After my brother tragically died, I knew I wanted to pursue adventure. Now my family and I live on a catamaran.

  • Rob Hamill's brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge when his boat drifted into Cambodian waters.

  • Hamill now lives on a catamaran with his wife and sons and honors his brother's legacy.

  • He feels he is able to have adventures and time with his family that his brother never got.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rob Hamill, a 60-year-old former rowing Olympian from New Zealand, about how the murder of his brother by the Khmer Rouge inspired his family's decision to live at sea.

The Khmer Rouge was a Communist political regime ruled by dictator Pol Pot in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. They were responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people.

The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I grew up in a local small town with a population of 15,000 in a beachside community in New Zealand on the east coast of the North Island called Whakatane.

It was a pretty normal Kiwi upbringing.

I was the last of five children. I was closest to my sister, who was four years older than me. My eldest brother, Kerry, was 12 years older than me. He was probably the one I knew the least. But we were very close, especially as I grew older.

My father loved sailing. He was in the merchant Navy during World War II. He had a real love of the sea.

That heavily influenced Kerry. He ended up going to Australia in his early 20s, looking for sailing opportunities. He went up to Darwin and bought a boat called Foxy Lady.

Kerry Hamill was captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.
Kerry Hamill was captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

Kerry wrote really lovely letters. You became part of his story as he told it to us, and we lived vicariously through his adventures.

I was 14 in August 1978 when the letters stopped.

My brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge

The last letter he sent us was from Malaysia's east coast. He and his crew got blown off into Cambodian waters and took shelter on King Island, about 50 kilometers offshore.

Around August 20, his boat was attacked by a gunboat. Kerry was captured by the Khmer Rouge.

Kerry and his friend Stuart Glass, a Canadian, were on deck at the time of the attack. Stuart was shot. They both went overboard, and Stuart died in Kerry's arms. He buried him at sea.

Kerry and John Dewhirst, another survivor on the boat, were taken hostage. A few days later, they were taken to Phnom Penh to the Tuol Sleng prison and tortured for months. We're pretty sure Kerry was executed there exactly two months later, in October 1978.

It was 16 months between his last letter and hearing what happened.

My parents were beside themselves. They wrote letters to different ports all over Asia, trying to find the news.

I heard the news around January 1980. Timelines are vague, but I vividly remember that a neighbor rang us one day saying, "You need to get the paper."

My second-eldest brother John and I drove down to the local shop. There was this pile of papers with the headline: Hamill captured by the Khmer Rouge.

Kerry Hamill.
Kerry Hamill was 26 when the Khmer Rouge captured him.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

Hearing about my brother's demise — reading about it in the paper — was a real shock. That was the first time I grieved.

John took Kerry's death very hard. They were about a year apart. They did everything together as kids. He came home, and there was considerable unrest as we all struggled.

He messed with some drugs along the way that had an effect on him. He got very depressed. So we had a memorial for Kerry, and then a few months later, John took his life.

I feel almost certainly that if Kerry were here, John would be here today as well.

Two funerals in quick succession shaped our family

I became a bit of a loose cannon, a reasonably big drinker during my school years.

But sport was my savior.

After leaving school, I did this electrical apprenticeship but had no passion for electricity. I was so unhappy, so I took up rugby. Every Kiwi bloke has a go at rugby at some point in their lives.

I did that for a couple of years, and then when I was 19, one of my mates said, "I'm going to try out this rowing thing tomorrow morning at the local club. We're going to just have a go. Do you want to come down?"

Rob Hamill rowing.
Rob Hamill rowing.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

I remember going to the first race we had. We won by the thinnest of margins. I was absolutely euphoric.

With racing, you can just hammer yourself so hard, push yourself to the near feeling of death, and then the next minute, you're OK.

I trained harder again, and pretty soon, I was going, "Well, I want to go to the top of this thing."

I rowed in the World Championships for many years, and then the Olympics in 1996. In 1997, I won the first Atlantic rowing race.

It was a huge adventure, a big leap into the unknown. There had been several people who'd attempted to row oceans prior to this, but more people had walked Everest than rowed an ocean at that point.

Phil Stubbs and Rob Hamill.
Rob Hamill with Phil Stubbs, his teammate in the inaugural Atlantic rowing race in 1997.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

We started in Tenerife, and six weeks later — 41 days later — Phil and I rowed into Barbados and won the race.

I discovered I wasn't at peace with the deaths in my family when I did the Atlantic race. When I was at sea, I grieved.

Every day, at some point, I wept like a baby — when I was on the oars, but usually in the cabin where you could take shelter.

It made me realize my grieving process was very stunted, and I knew there was something I was going to have to do about it.

In 2009, I got the opportunity to testify against Comrade Duch, a representative of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the first person to be brought to any sort of justice for the loss of millions of lives.

Rob Hamill in court in Cambodia.
Rob Hamill in court in Cambodia in 2010, when he testified against Comrade Duch, who was eventually convicted of crimes against humanity for his actions during the Khmer Rouge regime.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

This guy was arrested and revealed to be the commandant at the prison where my brother was incarcerated. He ruled with a very heavy hand in a very brutal and clinical way.

My mom had died earlier, and my dad had dementia, so I told the story from my perspective, where I saw the trauma and how it affected each of them.

I did the best I could for the memory of my brother, my parents, and the people of Cambodia.

I just hope I left a little legacy there for them.

When I started my own family, I decided to prioritize experiences together

I met my wife Rachel in 1991. During that time, Rachel and her sister competed as triathletes for Ireland.

We knew each other for about 10 years before we got together. We became friends over time, and then it happened when we were both single and she was visiting New Zealand.

She came out to help her sister, who had had twins. She ended up spending three or four months and went home, engaged to me. We got married about six months later, in 2001.

The boys came along very quickly after that. Finn in 2002, Declan in 2004, and Ivan in 2007.

Declan, Finn, and Ivan Hamill, photographed in 2021.
Rob Hamill's sons, Declan, Finn, and Ivan, in 2021.Renee Whitaker

My parents sent Kerry and John off to boarding school when they were 15 and 16.

My memories of Kerry and John would have been much stronger if we had time to grow up together as a close-knit family.

Rachel and I wanted to be with our kids, have experiences, and grow together. So then the question became, "How do we do that?"

Travel is a great way to do that. After the Atlantic race, I had a bit of a career in speaking. Through that, I managed to raise enough money to buy our boat, the Javelot, in 2014.

The following year, we did a seven-month South Pacific tour and took the boys out of school. In 2018, we went full-time.

The Hamill's catamaran, the Javelot.
The Hamills' catamaran, the Javelot.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

The homeschooling pretty quickly took a bit of a backseat. Ivan, our youngest, now 16, has never been to school. The other two did do schooling until we started going away for longer periods of time.

We do learning by doing. We talk a lot about world politics, we talk about local community politics. We go offshore and try to interact with the locals as much as possible.

In 2022, we spent two or three months in Darwin, where Kerry had lived for quite some time.

Through his letters, we knew where he had been, generally speaking, and we followed his path. It was amazing.

We went to Cambodia for Christmas 2022. It was emotional and fantastic, especially for the kids who had listened to this whole story told through their father, mother, uncles, and aunts.

We chose a life of adventure

If you're going to do adventurous things, things are going to happen.

(Editor's Note: In September 2023, Hamill's son Finn experienced a deep water blackout while freediving near the family's catamaran in Thailand. He survived.)

Finn didn't have a clue what happened. He thought he had made it to the surface, and we were going, "No, mate, you were out. You were gone."

About half an hour later, the secondary drowning started kicking in with his breathing.

We called for help, and it took about three or four hours for the boat to come out from the mainland to take him in. He didn't need any intervention at the end other than a saline drip.

It was exceedingly scary. But in the moment, there was almost a serenity about it. Watching how the boys handled it and the way everyone did their job, I could not have hoped for a better response, that show of character under pressure.

The Hamill family visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The Hamill family visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia.Courtesy of Rob Hamill

What Rachel and I are doing is very much an experiment. We've got no Ph.D to say, "Oh yes, this is the way to raise children." It's real gut instinct stuff — but I believe it's working.

We've got kids who are worldly, beautiful, humble, thoughtful, kind, funny, and adventurous.

I feel privileged and lucky to have this life with Rachel and the boys.

I sometimes dwell on what might have been — that my parents, Kerry, and John could have been sharing this with us. I know they would have absolutely loved it.

All you can do is live the life they might have otherwise had. A life of adventure.

Read the original article on Business Insider