Monday, August 11, 2014

A Rough Passage: The Summer Cruise of Frank Dye and Bill Brockbank

This old film documents the Norwegian Sea crossing from Scotland to Aalesund, Norway,
by Frank Dye and his crew, Bill Brockbank aboard a Wayfarer sailing dinghy.
They encountered a Force 9 storm during the passage, survived four capsizes and a broken mast. It is a remarkable feat of dinghy sailing.

From The Guardian by Charlie English

Sailing into hell: two men, a dinghy and one of the luckiest escapes ever
In July 1964, two men set off in a dinghy to sail from Scotland to Norway.
Fifty years on, Bill Brockbank tells Charlie English how he and Frank Dye, 'the madman of the Atlantic', capsized four times, braved gale force winds and survived to tell the incredible tale of their 'holiday' on the high seas
By mid-afternoon it was clear even to Frank Dye that the summer cruise was not going to plan.
The storm had been building in the northeast Atlantic since noon and by 5.30pm had reached what the Met Office described as a "severe gale", force nine on the Beaufort scale.
Banshees were screaming round Dye's boat at close to 50 knots, and the sea had been whipped into a deafening grey-green mountainscape whose waves stood four storeys high.
It was the sort of day on which fishermen drowned, but Dye and his crewman Bill Brockbank were out in it, in the middle of the Norwegian Sea, in a little sailing boat called Wanderer.

Wanderer would later become famous around the world, along with Dye and Brockbank, for its exploits that Tuesday 28 July 1964.
As coastguards liked to point out, the boat was entirely unsuited for deep-water cruising: at 15ft 10in it was little longer than two coffins placed end to end, and even in a flat calm its gunwales reached just a foot above the water's surface.
Its open deck meant the only protection the men had from the 37ft breaking seas was a canvas cover that they pulled across the cockpit. It was nowhere near enough.

By 8.30pm Wanderer had capsized twice, dumping the two men in water they knew their bodies could endure for just eight minutes before staggering upright, waterlogged and punch-drunk.
Shortly before sunset, Dye saw a wave he knew Wanderer would not get through.
The boat's bow climbed to meet it, but as Wanderer approached the vertical Dye could see 15ft of frothing water curling above them.
There was nowhere to go but down, and Wanderer and its occupants were rolled over and went under.
For the third time that day, Dye felt he was drowning.

An illustration from the book, Ocean-Crossing Wayfarer, by Frank and Margaret Dye,
that recounted some of Frank's amazing exploits.

The story of Wanderer's 1964 ocean voyage is one of the most remarkable stories in a canon filled with heroism and catastrophe.
Dye's planned route took 650 nautical miles from Scotland to the Faroes and Norway. It would be a challenge in a modern vessel twice the size, with a cabin, an autopilot, two-way radio and a life raft, but for Dye, Brockbank and Wanderer it was epic – some said suicidal.
The often-cited greatest small boat journey, Ernest Shackleton's 1916 voyage to South Georgia on the James Caird, was only 150 miles longer than Dye and Brockbank planned to sail, and Shackleton had a crew of six in a larger and heavier whaleboat with a deck to keep out the sea.
Wanderer, a Wayfarer dinghy, had been designed to be trailed to lakes and estuaries: it was small and light enough to be pulled out of the water by two adults. In massive contrast to Shackleton and his professional seamen, Dye and Brockbank were on holiday.

I first heard Dye's name while sailing in a substantially bigger boat to St Kilda.
That voyage, across 50 miles of rough grey sea from the Outer Hebrides, felt daunting enough, but in a thick mist that arose between Harris and the islands I was told how Frank and his wife-to-be Margaret had sailed there in an open dinghy.
It kicked off an obsession that led to me buying a Wanderer of my own – not Frank's boat, but a class of Wayfarer later designed especially for Margaret – and repeatedly viewing the 30-minute film Frank shot on the Norway voyage, Summer Cruise, on YouTube.

The film shows Dye as a stocky 36-year-old, with thick glasses and the sort of hair that stands upright in any wind.
He didn't start sailing until he was 30, but by 35 he had become a celebrity in the dinghy world.
By the early 1960s his exploits were being regularly discussed in the sailing press with equal parts admiration and alarm.
According to Margaret, he was known as "the madman of the Atlantic", and she was warned: "Do not sail with that man; he'll kill you." What, people asked, did Frank Dye think he was playing at?

Bill Brockbank was 21 then, a gifted racing sailor, and when I meet him in the lush surroundings of his sailing club near Waltham Abbey 50 years after the voyage he is still tall and lean, with closely cropped grey-white hair and a neatly trimmed beard.
In his account, Dye was anything but reckless: he was a meticulous planner with a highly developed desire to push himself – George Mallory in a dinghy. "I think Frank climbed mountains," says Brockbank.
"They were just horizontal mountains. He was certainly doing what mountain climbers do, asking: 'What's the challenge; how can I go about it?' He was just doing it in a different medium."

Brockbank met Dye at a 1963 talk Frank had given during the Earl's Court Boat Show about a dinghy voyage from Scotland to Iceland.
Hearing Dye speak about the passage – the force eight gales, the excruciating cold, the exhaustion – Bill was overwhelmed.
"At the end I think 99% of the people were green with seasickness," he says now, "but it was the most inspiring story I'd ever heard."
He turned to his girlfriend and told her he had to go on Frank's next voyage.
"It was just something I had to do," he says. So he introduced himself to Dye, telling him: "I'm your new crew."
Dye was sceptical: "No," he said, "you're not."

Brockbank could not shake the idea off, and Dye couldn't shake Brockbank.
The young student travelled regularly from his home in Liverpool to Norfolk, where Dye ran a family Ford dealership.
Eventually Frank offered the Liverpudlian a trial cruise across the stormy Wash at night.
During the exercise, Frank explained the principles of extreme sailing he had built up.
No detail, Brockbank learned, was too small, no contingency too unlikely for Dye's problem-solving mind to examine, plan for and test.

A lifelong principle was that he should never call for help: no one should have to risk their life to save him from trouble he had got into voluntarily.
So his radio could only receive and was not able to transmit a distress signal.
He refused to take anyone who was married in case they were lost, and both crew had to be able to do everything because their partner might be unconscious or dead.
His medical kit included enough morphine to knock out a horse, as there was always a chance he'd need to amputate a limb at sea.
Before setting out he trawled over all the relevant information he could find: he read 35 years' of weather reports and calculated the likelihood of gales, researched seasonal sea temperatures and worked out survival times.
He worked his way round the boat, thinking how each part could break and the best way to fix it.

Brockbank was sick all the way across the Wash and back, but he showed skill and toughness and passed Dye's test.
A few weeks later they were on the road to Kinlochbervie, the northernmost fishing port in western Scotland, towing Wanderer behind Frank's Cortina.
There Dye rang the coastguard to tell them of his planned departure (the coastguard was predictably unhappy), and on the evening of Thursday 16 July Wanderer nosed its way out into the Minch, on course for the uninhabited island of Rona, the Faroes and Norway.

The wind quickly rose to force six ("strong breeze"), the swell increased and Brockbank was seasick, but what he remembers most about the first night was the cold.
"The cold is indescribable," he says.
Their clothing was primitive – layers of wool that became drenched with condensation under their oilskins – and his skin tensed as if he had been exposed to a sudden chill, and stayed like that for days.
The watch system, meanwhile, at night meant each of them could, at best, get two hours of sleep on the boat's cramped floor.

As dawn broke over the grey ocean they were close to Rona, where they went ashore to explore and eat a meal on land before setting out in a sea fog for the Faroes.
For the next four days Brockbank was continually sick.
But there were consolations: the high, rugged Faroes made the most impressive landfall Dye had ever seen, and the welcome they were given, both by local fishermen and Dye's Faroese friends, revitalised them.
They spent the next three days eating, drying clothes and recuperating.

On the bright afternoon of Friday 24 July, holding the simple gifts they had been given by the Faroese, the two men set out again on their final epic stretch, the 450-mile passage to Norway.
On the Faroes, Brockbank had had what he describes as a premonition.
"It was bizarre. We'd had a relatively easy trip, been seasick, but I just thought for a second: what if we don't come back?" He gathered all his film together and posted it to be developed.
"It wasn't anything strong. I wasn't panicking. I just thought: what happens if…?"
Dye, who wrote that he had got "cold feet" in Scotland, now also felt nervous.
The men had felt the pull of the land, he wrote, and "I was not sure I had sufficient stamina or willpower to carry the cruise through… [but] I suppose Bill and I felt the need to prove ourselves to ourselves."

By 11 the following morning, the waves were as high as Wanderer was long, and Brockbank was again violently seasick, as he would be for the next week.
By 3pm the wind was approaching gale force, and they did what Frank always did: take down the sails and mast and put out a drogue or sea anchor – a canvas bucket on a long line attached to the bow.
The boat acted like a weathervane then, facing wind and waves and avoiding dangerous side impacts.

Gale or near-gale conditions continued through Sunday and Monday, and between occasional hair-raising attempts to sail they mostly lay to the drogue.
Brockbank was down to heaving up stomach acid ("I can even tell you the different colours: orange and green") and the boat was often swamped, but on Tuesday morning the wind died to a light southwesterly and at 1.40pm Dye remembered to rig the radio to listen to the shipping forecast.
There were more warnings of gales – no surprise, they had already ridden out two – and then came a real shock: "Faroes: wind northerly, severe gale, force nine, backing northwest," the BBC announcer intoned.

Ocean Crossing Wayfarer: To Iceland and Norway in a 16ft Open Dinghy
"Offshore cruising in an open boat can be hard, cold, wet, lonely and occasionally miserable, but it is exhilarating too. To take an open dinghy across a hundred miles of sea, taking weather as it comes; to know that you have only yourself and your mate to rely on in an emergency; to see the beauty of dawn creep across the ever restless and dangerous ocean; to make a safe landfall - is wonderful and all of these things develop a self-reliance that is missing from the modern, mechanical, safety-conscious civilised world."
- Frank Dye

Force nine! Dye was shaken.
His extensive study of weather showed gales were rare in the Norwegian Sea in July. Such a storm would, he decided, be "very bad indeed".
He tried to break the news gently to Brockbank, but made a mess of it: "He obviously thought the same as me: 'Shall we be alive to see the dawn?'"
He did not feel scared, he wrote in his account of the voyage, Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, even though death was "uppermost in my mind".
He wrote: "My only regret was that I had caused Bill to risk his neck as well."

Within an hour the wind was veering northwest and building, and by 4.30pm the storm was screaming and the sea piling up as Wanderer rode to the drogue in a full-blooded force eight.
An hour later it was difficult to look to windward; even, sometimes, to breathe.
The strain on the drogue line was immense.
Shortly before 6pm, the rope parted.
Days of extreme cold meant Brockbank's mind was sluggish, and as he lay on the boat's floor beneath the canvas cover his first sensation of the capsize was of falling upwards then down again before thinking: "I'm wet."
Dye meanwhile was "choking on a torrent of water; there seemed to be tons of it, all dark green and frothing, pushing me down."

The boat was full but had at least landed upright.
As the men started to bail they knew they needed a new drogue, fast. Running on adrenaline they emptied two rucksacks, cut holes in them and attached them to an anchor and a long line and threw it overboard.
It wasn't enough, so they took off the mainsail to use as a drogue, too.
Now they had two sea anchors at work, but the waves had become confused: as it had built to force nine, the gale had veered north and produced a cross-sea: mountains of water were travelling in different directions, crashing into each other and forming 35ft pyramids that were impossible to take square on.
"We could have ridden out a force nine," says Brockbank.
"What we couldn't ride out was a nine that changed direction. When you're trying to get the boat to go through tops of the waves square on, it's a bit unfair if it's a pyramid. It can't be done."

At 8.15pm they were rolled again, this time by a wave that struck them on the port side.
"I had a fleeting memory of being thrown clean out of the stern, seeing Bill going under me, then the boat coming down," Dye remembered.
"Needing to breathe, I choked and began to drown."
Wanderer righted itself and Brockbank climbed back in. Dye, too weak to do so, rolled in with a wave.
The violence of the capsize had shattered a 6ft section of the mast, which Dye began cutting away to save the boat before Brockbank, knowing it was their only means of propulsion, stopped him and they stowed it as best they could.
The wind was still gathering speed, the tops of the waves atomising into droplets that hit the men like hail and gave the impression the whole sea was smoking.
Dye now estimated the waves were 37ft high: 25ft of solid water with 12ft of foaming crest hanging above.
In 10-minute shifts, the men worked the lines that held the drogues, passing them out as Wanderer slid down the back of a wave, pulling in hard to bring its bow through the crest, while the second crewman bailed.
Around 9pm, Dye saw a wave he knew Wanderer couldn't survive.
He shouted to Brockbank, and they both hauled hard on the drogues to try to pull the boat through the foam, but it was impossible.
They capsized for the third time, and as they fought their way to the surface Wanderer was lying bottom up.
Exhausted, in many sodden layers of clothing, they desperately tried to climb on to the upturned boat but were washed off.
They knew it was a most dangerous moment.
"All the time your clock is ticking: your eight minutes' survival time is ticking away," Brockbank says now.
"But there is no part of the human condition that allows you to give up. It's not bravery, it's that we're not built that way. Some instinct says: this is the only thing that will work, and that's what you do."

The men swam to the same side of the boat and reached up to grip the slot in Wanderer's hull where the centreboard went, then waited for the sea to lift the far gunwale.
With a strong heave the boat came over.
The men clambered back in, frantically bailing.
The waves filled Wanderer again and again, but by 15 minutes to midnight Dye was able to shout to Brockbank that the boat was dry and he'd be "damned annoyed if you fill it again".
They immediately went over for a fourth time.
Dye told Brockbank he thought they could only cope with one or two more before they were finished.
But Dye also sensed the gale was moderating, and by 1.30am he started to believe they might live through it.
They were freezing, hungry (their supplies had mostly been swept overboard) and the smashed mast looked beyond repair.
As Dye began to realise the worst was over, his energy levels crashed.
He was close to collapse.
But Brockbank was still adrenalised, working strongly.
Later that morning, they saw a ship.

The 2,000-tonne Norwegian vessel was just a mile away when they noticed it.
Dye, in his weakened state, agreed they should signal for help, and scrambled for the flare box to begin shooting red distress signals every 30 seconds.
He thought he saw the ship respond, and it seemed for a few tantalising moments that their ordeal was almost over, that they might soon be in dry clothes and eating hot food.
But the ship's flare was an illusion: it steamed on, impassive, towards the horizon.

For Brockbank it was "a pisser. Not a crash moment, but an 'Oh, fuck' moment."
Dye suddenly felt "very lonely", and when he got back to work he noticed the rope had cut right through his gloves and was now working into his hands.

Exhausted, disappointed, the men picked themselves up.
As the wind dropped they worked to repair the broken mast. By 9pm, with the swell a mere seven feet, they could carry enough sail to begin moving again: they now reckoned Norway was 190 miles away.
They ate a hot meal, and Dye began to recover.
There was a bright moon that night, and for a two-hour watch he steered his little boat down the path of silver light it made on the sea's surface.
But the respite didn't last: at one the following morning, Dye was awoken by Brockbank shouting at him to get the mast down.
The jury rig had failed and the top section of mast was leaning drunkenly forward.
They quickly pulled it in and set out the rucksack drogue.

Dispirited, they drifted in rough seas all that morning and into the afternoon, when they heard a distant jet engine.
They discussed firing the flare pistol again, but the cloud was low and they realised the plane had no chance of seeing them.

As the hope of rescue again faded, Brockbank felt exhaustion wash over him, and he collapsed as Dye had done the day before.
"I had this blinding realisation that we were in deep, deep shit. It's not the same as despair, because your mind is still saying: 'No, there must be a solution.'
But we were 180 miles from the nearest land and the adrenaline goes and you just cease to think. You're literally washed out."

Dye was now able to pick up some of the slack – "I think at one stage he let me sleep for a couple of hours," says Brockbank – and later that day they set to repairing the mast again, this time working to the younger man's plan.
They cut out the smashed part and splinted what were now squared-off pieces of timber, rerigging the shrouds to the lowered masthead.
After the conditions they had only just survived, it was, I suggest to Brockbank, quite a feat.
"I don't agree," he says.
"It's a feat of necessity."

Did he get angry with Frank for taking him there?
"No, absolutely not. The nearest analogy I can give you for when chips were down is that it's what happens to troops in a war. You don't know who's going to help who, you don't know who will survive, you just keep doing the next thing. It's not a warm friendship, it's we're-both-in-the-shit-together, we've-got-to-do-what-we-do-to-survive. It's that simple."

By 8pm the new rig was up and Dye's mood had brightened enough that when an inquisitive trawler came past while Brockbank was asleep, he "pretended not to see" it and it steamed away.
His aversion to rescue had returned.
By mid-afternoon on Friday they were just 55 miles offshore.
That night Brockbank saw a flash off the starboard bow: it was a lighthouse.
Reaching the sheltered waters of Nerlandsøya island in daylight, they were hailed by a fishing boat, whose crew asked if they had crossed the Norwegian Sea.
"Ya," Dye replied.
"You are madmans!" came the response.
Dye for once didn't disagree.
That afternoon, Saturday, they tied Wanderer up to the quay in Ã…lesund and made their way to the Grand Hotel, where they washed, slept and ate. Brockbank, according to Dye, had lost 18lb during the last leg of the voyage.

The following day, Dye went to church, where one assumes he thanked the Lord for his deliverance.
Brockbank set out for home, to say goodbye to his sister, who was moving to America, and to prepare for the Olympic sailing trials.
He reached Liverpool five days after they had come ashore.
In Lime Street station, the first familiar surroundings he had seen since the gale, an odd thing happened: he had a sudden, overwhelming realisation that he was alive, and started to cry.
Dye returned on a freighter with Wanderer.
Typically, Dye persuaded the ship's captain to drop him two miles off the English coast, and he sailed into Grimsby in his own boat.

In later years Dye continued to "cruise", often with Margaret, sailing in the Arctic, the Atlantic, the North Sea and the length of the eastern seaboard of the US. Frank died in 2010 at the age of 82.
For their sailing achievements, Frank and Margaret have been placed alongside Shackleton and Ellen MacArthur in an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth, where Wanderer will have star billing for the 50th anniversary of its Norway voyage.
Brockbank, now 71, continues regularly to compete in sailing races.
Like most of Dye's crew, he didn't feel the need to sail on one of Frank's voyages again.
It was, says Brockbank, "a one-time adventure. That's why I didn't want to go again. Because we'd done that."

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