One evening, in the fall of 1992, my husband and I were discussing with friends the challenge of writing in a language other than one's mother tongue. Some people could pull it off, insisted our hosts as they extracted from their collection a book written in English by a German. The book was Quest by George Dibbern. They had read about it in a book of essays by American author Henry Miller.
Dibbern described so vividly life at sea - storms and their awe-inspiring beauty, the turbulence and the calm. He wrote openly of his anguish at leaving his family in Germany in 1930, and the guilty exuberance at gaining his freedom at sea aboard his 32-foot [9.8 m] ketch Te Rapunga. He had the courage and honesty, and the skill, to describe the jumble of feelings he experienced - in his acquired language. It was a fabulous book, our friends maintained, but since they'd had a difficult time finding a copy, they wouldn’t lend it out.
I searched for the 1941 out-of-print book. One bookseller, specializing in nautical books, recognized the title and the author's name. As far as she knew, Sharie Farrell had something to do with the writing of Quest. Sharie and her husband, Allen, I found out, were B.C. boating legends, a free-spirited couple that lived aboard a Chinese junk off Lasqueti Island. I left without a copy of Quest, but with a glimmer of hope - and a germ of curiosity: I would write to Sharie Farrell and see whether she could suggest where I might obtain the elusive book.
Sharie had no suggestions. She explained that she had, in fact, typed Quest to George's dictation, and went on to describe how they had met: how she had sailed with him in Desolation Sound (alongside M. Wylie Blanchet, author of The Curve of Time, I discovered later) and shared the dream of establishing a retreat in Galley Bay. She wrote that George "was a fine man, a dreamer and philosopher, and a controversial figure." But the ill-fated sailor had been forced to leave Canada in 1939. She also mentioned an unpublished manuscript!
Boating friends visited the Farrells, photocopied the unpublished manuscript with the revealing title Ship without Port, and posted it to me in Victoria. Included was a copy of the essay by Henry Miller (originally published in Circle magazine, Berkeley, 1946) at the end of which appeared a note: “We are trying to collect a few hundred dollars to send to George Dibbern so that upon his release from the internment camp at Somes Island, New Zealand, where he has been for the last five years, he may be able to put to sea again in the Te Rapunga and continue being a messenger of peace and goodwill. We have bought up the remainder of his books and offer them at the original price ($3.10). All proceeds of the sales will go to George Dibbern. Please order through Circle or Emil White of Big Sur, California.”
It is one thing to write a review about a book, quite another to take up the cause of the author. I simply had to find out the connection between the illustrious Henry Miller and this obscure George Dibbern whose book I couldn't find.
We accepted Sharie's invitation to visit. Since the Farrells could not be reached by phone, we took a chance, and while on the foot-passenger-only ferry to Lasqueti Island, inquired how we might get to *China Cloud*. Out of the assurance, "We'll find someone, don't worry," materialized Tony the postmaster. A row across the bay, a knock on the hatch, a call of "Visitors!" "Don't take off your shoes, it's not that kind of boat," welcomed Sharie. Like Te Rapunga, this was a "friendship boat" - warm and welcoming, the glow of wood illuminated by the skylight, the aroma of homemade soup on the tiny wood stove.
This couple - in their eighties - gentle and soft-spoken, welcoming, leading a self-sufficient and independent life creating beautiful sailboats from drift- and local wood (with simple hand tools), free from the chattels of our consumer-oriented society, made an impression. We left the Farrells in a grateful and pensive state, determined to break free in our own way - and to make our planned move from jobs and city, sooner rather than later.
When I finally did read a library copy of Quest, I concurred with our friends' and Henry Miller's assessment: it was indeed a gripping read - thought provoking, absorbing and funny. But questions haunted me: how could a married man, who professed to love his wife and children, sail away and leave them to fend for themselves? What sort of person would be able to do this in good conscience? Why was Henry Miller so drawn to Dibbern? Perhaps Miller would provide a clue.
I wrote letters of inquiry to the repositories of Miller's papers. A librarian in Virginia referred me to a "Miller specialist" with information about the Miller-Dibbern connection. The arrival of her letter coincided with a reply from the University of California in Los Angeles confirming the presence of "79 items of correspondence from George Dibbern and Eileen Morris, and 28 items from the Dibbern family."
The Miller specialist generously sent me photocopies of the all the letters. I was dumbfounded. Evening after evening, I poured over those letters: some, blurry photocopies of faded, typed carbon copies, others hastily scrawled or carefully handwritten, still others in the old German script, which required deciphering and transcription. And what a story they told! Here were the makings of a book - and the realization struck: I would write it.
Committed, I experienced sleepless nights of panic. What had I let myself in for? The research was no problem - I loved the detective work. The connections I made with people in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Cook Islands - places we just had to visit, in winter, as part of the research - were heartwarming and rewarding. Nor was the writing something I couldn't handle. The challenge was to consolidate the mountains of material I was accumulating - the stuff of an adventure novel, where so many threads needed to be tied into the macramé of a life story. Inherent in writing a biography is the huge responsibility to "get it right." Would I be able to interest a publisher? My career path of medical technologist, sales rep, French instructor and translator, though varied, hardly qualified to impress a publisher of my skill as a writer. Friends urged me to get busy and write. I insisted I couldn't until I'd filled all the gaps.
When, in 2003, my manuscript - I was humbled by the paltry 3.2 MB for 10 years of work - was accepted by a publisher in New Zealand; I was ecstatic. In June 2004, the full biography, Dark Sun: Te Rapunga and the Quest of George Dibbern, was launched in Auckland. Any lingering self-doubt was dispelled by radio interviews, newspaper articles and book reviews. Truly, I had become a writer!
As for the book that started it all, eventually I did find an affordable copy to buy. And when people began asking me how they could get hold of Quest, I took the next plunge and became a publisher. The new reprint edition of Quest by George Dibbern was released last December.
To purchase Dark Sun or Quest, visit http://www.georgedibbern.com
NOVEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
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