Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rebell, Fred (1886–1968)

by Gillian Fulloon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Fred Rebell (1886-1968), lone sailor and rebel, was born on 22 April 1886 at Windau, Russia (Ventspils, Latvia), son of Henry Sproge, teacher, and his wife Johanna, née Schultz, and named Paul Christian Julius. After attending college he worked as a bank clerk before fleeing to Germany in 1907 to avoid conscription. Calling himself Fred Rebell, he obtained a seafaring permit and worked as a stoker before stowing away in a Sydney-bound ship in 1909. He found work at Maitland as a railway construction worker, then went to Western Australia, where he won a land grant at Balbarrup. After working in a sawmill for two years, he began clearing and farming. On 4 July 1916 at Bridgetown registry office he married Emily Krumin whom he had brought out from Latvia; she soon bore a son. Selling his farm in 1925, he worked as a carpenter in Perth and joined a damp-proofing business, but left after his wife petitioned for divorce in 1928 (decree absolute 1940).

In Sydney, on the dole and desperate, Rebell decided to emigrate to the United States of America. Undaunted when refused a visa, and inspired by the lone voyages of Harry Pidgeon, he worked at poorly paid jobs and saved enough to buy and fit out a second-hand, undecked, 18-foot regatta boat. He named her Elaine for a Perth girl, strengthened the hull, fixed an outside keel, enlarged the sail area and built a canvas shelter. He practised sailing on the harbour, studied navigation in the Public Library of New South Wales, and copied outdated maps. With a home-made sextant and patent log, two cheap watches for chronometers, an old navigation manual, and six months supply of dried food, he sailed from Sydney, unannounced and without official papers, on 31 December 1931.

Fair, with blue eyes and a deep voice, Rebell was frank and simple in manner. Slimly built and 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, he had 'the physical resistance and insensibility almost of an animal'. His sailing 'was blind and automatic', usually 'no look-out was kept'. Often battered by gales, he dealt calmly with mishaps. Having no pump, at times he was forced to bail; once he caulked seams at sea. After his watches stopped, he claimed to rely on dreams and prayer for guidance. In fine weather he 'considered his soul' and enjoyed Longfellow's poetry, the Bible or Wells's Outline of History. He spent five months on Pacific islands, resting, repairing his boat and enjoying island hospitality. But he was never tempted to 'go native', 'the necessity of struggle' being all important.

Rebell sailed into San Pedro harbour, California, on 8 January 1933. His voyage was the first recorded west-east, lone crossing of the Pacific. When his boat was smashed by an official launch in a gale, he sued the government for damages. Meanwhile, he was detained by the immigration authorities who refused to accept his home-made passport. With a Hollywood writer standing surety he found work as a yacht fitter, read books on 'psychic and religious' matters and explored the teachings of various sects. In mid-1935 he received £85 compensation for the Elaine and in November was deported to Latvia. Living with his parents at Piltene, he completed his book Escape to the Sea (London, 1939); it was translated into French in 1951.

Refused recognition as a Latvian national, Rebell decided to return to Australia in 1937. Buying an old 23-foot fishing boat, the Selga, he decked her in and built an outside keel of reinforced concrete. But after twice being forced back to the English coast for repairs, he abandoned her and joined H. H. Brache and his family in the Guernsey yacht Reine d' Arvor, bound for Australia. Again using a home-made sextant, he was navigator, baker, sailmaker and general handyman. In 1939 sailing from Jersey via the Panama Canal, they reached Sydney on 15 December.

Tired of wandering, Rebell settled in Sydney. He was naturalized in 1955. Living quietly, he worked as a carpenter, wrote religious tracts and was a Pentecostal lay preacher. Described as an 'unassuming ascetic', he died on 10 November 1968 and was buried according to the rites of the Assemblies of God.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Merrien, Lonely Voyages, translated by J. H. Watkins (Lond, 1954)
  • Fiji Times and Herald, 3 Mar, 19 Apr 1932, 13 Oct, 2, 3 Nov 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Oct 1936, 16 Dec 1939
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 Dec, 31 Dec 1939
  • naturalisation file, A446 55/48210 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Gillian Fulloon, 'Rebell, Fred (1886–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rebell-fred-8171/text14285, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sproge, Paul Christian Julius
  • Sprogis, Paul
Birth

22 April 1886
Ventspils, Latvia

Death

10 November 1968
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation