A Mad­man In A League Of His Own

Soundings - - Sailboats -

was Bill’s watch, and seas were bad, at least 30 feet and very heavy. Sud­denly a real bad one roared down on us from the port side and crashed in. Roar­ing right over us, it rolled us over. I had a fleet­ing mem­ory of be­ing thrown clean out of the stern, see­ing Bill go­ing un­der me, then the boat com­ing down on me. Down I went into the green depths with tremen­dous weight driv­ing me down­wards. More panic — down, down! Need­ing to breathe, I choked and be­gan to drown.

These are the words of Frank Dye, re­mem­ber­ing a trip that re­traced part of a Vik­ing sea route and that he non­cha­lantly called a “sum­mer cruise.” It was Tues­day, July 28, 1964, some­where between the Faroe Is­lands and the coast of Nor­way. Wan­derer, an open 16-foot Way­farer dinghy — built of ply­wood for racing and in­shore day­sail­ing, but mod­estly mod­i­fied for long-dis­tance tour­ing — was bat­tling a gale that bore down at Force 9 ( 41 to 47 knots on the Beau­fort scale). She was hove-to, with the mast down and a can­vas cover tied across the cock­pit to pro­tect her crew. When the world in­verted, that shel­ter in­stantly be­came a po­ten­tial death trap.

The sit­u­a­tion was dire af­ter the third cap­size that night. In between, Wan­derer’s re­doubtable skip­per and his in­trepid crew, Bill Brock­bank, treaded 50-de­gree wa­ter that could kill an adult through ex­po­sure in short or­der. Time and again they scram­bled to right the boat and get back on board be­fore the next breaker rolled over and swamped them.

The low­ered mast, tied to a crutch, lay in splin­ters. Es­sen­tial tools had washed over­board, along with most of their food. Us­ing a fish bucket and a plas­tic potty, they bailed like crazy to stay afloat, teth­ered to a makeshift drogue they fash­ioned from dif­fer­ent bits, in­clud­ing their main­sail. To point the bow into the mon­ster seas, one man had to stay on deck and yank on the warps. It was a fight against na­ture’s fury and a strug­gle for sur­vival.

They cap­sized one more time but made it through this night of hor­rors. By dawn the storm had “abated” to Force 8, which felt like a breeze com­pared to what they’d seen. Seas still were awe-in­spir­ing, but the men were alive. Cold, ex­hausted and bat­tling sea­sick­ness — but des­per­ate for calo­ries — they had to re­pair them­selves first with a tin of self-heat­ing soup and some ham they found rat­tling around un­der the floor­boards. Then they jury-rigged their ride by short­en­ing the two pieces of mast and lash­ing them to­gether so they could carry on un­der jib.

Dye cel­e­brated in style: He brushed his teeth. Brock­bank, who suf­fered most from mal de mer and lost 18 pounds dur­ing the voy­age, grinned and filmed. The true test of will came when a ship passed nearby and failed to no­tice the flares they’d fired.

“For Brock­bank it was a pisser. Not a crash mo­ment, but an oh, f*** mo­ment,” as The Guardian wrote to com­mem­o­rate the 50th an­niver­sary of this trip.

Later, a trawler came even closer to in­spect this odd lit­tle bro­ken boat in the mid­dle of the ocean. Brock­bank was on his off-watch, ly­ing un­der a piece of can­vas in the cock­pit, shiv­er­ing. “I could see the helms­man look­ing at us in­tently, but I pre­tended not to see him, and af­ter some hes­i­ta­tion the ship steamed off,” Dye wrote in his book Ocean Cross­ing Way­farer. “I was not sure about Bill’s re­ac­tion, but I did not want to be res­cued now.”

Out of a Pickle by Your Wits

Dye quoted a fel­low sailor to ex­plain his think­ing: “The sea has no fa­vorites, and if you get into trou­ble, you must be pre­pared to get your­self out of it by your own ef­forts.” His mantra: Don’t make oth­ers risk their lives to save yours. Hence, Wan­derer’s ra­dio had no trans­mis­sion ca­pa­bil­ity.

A stocky guy with thick Buddy Holly glasses, Dye was a Ford dealer in Wat­ton, Eng­land. He was 30 when he started sail­ing in 1958, but he’d built a dare­devil rep­u­ta­tion for ad­ven­ture, which in­cluded coastal trips in Eng­land, Wales and Scot­land, and voy­ages in Ger­many, Swe­den and Den­mark. Trips across the North Sea to Ice­land and Nor­way bur­nished his sta­tus as a dinghy hero. They earned him cult sta­tus with some; oth­ers thought he was a crack­pot who took un­due risks. “Mad­man of the At­lantic” was the moniker his wife, Mar­garet, re­mem­bered. Frank Dye was an ex­pert nav­i­ga­tor, a must-have skill when sail­ing a 16-foot dinghy far off­shore.

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