Eileen Morris, aged 94, died peacefully this week. I first met her in 1979, a gracious, dignified, grey-haired lady, mother of Anne’s friend Lani. Nothing about her demeanour prepared me for the surprising statement that she should have a t-shirt made with the words ‘when I was 21 I ran away to sea with a German sailor.’ Over the years I learnt snippets of her story, how George in his yacht arrived in Napier in 1935 and despite her mother’s disapproval and the condemnation of the provincial city, the young typist went with him sailing around the Pacific. She was a brave lady.
By coincidence I am at present reading Dark Sun, the life of George Dibbern. As a roving young man he had been in New Zealand during the First World War and was interned on Soames Island in Wellington Harbour. He had returned to Germany, married and had three daughters. He left them in 1930 to sail vagabond style around the world, Mediterranean first, then across the Atlantic and Pacific to New Zealand. He had a succession of woman sailors but he described Eileen as his ‘best mate.’ The book reveals what a competent yachts-person she was, navigator as well as cook and deckhand.
They had an idyllic time, though there was hardship as they lived hand to mouth, in the South Sea Islands, before heading north to Hawaii and then east to Canada. There they contemplated settling but they could not get citizenship, George was German and they had little financial prospects. They sailed south to Seattle and San Francisco before heading back to Hawaii. War had broken out, their American visas had expired and so they headed south surviving a battering hurricane to limp back into Napier. George was interned again at Soames Island.
The war over, they resumed their sailing life together. Lani was born and lived on board as they sailed around the Cook Islands. Eventually, Eileen decided Lani needed schooling so she left George and settled back in Napier doing office work. Her days of adventure were over.
Ten x Ten : Art at Te Papa
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