George Dibbern: His Life and Quest
Adventurer ~ Sailor-Philosoper ~ Free Thinker ~ Self-declared Citizen of the World
The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1941
QUEST BY GEORGE DIBBERN, 421 pp., New York: W.W. Norton. $3
THE STORY OF A STRANGE QUEST
George Dibbern’s Account of His Restless Wanderings Has a Quality Of Its Own
by H. Austin Stevens
A wariness of first impressions is needed in approaching this book. At first glance this might be just one more story of a man who ran away, another of the confessionals of recent years, the personal histories wherein misfits make capital of their quarrel with the world. The further fact that this man went to sea—that favorite device of self-seekers— adds to the misimpression.
For while other escapists, amateur and professional, have written all too clearly about their muddled minds and spirits, George Dibbern has imparted to these pages so much of his own conflict, confusion and bewilderment of the last ten years that his account resounds with honesty and sincerity. As a result this book is likely to have a moving effect upon sympathetic readers to whom Dibbern will become not just a single troubled soul escaping “from conditions that would have been spiritual death” but a symbol of a larger whole.
A relief worker—one of Germany’s six million unemployed—Dibbern perceived one day that all the men about him in the road gang building near a cemetery in a Berlin suburb were embracing with all their might either national socialism or communism. He told the arguing, grumbling group that he wanted none of their slogans because he was strangely devoid of any allegiance to any place. “I love all countries,” he announced, “and I must have outgrown nationalism.”
“Well,” challenged a Communist, “why don’t yo go in that bathtub of a sailboat you keep at Kiel and conquer the world?”
Two days later, parting from his wife and children, he asked: “Does shouldering responsibility mean sitting quietly in the mire and sinking deeper and deeper?” He took the train to Kiel, where the thirty-two-foot rundown sloop Te Rapunga was beached and went “into the night, homeless.”
Homeless he is still. He sails under his own international flag and carries a passport that, to the consternation of port officials everywhere, reads: “Through long years in different countries and sincere friendship with many people in many lands I feel my place to be outside nationality, a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples.”
This is the story of the intervening years, of how George Dibbern became a modern man without a country.
It is a sea story, of the Te Rapunga—which is Polynesian meaning “the very first beginning of the first dawn”—and her mishaps, of her characters, of places visited and of friends made and parted from, and of Dibbern’s tussle to come to some kind of terms with the world.
The mate of the Te Rapunga was a young, silent German farmer who for some reason knew navigation. Over great obstacles the boat was put in sea order and sailed for the Mediterranean, where it carried on a polite business in taking paying passengers for a few weeks or months. The Te Rapunga had New Zealand for a goal, but chance and money fixed the itinerary.
Behind him Dibbern had left a wife he loved but to whom he felt he had never been married, since out of his aloneness they had remained independent units.
Into the Te Rapunga’s life at the very start came another woman. She was Doe, a middle-aged German baroness. Lonely herself, she gave generously to the Te Rapunga, which had many needs, not the least of which was new sets of sails fairly often as the two others learned their seamanship by trial and accident. Doe shipped on many legs of the voyage. At other times she would go by steamer, joining the others at some distant port. Always when there were difficulties, there was Doe. Always grateful, Dibbern nevertheless felt that Doe’s mothering of his venture put him in a dependent position and, moreover, aboard ship some of her stiffer aristocratic qualities didn’t work for harmony. Dibbern would set himself against Doe and then at the last minute yield. At Las Palmas, for instance, when they put out for the Atlantic crossing, Doe was invited to jump aboard only as the boat pulled away from the pier.
As Doe moves through several years of this chronicle and as far west as San Francisco, in a real and understandable way, there is yet another woman whose spirit (she has never met) haunts these pages. She is Mother Rangi, whom Dibbern had met ten years before in New Zealand. A strong, strange friendship had grown up.
A Maori woman of middle age: “I, German, young enough to be friends with her children, having to converse in primitive English, a language strange to both of us. And still such an understanding between us, such an exchange… There was between us a love, a special bond, always more felt than expressed.” Reunion with Mother Rangi was the one tangible thing Dibbern sought in his quest.
After the Atlantic the Te Rapunga cruised the Indies, passed through the Canal. From there to San Francisco there was an unbelievably trying trip lasting 101 days. The boat had no auxiliary motor. A stay in California, then westward to Honolulu and New Zealand—this was the Te Rapunga’s general route. It was in California that Dibbern heard of events in Germany. He continued to fly the flag of the Republic.
There is humor and action through these sea-swept pages, some magnificently yet simply told accounts of the adventures of small-boat life, some sharp and atmospheric impressions of places visited.
Around the world there were quickly made friends who would devise some way of helping the Te Rapunga’s ever-precarious financial existence. Still, despite friendliness, after a while land became the dangerous unknown and the sea came to have foundation, principle and security. That was one of the realizations that came to Dibbern during his gradual evolution. It would be impossible to sketch this man’s full transition, particularly since it has had no solution, no end. There has been for him only the realization that he is another man who was born alone and destined to go on that way. His doubts and fears of 1930, his homelessness and absence of roots persist to this day. But he knows now that this is his fate.
It is significant that toward the end of this book he confesses that he never got to know the mate after all their years together.
The events after the arrival at New Zealand should be the author’s own story, since they work out like a novelist’s plot. There were disappointment, longing for home and a vision of one day of his boat sailing under her present flag belonging to no country.
Written in English apparently, this diary-like narrative shows some rough edges and other evidence of an unskilled hand. One wonders at times that more edition was not done, and then it turns out that the passage that seemed awkward and windy succeeds in catching the event better than any disciplined pen could have. Even the present tense, used throughout, gives the reader a sense of participation.
One day Dibbern phoned his family from New Zealand. When are you coming home? one of his children asked.
“If only I could say ‘Soon.’ But I answer, ‘As soon as I can, dear.’” This was about 1937. [in fact 1935]
Last November the Te Rapunga picked up mail at Honolulu. Dibbern said his next port of call was Auckland.