How Australia Arrested a German Skate Hero on the High Seas

In 2010 former pro-skater Holger Sander was arrested for allegedly transporting 400 kilograms of cocaine to Australia. Here's his story.

Jul 2 2015, 4:45pm

Holger holding a model ship he built out of popsicle sticks in jail. This was taken almost 2 years ago at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre. All images via Jason Shrieves.

To German skaters, Holger "Beule" Sander is a cult icon. Back in the 1980s he was pushing vert possibilities with a pair of skateboard/rollerskate things he'd built and called 'quads.' They were two mini skateboards bound to each foot using bits from a kid's snowboard, and Holger used them to land two-meter McTwists.

Then in 2010 he appeared in the news for a different reason. Holger had been arrested in international waters over an alleged effort to import 400 kilograms [880 pounds] of cocaine into Australia aboard a yacht. Australian Customs claimed they had radar evidence proving Holger's boat passed coke onto another yacht, which was later busted in a Brisbane dock. This isn't bulletproof though, as the radar only shows the two yachts were within a kilometer of each other, not that they met. Holger has always maintained his innocence.

His first trial fell over last year. In a disastrous run for the Australian Federal Police, they admitted to misplacing evidence, and then denied filming part of the operation—only for the footage to be found up on their own website. So with Holger's second trial to begin on July 20, we thought we'd let him tell the story of his arrest in his own words.

Holger with his homemade skates, back in 1995.

After my skating career I discovered surfing. For a lot of the late 90s I surfed the Europe-Atlantic coast, living out of various campervans. That's how I found a little wandering dog in Southwest France. I called her Lady Governor (Govy for short) and she was with me until the end.

By the 2000s surfing had turned to sailing, which is how I got asked to accompany the skipper of a catamaran out to the South Pacific. He didn't have the experience and wanted me to train him. Well, of course I said yes.

Months later, in the middle of the ocean between New Caledonia and Australia, we hit a storm. It came in black and purple and hammered us for three days. The waves towered over the boat and I was terrified we'd sink. Neither of us could sleep. Each and every wave had to be steered into or we'd go over.

During the storm I lost my glasses and couldn't see so well. I tried to put in contact lenses, but they weren't clean and my eye became infected. And then we lost both engines while I was steering blind into the waves. I thought we were done, so we started shining a bright light upwards into the clouds, in case any planes passed overhead.

Sailing with Govy in about 2005.

Strangely, planes did start flying overhead but they wouldn't circle. We couldn't understand what they were doing, but we knew something was up. The weather started to improve, too and we had time to repair the boat. This took a day or two and we kept seeing these low-flying planes going over.

We were halfway ready to sail again, when an enormous ship appeared on the horizon. Because I was worried we'd collide, I initiated radio contact to discover it was Australian Customs. The captain gave me the order to stop course immediately, and embark on the foredeck as they were coming aboard. I asked why and the captain told me a boat had been found in Australia with drugs.

This was surreal. I'd just spent 70 days on a boat with only one other person. We'd had only a few hours sleep in days and we'd argued a lot. Then on top of that, I couldn't see and my infected eye was killing me. But two dinghies appeared from the ship and approached us from either side. Then 16 armed men climbed aboard wearing full kits, and all in blue.

One approached me on the foredeck and told me to sit. He explained he was a Customs personnel and started asking questions as I held Lady Govy in my arms. The others searched the catamaran, but couldn't find any drugs or money and then they all calmed down. I guess they could see we hadn't shaved or slept in a while. So they read us our rights, and explained we'd be taken to their ship. Then we were given helmets, loaded into the dinghies, and whisked away.

Sailing through the locks of the Panama Canal.

On deck, we were immediately led down several flights of stairs and into holding cells. They were large metal rooms, about the size of shipping containers, but with metal bunks on one side with no mattresses, just cold metal. I was hoping to sleep but it was impossible with the cold. They'd given me a skinny sleeping pad and a thin blanket, but it was still freezing. The voyage to Brisbane took two days, with the distance marked by pounding machinery, like a hammer beating a caldron, and the white lights on 24/7.

As we rolled through the waves—remnants of the storm—I remember a visit from a senior personnel who told me everything would be sorted out in Brisbane. That gave me the impression we'd be released soon. At this point I was nervous, but still hopeful.

The ship landed in Brisbane and the AFP formally arrested both of us. We were handcuffed and led off the ship, but the worst part was Lady Govy was confiscated by Quarantine. Months later I learned she was killed that afternoon, before I'd even been charged. And Johnny Depp's dogs got nearly a week.

I was interrogated at the AFP building until midnight, then taken to the Brisbane Watchhouse, followed by the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre (AGCC), also known as the Wacol Remand Centre. That's where I've been ever since.

The yacht Holger built in jail.

If you go to jail, spend whatever money you have on getting bail. That's your first priority. If you're stuck inside you can't communicate with anyone and you'll get screwed. When I first arrived I got a visit from a private lawyer who told me Legal Aid only receives 30 percent of a normal lawyer's fee, so they only do 30 percent of the work. He told me to raise money for a proper defense, which he compared to arriving at your wedding in a Rolls Royce, instead of a Toyota.

So my family all drew money from their savings and I raised €40,000 [$44,000 US] in legal fees, which made absolutely no difference to the case. A year later I was out of money and my lawyer wouldn't return my calls. So now I'm back to Legal Aid and I wish I'd known that from the start. When new guys come in they always get a visit from these same lawyers. They're like rats.

The prison is full of petty criminals, with a few extremely violent murderers and organized criminals mixed in. This place seems to average one death a year from fights. I've been here for five years but the past can't be changed and I've watched how dwelling on it drives people crazy. I call the system the Dragon. To ignore the Dragon I study Buddhism and the art of being calm and present. It helps me to take one day at a time.

For more information about this case, or to contact Holger, please see this Facebook page.

As told to Julian Morgans. Follow him on Twitter.

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