A Madman In A League Of His Own
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.