Author Tags: Maritime
Admired by Henry Miller, globe-sailing pacifist George Dibbern explored the Pacific beneath the flutterings of his own symbolic flag, much to the irritation of the Nazi Party, port authorities and his long-suffering wife.
A womanizing rascal, George Dibbern served as the perplexing subject of Erika Grundmann’s biography Dark Sun: Te Rapunga and the Quest of George Dibbern. Now George Dibbern’s own classic memoir of human vagabondage, Quest (1941), has been re-published by RockRead Press, distributed by Sandhill of Kelowna ($29.95).
“My life is one with the sea,” Dibbern said. “We respect each other and I have no other master.”
But this proved to be wishful thinking. Dibbern could never eradicate feelings of guilt for being an absentee father of three daughters who barely knew him.
Dibbern, the literal drifter, was born in Kiel, Germany in 1889. He left Germany to go to sea at age 18. During his first foray into the South Pacific, Dibbern spent several formative years among the Maoris of New Zealand before he was briefly interned, with other German nationals, on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in 1918.
Repatriated to Germany, he struggled unsuccessfully for ten years to find employment and to adapt to family responsibilities. In 1930, with his 32-foot ketch, Te Rapunga (Maori for “Dark Sun,” i.e., the sun before dawn, or “longing”), Dibbern escaped from impending Naziism and the constraints of conventional society, as well as his failures as a breadwinner, to once more roam the Pacific, apparently with his wife’s consent.
For the next 30-plus years, Dibbern’s South Pacific sailing adventures were only interrupted by an almost five-year second internment on Somes Island during World War II and a two-year stop-over in B.C..
Dibbern’s only published book about his nautical adventures, Quest in 1941, earned him the admiration of American author Henry Miller who wrote to Dibbern “as a brother.” Although they never met, Miller chose to view Dibbern as a hero, as a man like himself—boldly ahead of his time. The author of the sexually explicit Tropic of Cancer was especially impressed with Dibbern’s courage to act (not just talk) and to write openly about the anguish of doing so.
Henry Miller’s fraternal and monetary support helped Dibbern’s family to survive the devastation of Germany after World War II. Henry Miller also tried to get Quest back into print, but to no avail. Miller’s laudatory review of Quest for Circle Magazine, published in Berkeley in 1946, was reprinted in 1962 within a collection of Miller’s work called Stand Still like the Hummingbird.
Dibbern is perhaps best remembered for sailing under a flag of his own design that was sewn for him by a friend in Honolulu in 1937. He did so when Hitler’s Third Reich decreed that all German-owned vessels must fly the swastika.
While Dibbern was en route from Hawaii to Canada in 1937, the Auckland Nazi Party, in conjunction with Nazi Parties in Vancouver and Montreal, initiated correspondence to divest Dibbern of his German citizenship due to his ‘anti-German views.’ Subsequently known as a “man without a country” Dibbern also created his own passport, notarized in San Francisco in 1940, with his credo upon it. “I, George John Dibbern, through long years in different countries and sincere friendship with many people in many lands, feel my place to be outside of nationality, a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples...”
When Dibbern visited British Columbia from July 1937 to June of 1939, he lectured in Victoria and Vancouver, and received praise from veteran maritime reporter Norman Hacking in The Province. Hacking’s article was sent to Germany as proof of his traitorous beliefs. Ultimately the German consul in Vancouver wrote to Berlin dismissing Dibbern as an eccentric, and essentially harmless.
Dibbern was a charmer who “took his fun where he found it”—sometimes forming key relationships with younger women, platonic at first, who served him as secretaries for the transcription of his dictation. One of these women in New Zealand, Eileen Morris (who later became the mother of his out-of-wedlock daughter), sailed with him to British Columbia. During his voyages on the B.C. coast, Dibbern and his Te Rapunga crew tied up alongside M. Wylie Blanchet’s Caprice in Desolation Sound in 1938. Although Dibbern is not mentioned in Blanchet’s coastal classic, The Curve of Time (Gray’s Publishing, 1968), he’s mentioned in Beth Hill’s Seven-Knot Summers (Horsdal & Schubart 1994) and Dan Rubin’s Salt on the Wind (Horsdal & Schubart 1996).
While visiting Vancouver, Dibbern formed an important friendship with a young idealist named Gladys Nightingale, later better known as Sharie Farrell. At the time she co-owned a two-room cabin in Lynn Valley where her socialist friends gathered. [Nightingale subsequently married local boat maker Allen Farrell and they emulated Dibbern’s bohemian, self-sufficient approach to life on the water, becoming the subject for Rubin’s biography, Salt on the Wind, and Maria Coffey’s coffee-table-book tribute, Sailing Back in Time (Whitecap 1996).]
Gladys Nightingale/Farrell not only played an integral role in the preparation of Dibbern’s manuscript for Quest, she contributed money, along with Eileen Morris, to purchase over 200 acres for a much-discussed but never realized commune on Galley Bay at the entrance to Desolation Sound. As Heather Harbord has written in her book Desolation Sound: A History, “On discovering that eighty-one hectares (two hundred acres) of Lot 2644 were for sale for back taxes, they scraped together $472 between them and made the purchase. The money came mainly from Gladys’s cashed in life insurance policy and a small inheritance belonging to Eileen. Dibbern himself had no funds. (Ragnar Hanson had obtained the Crown grant for Lot 2644 in 1926, but he had not been paying taxes because he had since gone where the logging and fishing jobs were.) The Te Rapunga crew planned to make the place an artists’ retreat, where all who came in peace and friendship would be welcome. George visualized winters of log fires and real German Christmas trees lit with candles, his wife and children gathered round’ summers, when he wasn’t lecturing or writing, would be spent fishing and sailing. It was not to be. George’s and Eileen’s visitor permits ran out, and immigration officials took a dim view of a German national who stated that he would not be willing to fight for his adopted country. A police boat escorted them out of Vancouver harbour.”
According to Harbord, a commune was set up in 1964, on Lot 2839, on the other side of Galley Bay. Ragnar Hanson’s parents, Axel and Amanda, sold it to the Bloom family in 1961. They homesteaded there for a few years but left in 1966. The commune was started the following year, 1967, when their son, Carl, dropped out of 2nd year UBC and returned with some of his friends. This commune attracted, among others, writer Paul Williams, but it has long since dissipated and the property is now privately owned.
One member of Dibbern’s crew for his Auckland to Victoria voyage, Roy Murdock, stayed in B.C., married Ruth Hammersley and became associate editor of Victoria’s Daily Colonist.
“If you live in harmony with life,” Dibbern wrote, “life will take care of you.” Though Dibbern’s dreams of a better world remain unrealized, his message of international friendship is as timely as ever. He died in Auckland in 1962 while preparing to return at long last to his wife and daughters in Germany.
Erika Grundmann first learned about Dibbern via a conversation with friends about Henry Miller’s review of Quest. After a further conversation with bookseller Diane Wells of Wells Books in Victoria, Grundmann eventually located a copy of Quest from a library in Saskatchewan. She met with Sharie Farrell in 1993 and then contacted Eileen Morris. After nine years of research, her thorough biography is the first to document the life of “German George” Dibbern. Although Grundmann is clearly one of Dibbern’s many admirers, it’s a credit to her work that she provides the grist for varying opinions of her subject.
Was George Dibbern primarily an altruistic and courageous figure? Or was he manipulative and self-indulgent? There’s always more to a man’s life than his paper trail.
Published from New Zealand in 2004, Grundmann’s biography of Dibbern Dark Sun is available from the author ($40 plus postage) who lives on Cortes Island.
A second nautical memoir by Dibbern called Ship without Port, describing his two years in British Columbia, is yet to be published.
Dark Star 0-908990-93-6
Dark Sun: Te Rapunga and the Quest of George Dibbern. (Auckland, NZ: David Ling Publishing Ltd., 2004)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2010] "Maritime"