Dudley Brown

And there he was. Just as I had imagined he would look on his yacht. Over the years I’ve sometimes wondered if I partly invented Dudley Brown. Sure he was a colleague of mine for a couple of years, and I know he was building a yacht, because I saw it. But the adventure he was planning, to be first to sail single-handed around the world in the 20th century on a boat which he was building in his front yard, with no motor, seems fantastical. Especially for a man over 60 with minimal sailing experience, who was a social worker in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide. And yet here in 2018 was his story on a website by one of my fellow bloggers, recalling his times with Dudley in 1988 in Hawaii.

He had been in the army at the very end of WW2, training as a paratrooper. He just missed out on mortal combat, but spent time rounding up surrendering German troops. Coming to Australia after leaving the army, he went outback to work with ‘Aboriginal Affairs’ departments, which at that time ran reserves that had mostly been established in the late 1800’s by various Christian Churches bent on conversion and moral education. With his military background, Dudley had been seen as a well-organised and resourceful man (they were always men) who could evolve into a valuable leader. By the age of 30 he was a Superintendent of a reserve. I think it was Cooberpedy in the far north of South Australia—certainly he worked there, because I remember his tales of living in a corrugated iron house when the temperature was over 50 degrees, of course without air conditioning.

So why was he in Salisbury, a base-grade social worker, with me, 25 years his junior, as his boss? A bearded, weather-beaten nugget of a man, smoking constantly, who looked completely out of place in a city, let alone in a government welfare office. He claimed it was all to do with building his yacht, which was obviously impossible unless he lived near a port. And he was only a couple of years off getting his superannuation pension, and therefore wasn’t too worried if the work wasn’t at a level, or in an environment, that he was used to. But I did pick up snippets of another story, that Dudley slid away from revealing whenever I probed gently. He had a pistol, souvenired from a prisoner of war, and was happy to admit that he fired it in the air several times when drunken men on a reserve were threatening mayhem. This alone should have led to full investigations of whether his behaviour was justified. But it appeared that Dudley the cowboy Superintendent was untouchable because nobody else wanted to do his job, almost alone in a bleak, isolated and very depressed township with little or no prospects of good futures for the people in his care.

However, I heard second-hand that on one occasion the gun was fired at a person, resulting in serious injury, Whatever the truth, Dudley appeared as one of my social work staff, not wanting to talk about why, other than that his boat was slowly taking shape only a couple of kilometres down the road from our office. And that this was therefore a perfect pre-retirement posting for him. So here he was, decades older than the rest of us, and decidedly right-wing in some of his views on young offenders and child abuse, which were our chief concerns. This office was famously left-wing; in fact I had been sent there as the District Officer to bring some troublesome workers into line. So staff meetings could be a chaotic affair, with the rump Trotskyists refusing to do anything that our clients didn’t agree with, and Dudley opining that a ‘good kick up the arse’ would solve many of the issues we seemed so ill-equipped to deal with. I shouldn’t appear to make light of this; there were the lives of some very damaged people at stake here; and we actually made some very important concessions to each other’s points of view. None of us had good answers to some really awful dilemmas, that we supposed to resolve without offending anybody too much. Admitting that made for some grown-up thinking, and positions we found we could all work with, including Dudley.

He and I got on really well. Dudley thought I was ‘officer material’ who might turn out all right if I tolerated less slacking off from some of our workmates. With some mutual respect growing, the conversations turned more often to his plans for becoming a round-the-world lone sailor. I knew enough from my own sailing efforts to keep up with his stories of great deals on boat-parts, and his thinking on a design that would serve him well alone at sea. And for his crazy dream, I admired him so much. Entirely self-taught, just finishing the boat was going to be an epic achievement. I looked forward to each exposition on the best route around the world, the foods he would store, the sails he needed; even the name that he would give his boat.

One day he came in to tell me had just saved himself $1300, a large sum in 1982. He wanted the best possible wetsuit in case he fell overboard while sailing in the freezing latitudes just north of Antarctica. The salesman explained that Dudley could survive 12 or 13 hours in the latest neoprene suit, instead of a few minutes in normal sailing clothing. Then it hit him—if he fell off his boat, it would sail on without him. There was no chance he could get back on board. So why choose a slow and miserable death? He had decided to get a better harness instead.

I left the Salisbury office before Dudley retired. About three year later, I met his wife Nina, who was herself now in Cooberpedy, managing the welfare office. She told me Dudley had just left Port Adelaide on his way to Tasmania, from where he would head due south. There had been a few problems during some shakedown cruises near Adelaide, but overall the boat was behaving perfectly. He had actually done it.

I heard nothing for a couple of years, then came a story in the media about a lone yachtsman from Australia who had gone aground in Hawaii. It was Dudley, or as the Hawaii press had named him, ‘Crocodile Dudley’, because of the Australian film that had come out the year before. Local people and tourists alike had rallied to try to save his boat. The CEO of the Ford Motor Company, Lee Iacocca, had a house just above the reef where Dudley’s boat was stuck, and he and Dudley became great mates for a while.

Because of the blog I found recently, I now know that his boat sank, and a 1988 version of crowd funding saw him in a new boat within a few months. He had so much charisma; the unmistakeable whiff of the authenticity of a truly free spirit. Just like me, no-one could resist being part of his adventure. But it was a boat with a motor—that was one concession his benefactors insisted on. Dudley had to admit that it was the lack of an engine that saw him drift helplessly into that reef, and next time he might not be so lucky.

My fellow blogger doesn’t know what happened after Dudley went round Cape Horn, via San Diego in California. If he’s alive he would be about 94. I like to think he made it, or maybe he froze to death quickly in his deliberately inadequate thermal gear in the Southern Ocean. However long he lives/lived, Dudley will have done it his way, enriching the memories of all who met him.

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