New York Herald Tribune, 1941

George Dibbern: His Life and Quest

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

New York Herald Tribune Books, Sunday March 16, 1941

Part Jack London and part Bernard of Clairvaux

by George Dibbern…..421 pp. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. $3.00

Reviewed by Thomas Sugrue

This is a lonely story, full of the wistful longing of the sea and the melancholy of thoughts which have left the safe harbor of fixed ideas and set out for regions of the soul. It is a story which will have a difficult time finding its proper place on the book shelf: it is partly a sea yarn, partly the record of a man’s search for his spiritual identity, and partly a treatise on the rotting fabric of modern civilization. Men will like it; women, whose lives have been saddened by sailors and philosophers, will have little sympathy for the “philosopher-skipper” who is its author and main character.

When George Dibbern sailed his 32-foot ketch out of the harbor of Hamburg, Germany, in the autumn of 1930, he was seeking a new life physically, mentally and spiritually. For ten years he had been in a decaying Germany, finding it increasingly difficult to make a living for his wife and four children, becoming more and more at odds with the rising tide of nationalism and the lust for revenge which was seeping through a hungry, frustrated generation. Finally he became a relief worker; as this came to a close and he faced the dole his mind and heart revolted. Suddenly he wanted to go back to New Zealand and his friends, the Maoris, with whom he had spent his youth.

Out there he could make a new home; while it was being accomplished, friends, relatives and the dole would care for his family better than he could. At home, unemployed, he would rot. He decided to go, in the boat which was all he had salvaged from his prosperous years.

His wife objected, and here, in the opening pages of the book a tense and dramatic situation develops which hangs over the rest of the tale like a witch’s curse. Their difference of opinion was the basic difference of man and woman. To the husband his wife and children were a mirror in which he saw his own failure; he longed to go out and fight the world to justify himself to them. To the wife loyalty demanded that he stay close by, that she and the children might cling to his presence even if he earned no material sustenance. In the end she let him go, dimly perceiving that he was not acting selfishly but unable to understand his real motive.

When a soldier gets his marching orders, he just goes, he doesn’t know where, or for how long, or if he will ever come back again. Nobody ever questions it, or objects, or thinks it is queer; but if one follows one’s God, one’s conscience, everybody objects—strange, how little man belongs to himself, how much he is yet the community’s property.

He was feeling, dimly, the struggle between mind, with its eternal plan, and will, with its temporal desire. As captain of the Te Rapunga he met the issue every day. He took along his nephew, a fine sailor who had been educated to be a farmer. Gunter was a peasant, shy, moody, muscular, given to cursing sun, wind, waves and the captain. They disagreed constantly, and to make matters worse, the first part of the trip was made with Doe, a baroness, as third member of the crew. Doe was young, attractive and soft-hearted, but her aristocratic background clashed with Gunter’s peasant heritage and her conservative notions did not fit the captain’s advanced views and international viewpoint. Doe had to be taken because she paid her way; Gunter went because part of his money was in the boat. The captain found it necessary to get along with both, and the effort prepared him for his struggle with mightier problems.

They sailed to England, crossed the Bay of Biscay through horrendous storms and cruised the Mediterranean for a year, taking vacationers as paying members of the crew. Here they perfected their seamanship, tested the boat thoroughly and learned to get along with themselves and each other. Then the captain, Gunter and Doe set sail across the Atlantic. The captain did not consider it a physical adventure: Columbus was more poorly equipped for the trip than he and in addition didn’t know where he was going.

The crossing is uneventful. They pass through the Panama Canal, say good by to Doe, sail up the coast to San Francisco, cross to the Hawaiian Islands and sail down to the South Seas. Two years pass, then three, then four. The mate curses, the captain thinks.

To love and be in love are two entirely different emotions. To love means to leave the other quite free and to help him that he may develop his individuality according to his kind. To be in love means wanting to possess, to force the other along one’s own line…… to justify ourselves, we may have to live Christianity yet…

Not great thoughts or fresh observations, these, but in the log of the Te Rapunga they mark the day-to-day struggle of the captain with the problem of his relation to God, the world, his family and his friends. Nothing will satisfy his ambition for himself except a job or profession which is a service to mankind. Nothing will satisfy his thinking except a philosophy that is rational and naturalistic. He ponders the New Testament and the letters of Paul, but it is out of the sea itself, with its storms and tides and days of calm that he derives a belief in rebirth and karma.

It seems so feasible. I see around me the cycle of water as it evaporates and is drawn put to heaven, condenses and falls again; and I see the waves beat on the shore and come back like an echo. Why should our lives not be cycles of reincarnation, with everything we send out coming back to use like the waves? It appears to me to be the only just law.

So the days, months and years roll along, while the pages of the captain’s log become a mixture of Jack London and Bernard of Clairvaux. The travel portion is in itself fascinating, told with humor and a fine feeling for the details which a landlubber likes to know. People everywhere are good to the captain, and New Zealand is always a promised land just over the horizon.

When they get there the captain, of course, is disillusioned. His old Maori friend, Mother Rangi, is dead. Her children are scattered; times have changed. But the country is still rich and young, and there is Tasmania, which welcomes immigrants. But there is a letter from home telling him of the New Germany. The captain’s wife sees now that her husband was right in leaving. He could not be happy with the Nazis. But she, a German born and bred, would be unhappy away from her homeland. She frees the captain from the necessity of making a new home for her; she forgives him if he does not want to come back.

The captain faces the destiny he has discovered for himself.

I see my road, my aim, my task…it is to be a bridge of good will… and so I must be neutral; if I am honest in my desire to be a bridge between nations I must sever all national ties, I must fly no national flag and serve, instead of one country, all countries.

So he fashions for the Te Rapunga a flag, a white flag with a red St. George’s cross cutting through a dark-blue circle and a blue star above it. He writes himself a passport; he sets sail, a tiny symbol of the dwindling spirit of the brotherhood of man.

George Dibbern and his little boat with the title that means “hope” will hardly bring the world together; the thoughts he dug from his hours of meditation will not go down in history beside those of Aquinas and Luther. But he and the Te Rapunga are important to everyone who wants to believe in the future of man. He is a common, average man. He broke away from the nationalism of Germany; he sought his God and found Him. To save the world we may all have to follow his example. That is what speaks from the pages of this heroic story so gently and ably told.