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Frank Dye: Sailing into hell

By mid-afternoon it was clear even to Frank Dye that his 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 lay 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 the little boat 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.

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 covered 650 nautical miles from Scotland to the Faroes and Norway. It would be a challenge in a modern sailing 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, a heavy whaleboat and 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 launched and recovered by two people. Plus, in massive contrast to Shackleton and his professional seamen, Dye and Brockbank were on holiday.

That day, the two men took turns to work the drogues in 10-minute shifts, passing the lines out as Wanderer slid down the back of a wave, then pulling in hard to bring its bow through the crest. Meanwhile, the second crewman bailed. Around 9pm, Dye saw another enormous wave. He shouted to Brockbank, and they both hauled hard on the drogues to try to pull the boat through the frothing sea, 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. 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 the hull where the centreboard lay, then waited for the sea to lift the far gunwale. With a tremendous heave the boat came over. The men clambered back in, then frantically began to bail. The waves filled Wanderer again and again, but at 15 minutes to midnight Dye shouted 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. For once, Dye didn't disagree.

That afternoon, Saturday, they tied Wanderer up to the quay in Ålesund and made their way to the Grand Hotel, where they washed, slept and ate. Brockbank had lost 18lb during the last leg of the voyage.

The following day, Dye went to church, where he must have 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. He persuaded the ship's captain to drop him two miles off the English coast, and sailed into Grimsby in his own boat.

In later years Dye continued to "cruise", often with his wife, 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 were placed alongside Shackleton and Ellen MacArthur in an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth, where Wanderer had 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."

First published in the Observer Magazine and on

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