed into the cliff, overlooking the lake and volcanoes. There’s a loft bed draped in mosquito netting upstairs, a living room and kitchen on the main floor, and outdoor bathroom and shower under the living room. A paddle-wheel waterfall fed from a solar-heated tank cascades torrents of steamy water into a giant, round hot tub decorated with shells. Winding footpaths are lined with flowers, and everywhere are the souvenirs of two circumnavigations.

_ _

Mark grew up in Ojai Valley, California, where his parents founded the Happy Valley School, with Aldous Huxley as the first headmaster. He went to San Jose State, started surfing, and performed professionally as a Russian folk dancer. “All in all, I was considered unusual.”


| | This giant cantilevered fish mobile seems to come straight out of the mountain-side. Mark made it from the rigging and spars of an old sailing dinghy.* * *| While he became a woodworking teacher, husband, father, and jewelry maker, what focused him were surfing and sailing. “I got this kick-ass 18-foot Malibu outrigger. Then I built a 30-foot Piver trimaran. I wanted to cross oceans. When I finished the boat, I took my wife sailing. She said, ‘I’m going _nowhere_ in this thing. It’s too small!’ So, in the next 13 months I built a 38-foot Off Sounding, the first of Jim Brown’s multihull designs. The wife christened the boat and divorced me the same day.”

All the while, Mark was making jewelry. “After reading Bertrand Russell’s Quaker stuff on conscientious objection, I became the first conscientious objector to the Viet Nam war to go through the Ventura, California, draft system. Russell’s superimposed semaphores for ‘ND,’ nuclear disarmament, was the basis for a resistance symbol I designed. I minted the mold and made hundreds of them in silver. They took off as a symbol of peace. Unfortunately, I never got around to patenting it. My mind was on sailing.

| | Mark looks over the lake, from the balcony of his studio.* * *| “I had my boat nine months before wrecking it on Anacapa Island. Sunk it in a surprise storm. I couldn’t get the anchor up, so we dragged onto the beach. I was a vegetarian, so none of the damn knives on board were sharp enough to cut the anchor rode! I’d just met this woman named Bonnie, and this was her first cruise. After the boat hit the beach, we dragged what we could to shore and stayed in a cave 72 hours before we were rescued. Bonnie looked at me as the boat was breaking up against the beach, and said, ‘Hey Mark, let’s build another boat and sail it around the world.’ I said, ‘Finally! The right woman!’


“So I built a 37-foot Searunner trimaran designed by Jim Brown. Bonnie and her son David and I left from Oxnard, and we sailed around the world in 3 1/2 years. When we arrived in the Rio in 1973, there were only two other boats. What a paradise. We stayed 15 years. We had the boat there seven before I sold her. I figured, hell, I sailed into this country and I’m damn well sailing out, so I started collecting stuff off wrecks.”

On the river, Mark had met a Guatemalan named Chung. “We worked side by side building houses for years. In 1980, I needed some money and so we went together to California and rehabbed the famous Owl House in San Fransisco. I returned with $2,500 in my pocket. In Belize I bought for exactly $2,500, all the salvaged parts a 39-foot Ericson. I told Jim Brown exactly the type and size of all the equipment, mast and rigging he drew up a cat that fit the stuff, said I was crazy, and gave me the design of That, a floating pterodactyl 62-footer that drew six feet. She was 40 feet wide! At that point, I had $135 left.

| | In Santiago, the village across the lake from Mark’s house, almost all the men wear these embroidered pants.* * *| “_That_ cost me $50,000, start to finish. Meanwhile, my daughter married Art Mitchell, one of the big pornography brothers who owned the famous erotic O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco. Those boys made porn legal in the US. The Mitchell Brothers came to my rescue. They had a 36-foot trawler that needed a cabin, and I flew to the States as fast as I could in ’81 to build it. When I was done, Art and Jim loaded a briefcase with 350 $20 bills. The three of us drove out and handed the money to System Three, who shipped six 65-gallon drums of fiberglass to Guatemala.”

Mark flew back to the Rio, and when the fiberglass arrived, he and Chung got to work. It was a happy time, especially when Chung’s wife gave birth to their fourth child, a son, who they named Marquito after Mark. Within two days, however, Chung’s wife died of complications from the birth. Mark built her coffin in his shop alongside his mold. Bonnie began caring for the baby while Chung worked every day with Mark, and the three little girls divided up their mother’s housework. Within a few months, Chung decided that Mark and Bonnie should keep Marco, and the stunned couple legally adopted him. Mark was 50 and Bonnie 42.

| | The volcanoes of Lake Atitlan, shrouded in morning mist* * *|

With Chung and Mark working full time, and many local Indians helping out, That took shape. “In the spring of 1982, I needed to buy the wood for the boat, and so I flew to the States and built a greenhouse for Art and my daughter Karen, then found a pile of good dry Spanish cedar in the attic of a whorehouse in Fronteras, and bought it.”

Launch day finally arrived in 1985. That had to be pulled out from the shop by hand and dragged down to the water. “Next to my Q’eqchi Indian neighbors stood a banker from San Fransisco, an American priest, a pint-sized child from the village, a French yachtsman, next to the son of the ex-president of Guatemala, and a German pizza entrepreneur. Out in the bay floated Jim Brown in an inner tube, camera in hand, looking like a bespeckled sea otter.

Uno, dos, tres, HEAVE! Each time the call went out, a horrible groan rose from the throng as every man, woman, and child pulled on the lines with all their strength. It took three full days to get that boat from the shed into the water. Afterward, Bonnie broke it to me that she didn’t want to go cruising anymore. The baby had changed her priorities. She went back to San Francisco with Marco.

| | The peace symbol that Mark said he designed, now in the shape of a window in the studio he shares with Kathy* * *| “I got my nephew Johnny to help finish the boat. We headed for San Francisco but hit a reef off Nicaragua, because a Frenchman had adjusted the compass, and it was 15 degrees off! I know the coast of Honduras, and I hadn’t needed to look at the compass until reaching Nicaragua. There was some damage so we turned around, but a twister hit us and threw Johnny halfway up the mast. When we got back to the Rio, he took off. I was really down and out, but the natives who’d worked with me when I was building houses brought me food. Helped me with the boat. That was the first time in my life that people had taken care of me.

“Eventually I sailed up to Florida, worked in a boatyard for a while, met Ann, and she said she wanted to sail away with me. We went through the Panama Canal and sailed north but we had no wind for three months at sea. We got hit by 40-foot waves that busted the steering vane. I fixed it, but then a 50-foot wave hit us sideways and busted the cross arm. Finally, we made it to Ventura, and I worked in Harris Harbor Boat Yard for two years.

“It was there my arthritis got bad. Chung and I’d used thinner to clean the epoxy off our hands when we were building That. Every day, I’d dip my hands and arms right into epoxy, and then use thinner to get it off. It stung like hell, but was the only thing that worked. It drove the poison into my skin and bones. Now I can’t close my hands.”

| | Mark’s hands are gnarled with arthritis* * *| Mark and Ann finally sailed for the South Pacific. “I was fascinated by the dancing in the Gilbert and Ellis islands. I made 80 tapes of the original music, from everywhere we went. They were all erased when we got hit by lightning, which also blew out all our electronics. Ann left me after that.”

By the time he made it to Australia, Mark was broke, and the boat “was a mess, so I stopped and went to work. Then I met Kirsten, who was doing back massage and healing. We spent four years cruising together. So much happened. I fell overboard in the Indian Ocean, at night. No moon. Kirsten didn’t really know how to sail, and was asleep when she heard me hit the deck. I thought I was a goner. Saw the lights go over the horizon! She ran up, figured out how to turn the boat around. I don’t know how she did it, but she found me in the dark.

“I made it through four hurricanes in the South Pacific, was dismasted between the New Hebrides and Fiji and limped into Micronesia. I taught woodshop for two years there and built the locals a new school. And then Kristen and I sailed all through Asia, up the Red Sea, stopped in Israel for a year, sailed the Aegean and Med, and came back home to Guatemala.”

Mark and Kristen went their separate ways, and he sold That, although it’s still a fixture on the Rio. He bought some land in the Guatemalan highlands, near Lake Atitlan, and started building houses again. “My friends, locals from San Marcos, decided I needed a wife. I shrugged it off because, frankly, I’d sort of had it with women. But they went looking anyway. First they said they found a great woman—taller than me, and big and round. I said no way. So they found someone else. This time, they were excited.

| | Mark and Kathy Hassler* * *| “I went to meet her and, right away, I got this feeling. She was gentle, and quiet, with pretty, sad eyes, and she only had seven teeth, but she looked beautiful to me. Her husband had died. She’d moved back in with her family, and they were very poor. Well, I got permission from her family to ‘date’ her for two months, which is the way it works here, and took her home. After the two months, I told the family I wanted to make her my wife. They married us then and there.”

Katarina Hassler is a thoroughly traditional Guatemalan woman, who wears her decorated clothes with pride—even when she and Mark travel back to the United States to visit Mark’s family. She weaves all her clothes, and Mark’s, as well as other traditional items, which she sells in the studio they share. When she smiles now, which she seems to be doing all the time, it’s with a mouthful of beautiful new white teeth.

| | Bernadette and a friend in San Pedro, on Lake Atitlan* * *| “I’ve never been happier in my life,” he said, as we leafed through his photo albums. There was one of Mark with porn queen Marilyn Chambers. There was an old cover of _Let’s Dance_ magazine, featuring a young Mark in full Russian regalia executing a mile-high jump. (“I was one of the best Russian folk dancers around.”) There was a picture of Marco, all grown up and in college in the States. There was a picture of Kathy in her Guatemalan garb, in front of a Safeway in Arizona, a great wicker basket of groceries balancing on her head. (“She insists on carrying everything that way, even in the States”)

The day was winding to a close, Mark closed his albums, Kathy gave us cold drinks, and before we all hugged each other goodbye, he handed us a little self-published book called How That Came About. It’s the saga of the building of That, along with Mark’s philosophy on “seasteading”—his word for cruising. When we opened the book later, I noticed he’d inscribed it inside the front cover: “To Bernadette and Douglas,” he’d scrawled in his shaky hand, “Welcome to the world!”

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