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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rebell by name, rebel by nature



Hands up who's heard of Fred Rebell! I thought so. Very few have and, unfortunately, his book "Escape to the Sea" has been out of print for a long time as evidenced by its cover - I mean, when did you last buy a book for 2'6 ?



Yet we all ought to be amazed at Fred Rebell’s lone-handed crossing of the Pacific Ocean in an open 18-foot boat in 1931. Strapped for cash, he made his own sextant from a Boy Scout telescope, hacksaw blades and pieces of coloured glass, and copied an ancient atlas he found in the Sydney Public Library for his charts, a false economy that was destined to alarm him later when he realised that many islands had not been discovered when the atlas was published. He even made a tow log by adapting an old alarm clock and fitting it with a line attached to strips of aluminium set into a short length of broom handle to make the rotator.



Fred was born Paul Sproge in Latvia, 22 April 1886. As a young man he avoided compulsory enlistment in his country’s defence forces by crossing into Russia where he sought a passport. When refused, he went to a religious organisation for help and, on being refused again, he says in his book, "Escape to the Sea": “Charitable organisations are supposed to supply the needy: surely that means supplying them with what they need. But they are limited in their ideas, and I have yet to learn of any organisation that hands out passports to those who need them.”

In the end, he went to a criminal hangout and bought a passport for half a dollar. Hoping to find a country “not under the rule of paper”, Fred decided to be a merchant sailor, his ‘new’ passport needing a little adjustment before it could be used to obtain the necessary papers: it seems that his passport’s previous owner was wanted by the law!

Not to be discouraged, Paul Sproge forged a new name on his second-hand passport and in this way he became Fred Rebell. To quote his marvellously logical rationale, he writes: “Papers do not mean anything. A man means something, and work means something. If government is so crazy that it will not let a man have work unless he has papers, then it is only rational to humour that crazy government like you humour any other sort of lunatic.”

After landing in Western Australia, he cut timber for two years before buying land to farm after which he decided it was time to get a wife. In this he shows an extraordinary level of optimism by writing to a few old female friends back in Latvia asking them to marry him. Failing in this approach, he then advertised in the Latvian papers and reaped no less than thirty letters.

Securing a wife willing to live rough was not easy, but he eventually succeeded until the marriage failed a dozen years later. That’s when he met Elaine in Sydney, “a dark-eyed, dark-haired Australian maiden of eighteen summers” who ultimately broke his heart, sending him to The Gap at Watsons Bay, where he seriously contemplated suicide. But an unexplainable supernatural presence told him not to jump, so he bought a boat instead which he named her 'Elaine' and, on 31 December 1931, ran down Sydney Harbour before a fresh southerly buster that became a beam wind for the Tasman Sea crossing. It scarcely needs mentioning that he didn’t fuss with such details as clearing customs or getting a real passport.



Seen here with his famous homemade sextant, he set his course due east, passing well to the north of New Zealand, then, after a month at sea, turning north to avoid the Kermadec Islands which were missing from his chart but suspected to be getting awfully close.

After six turbulent weeks at sea, often lying to improvised sea anchors, and having to repair a split plank with pitch, he thankfully arrived at Yanutha, an island south of Vita Levu in the Fijis. Further on at Suva, he repaired his centreboard that had just about disintegrated, but there he fell in love with a seventeen-year-old. His passion was short-lived and he sailed to Naitamba, where yet again he fell for another girl, gentle Betty. After only nine days of bliss exploring island trails with her, he knew things would not work out, and he sailed again. Arriving in Apia, the capital of Somoa, it was not long before he was under the spell of a sixteen-year-old native, Eda, and after an ‘enslavement’ of six weeks, in his own words, he “tore himself away.”



At Christmas Island he was made welcome by Paul Rougier, a French painter, who suggested that he draft his own passport for entry to the United States. His homemade passport stated: ‘The bearer of this passport – Fred Rebell – of no allegiance, is travelling from Sydney, Australia, via the Pacific Ocean, United States of America and the Atlantic Ocean to his native town Windau in the country of Latvia. Description of bearer: Sex: Male. Age 46 years. Height 5 ft 8 in. Eyes: Blue. Complexion: Fair. Photograph of Bearer F. Rebell. Dated 3 March, 1932. Signature F. Rebell.’ Rogier signed the passport to verify Rebell’s arrival on 15th August, 1932 and his departure on 25th August, 1932.

Nearly ten months after leaving Sydney, Rebell put into Honolulu and with bureaucratic difficulty his passport was finally accepted in Hawaii. There he stayed five weeks basking in public admiration while receiving hospitality. On 3rd November 1932 he embarked on the longest leg of his voyage, two thousand-two hundred miles of solitary wintry seas and unrelenting gales causing damage to the pintles and a broken tiller. At one point his boat nearly floundered on account of being flooded when the sea anchor came adrift and he improvised by making the centreboard suffice as a sea anchor.



He arrived in California in January 1933 but U.S. officials refused to allow him to stay in the country and in 1935 he was deported to Latvia. He lived with his parents in Piltene, on Latvia’s Baltic Sea coast, and completed a book about his exploits "Escape to the Sea", first published in 1939 in London. In 1937, he decided to return to Australia, which he finally reached aboard a ship in 1939. In 1955 he became a naturalized citizen and died on 10 November 1968 in Sydney.



Even though he denounced it as being irrelevant, his remarkable voyage is a reminder of an era of bureaucratic tolerance long passed when sailors could still behave unconventionally, were unaided by commercial sponsors, global positioning systems and up-to-the-minute weather forecasts, and set out in boats that had better belonged on a lake.

Rebell by name, rebel by nature.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Jack and Jude live aboard SY "Banyandah" which is the Aboriginal word for “Home on the Water”


Jack and Jude, from South Ballina and honorary members of the Nelligen Yacht Club, left crowded Pittwater a few days ago and just phoned from Eden where they stop before heading down to Tasmania. Unfortunately, they passed Batemans Bay and didn't stop over at "Riverbend" as the winds were too good to miss out on. Maybe next time, Jack?

Jack and Jude are doing what I thought I would be doing once I had saved enough money. Of course, as with so much else in life, by the time I had saved enough money to do the things I wanted to do, I was too old to do them.

Jack and Jude grabbed hold of their dream in 1974. To quote from their book Two's a Crew: "When we came to the sunburnt country of Australia in 1969, we found space everywhere with a feeling of “she’ll be right” that encouraged us to not only start a family, but also to start the construction of a 12 metre sailing vessel. That arduous project took three years of really hard work and our two sons were walking by the time it was completed. That’s when we grabbed hold of our dream to share adventure and Nature with them before what seemed mandatory school years. Leaving our rented digs, we moved aboard our new yacht, naming her Banyandah, which means “home on the water.” We then boldly cast adrift our small business and friends. In 1974, with sons aged two and three, we began a journey into the unknown. Starting with no sailing experience, frightened and unsure, we overcame many obstacles while our sea roving life eventually took us around the world touching eighty countries in an odyssey that lasted not the one year imagined, but the next fifteen. When our sons were toddlers, they frolicked with dusky natives on sugar white beaches. When others their age were just starting school, they played and stayed with the Muslims and Hindus of Asia. And when nine and ten, our sons soaked up the culture of Japan before enjoying the good life in Hawaii and the South Pacific as they entered puberty. And when still a bit wild, but now reliable sailing hands, we shared long night watches during a three year circumnavigation of the world on “voyages of education.”"

Read more about their sailing adventures on their website:

Click on image to enter website

They've produced a series of interesting DVDs and also written several books. I've ordered the DVDs and two books, Two's a Crew and Where Wild Winds Blow.

Jack Binder, master mariner and ship's engineer, homebuilt Banyandah with his wife Judith in Sydney. Launched in 1973, a year later, with two infant sons, they embarked on a magical life encircling Earth in ever-increasing circles, taking sixteen years to visit more than eighty countries. In 2007, Jack and Jude, then grandparents and married forty years, circumnavigated Australia aboard that very same craft. Once back on dry land, they wrote the inspirational book Two's a Crew, detailing that adventurous voyage.

It seems Jack and I have more in common than just a love for sailing: he used to live in Germany - where he met Jude in the Frankfurt Youth Hostel - more than fifty years ago, and in 1974/75 he worked for Bougainville Copper on Bougainville Island - as he writes, "I was in my office when the riot took off and had to be evacuated. Were you there then?". (By that time I was already in Burma, Jack)

And he also subscribes, as I do, to Mark Twain's "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

It's a small world indeed and you can see it all from the deck of your own yacht!


P.S. Where is SY Banyandah now? Follow their circumnavigation of Australia here.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Wandering the world yet sleeping in your own bed

Steve arriving at Gizo in the Solomons in November 2011. Note the "PT 109 Gizo Yacht Club", named after the torpedo boat commandeered by JF Kennedy and sank off Gizo during WWII


I first heard of Steve Gates, owner and captain of the Searunner 37 trimaran Manu-O-Ku, when I became involved with Villa Mamana on the tiny island of Telekivava'u in Tonga through its previous owners Joe Altenhein and Matt Muirhead - see here.

Steve had lived in Hawaii for 31 years, raised two children, and been building one-off epoxy composite boats in his own Tradewind Island Boatworks (a long name for a small company), before sailing to Tonga in late 2003 to become the paid caretaker of the very remote 40-acre private island of Telekivava'u in the remote island group of Ha’apai.

Steve's trimaran Manu-O-Ku anchored off Telekivava'u

Think of spending whole weeks at a time totally alone on an idyllic, pristine island with your yacht anchored in the lagoon ... no wonder, Steve sat it out for a whole three years. It was a wonderful lifestyle but, as he said, "security is overrated, and the nomadic lifestyle was calling ...", and so he sailed north to the Vava’u Group where he ran a charter business for the next 4½ years.

Steve Gates on Telekivava'u in Tonga

For nearly eight years Tonga gave him an incredibly comfortable life which he lived "one moment at a time" and which he found very hard to leave. However, he did so finally in June 2011, first sailing back to the Ha’apai Group for a week to revisit the remote island he had lived on for three years, and then singlehandedly to Savusavu, Fiji, where he arrived on July 1, 2011. On to Vanuatu in September, then the Solomon Islands in November. In February 2012 he made the 2000 nm passage to Palau in western Micronesia before finally arriving in the Philippines on New Year’s Eve 2012.

His trimaran is his only home. As he writes, "This lifestyle works for me, a nomadic self-reliant lifestyle, on the oceans, among islands, sailing your home, wandering the world yet sleeping in your own bed."

He's been in the Philippines ever since, running his charter business Manu-O-Ku Sailing Adventures out of Port Barton, one of the last few untouched gems of the Philippines. It's a 45-minute flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, and from there an easy ride to Port Barton, a sleepy fishing village, unspoiled and authentic, where life goes at its own pace and which Steve is in no hurry to leave.

Joe Altenhein, the creator of Villa Mamana on Telekivava'u, described Steve as "a nice man, doing what I wish I could do" --- and so think all of us. The nearest I ever got to Palawan was Boracay and, oh boy, am I itching to go again!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Passage report from SY Atmosphere

SY Atmosphere is approaching Eden, its last landfall before heading down to Tasmania.

Captain Donald, Admiral Megan, and their 9-year-old son, Master Gunner Shay, report that all is well except for the fact that they have a leek on board - see photo below:


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Atmospheric pleasure

Maggie and Douglas aboard their yacht "Atmosphere"


When the 2003 Herreshoff Nereia-designed ketch "Atmosphere" anchored just off "Riverbend", I wasted no time in rowing out to introduce myself as commodore (and only member) of the Nelligen Yacht Club to Captain Donald, Admiral Megan, and their 9-year-old son, Master Gunner Shay.

They had bought the yacht in Townsville three years ago and have lived on it ever since. They are now on their way to the Australian Wooden Boat Show in Tasmania as Donald is a traditional wooden shipwright and hopes to find some work down there.

Donald, being Irish, knew all about one of my favourite books and movies, "The Riddle of the Sands", by Robert Erskine Childers, and they'd been in Ireland in 1997 when Tony Hawks travelled "Round Ireland with a Fridge" (another Irishman, Alan, had introduced me to this book when I revisited Thursday Island in 2005 - click here). It has since been made into a movie; guess who's placing an order on ebay soon? ☺

Of course, we gave them full membership to the Nelligen Yacht Club, complete with matching t-shirts, and treated them to afternoon coffee and cake and long (and longed-for) hot showers, and they treated us to their stories of sailing around Australia. It was a pleasurable exchange for both parties!

Fair winds and following seas and long may your big jib draw, Donald, Megan and Shay!

P.S. If you're on facebook - which we are not - you can read all about their adventures on facebook - yachtatmosphere; they also have a blog/website at


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

And the Sea Will Tell


Alone with her new husband on Palmyra Atoll, a tiny Pacific atoll, a young woman, combing the beach, finds an odd aluminum container washed up out of the lagoon, and beside it on the sand something glitters -- a gold tooth in a scorched human skull. The investigation that follows uncovers an extraordinarily complex and puzzling true-life crime story.

Vincent Bugliosi was able to draw together the hundreds of conflicting details of the mystery and reconstruct what really happened when four people found hell in a tropical paradise.

And the Sea Will Tell reconstructs the events and subsequent trial of a riveting true murder mystery, and probes into the dark heart of a serpentine scenario of death.

The story was subsequently made into a three-hour TV movie which was shot on location on Palmyra Atoll.

Click here for the other six parts

And after you have watched this thrilling movie, sit back and relax and have a look at what everyday life on Palmyra Atoll is like:


An Island to Oneself


An Auckland-based German documentary-maker, Ulli Weissbach of Pacifica Productions, wants to make a film about Tom Neale, the New Zealander who spent several years alone on Suwarrow Atoll in the middle of the South Pacific.

Until the film comes out - if it ever does! - , here's Tom Neale's book An Island To Oneself. Enjoy!

Click here to open online book in separate window