At Large: R.I.P. – Douglas Higham, 92, a craftsman and more

We learned this week that Doug Higham died in January. Ninety-two years old, he died in Somerset, where he moved in retirement from Vineyard Haven. But, retirement is certainly the wrong word. Doug was too restless, too constructive throughout his life to accept the sedentary possibilities of an unforced retirement. He was a builder, a designer, a collector, a story teller, a man of many parts.

In 1970, Doug had just left Crosby Yachts and his house in Osterville, where he had built the celebrated catboats and the lovely Wiannos that were the elegant, slippery yacht club racers of the time. He had also refashioned a few of the larger Wiannos into graceful pocket cruisers, built comely, shrewdly designed tenders, and become a peerless finish carpenter.

Fiberglass construction was intruding on the artistry of boatbuilders like Doug. He was a woodworker of exceptional skill, devoted to what he knew and did so well.

The Coastwise Packet Company’s owner, Capt. Robert Douglas, wanted a boatbuilder for myriad chores, all of them to do with wooden boats, and especially at first Alabama, the ex-pilot schooner he’d bought with an eye to doubling his schooner fleet. Doug joined up.

They were a pair in their devotion to fine lines and simple, thought-through, handsome construction in wood. They didn’t always see things the same way. Captain Douglas liked a vessel’s sheer to be just so. Doug liked the sheer a little different. Employer complained that employee lacked a certain eye for certain lines. Employee said his boss was too fussy and that a tiny bump here or a hollow there was entirely unnoticeable.

Among all the boats he’d built, Doug fancied a 37-foot Meadowlark cruising ketch he’d built for himself. She was extremely shoal, drawing about a foot and a half with leeboards up, flat-bottomed, and designed by L. Francis Herreschoff. Scowlike in some respects, she was finished smartly below, and she gave Doug immense pleasure when he cruised her and dropped anchor in very shallow water, unreachable by fancier, deep draft yachts, in the quiet outskirts of some crowded harbor like Nantucket or Hadley.

Doug had a shrewd eye for an antique, and it didn’t have to be a marine antique. He could rehabilitate an old table or dresser, and he might later make a very good deal when he resold it.

He also collected books, marine books mostly, and among them mostly out-of-print tales written by small boat sailors who’d made long, history-making voyages. He also collected, and I think he had read most of, the Joe Lincoln novels, set on Cape Cod and peopled by retired sea captains and mates.

Before he moved away, Doug offered me a few of his prized volumes, at a very good price, I’m sure. I bought them, and they’re in my collection now. Doug was my first boss, in 1970, when I anchored here to begin a short-lived and undistinguished career as a boat carpenter. Working together over two years, we’d had lots of time to discuss everything maritime and many of the books that went along with sailors, wooden boats, and sea voyages.

Doug had a wry sense of humor, and he could be a dour presence, in particular, for example, when he was reviewing some carpentry project I’d completed. But, if you weren’t on the receiving end, you might find yourself laughing at the memory of something he’d said, years after the event.

I remember a windy day, sailing aboard Shenandoah in the early 1970s, with her young regular crew and some friends. Shenandoah was tacking, and Doug and I found ourselves in a long line of hands tailing a jib sheet. Elbows flew in the rush to get the sheet in and made fast before Shenandoah set off on her new tack. Doug, compact and catlike, was just behind a huge, beefy, muscular 19-year-old blond Iowan college student who was a paid deckhand. The boy’s energy was unrestrained, and as he pulled at the sheet, his elbow clobbered Doug in the side of the head.

“Hey,” Doug yelled, “watch what you’re doing. What do you think, there’s a cheeseburger on the end of that line?”

Neatly crafted, like his joinery.Note: Visitors to mvtimes.com will find a new, enhanced Comment feature that will, I think, improve the conversational nature of The Times’ very popular talk-back service. The upgrade replaces our homemade Comment feature with a multi-functional and popular discussion management system. The experience ought to more nearly resemble live discussions, with real-time posting, notification, and updating. The goal is a quicker, more intuitive and rewarding experience for participants. Try it, and let us know what you think. DAC