George Dibbern: His Life and Quest

Adventurer ~ Sailor-Philosoper ~ Free Thinker ~ Self-declared Citizen of the World

Manawatu Standard [New Zealand], Weekendextra Magazine, Saturday, 3 July 2004


The remarkable story of a self-confessed “vagabond” has been told in a new book, Dark Sun, written by Canadian author Erika Grundmann.

GERMAN-BORN George Dibbern spent much time in New Zealand and died in Auckland in 1962. At one stage, just before World War I, he started a taxi business in Dannevirke.

He was interned twice on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, during two world wars. In happier times he travelled the world on his ketch, a free spirit who sailed under his own flag and created his own passport.

Dibbern was born in Kiel in 1889 and went to sea when he was 18. He jumped ship in Sydney soon after.

After internment on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in World War I, he returned to his native Germany, where for 10 years he struggled unsuccessfully to find employment and to adapt to the role of husband and father.

He broke free from his marriage, and the impending scourge of Nazism, in 1930 in his 32-foot ketch Te Rapunga, eventually returning to New Zealand.

Dibbern was to roam the Pacific for the next 33 years, travelling much of the time with young Napier woman Eileen Morris, with whom he fathered a daughter.

His journeys were interrupted only by a second internment on Somes Island. When he died, he was making preparations to return to his wife and three daughters in Germany.

“My life is one with the sea. We respect each other and I have no other master,” he once said.

He also maintained he answered solely to his own conscience, whose judgment was stricter than any statute of law.

“If you live in harmony with life,” he wrote, “life will take care of you.”

His book Quest, describing the initial four-year sea voyage that led to these convictions, was published in 1941. It won the admiration of American author Henry Miller, who wrote to Dibbern “as a brother”, and whose compassion and support helped Dibbern’s family survive the devastation of Germany after World War II.

Erika Grundmann’s book, Dark Sun, is an attempt to understand an extraordinary man.

Dark Sun explores Dibbern’s courage in breaking free from the constraints of early-century society and follows his desire to live a bohemian lifestyle in a world caught up by capitalism and power.

Erika Grundmann’s interest in Dibbern’s life came about one evening when in 1992 she was discussing with friends the challenge of writing in a language other than one’s mother tongue. Some people could pull it off, insisted her friends, as they extracted from their collection a book written in English by a German.

The book was Quest, by George Dibbern. In it he described so very vividly life at sea, the storms and the awe-inspiring beauty, the turbulence and the calm. He wrote openly of his own personal anguish at leaving his family in Germany in 1930, and the guilty exuberance at gaining his freedom.

Fascinated by the story, Grundmann spent the next decade researching it, travelling to Germany then to New Zealand, following in Dibbern’s footsteps and collecting personal reminiscences from the many people who knew or remembered him, among them, Eileen Morris.

Erika Grundmann was born in Montreal, Canada, of German immigrant parents. Though the early years of her working life were associated with scientific research, her love of language remained with her. In 1989 she completed an MA in French language and literature.

The combination of both facets of her training and interests well equipped her for the challenge of writing George Dibbern’s story. In 1994 she and her husband quit their jobs in Victoria on Vancouver Island and moved to a northern Gulf Island of coastal British Columbia.

The ketch Te Rapunga is still in New Zealand waters, having recently undergone complete restoration and a refit.
[Not yet! E.G.]