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.