At Large: Bob Douglas and Shenandoah – a half-century together

During 50 summers, since Shenandoah, the topsail schooner he designed was launched from Harvey Gamage’s shipyard in Maine, Bob Douglas has been at her wheel as she left her Vineyard Haven mooring for each week long trip. In the early years, he took along 30 or so adults, sometimes Mariner Scouts, and while he wrestled with the Coast Guard for licensing, he carried them at no charge. Eventually, the trade in adults fell off and he turned to children, most from the the Vineyard schools. He thought they were more adaptable and absorbed the lessons he set out to teach, his best ambassadors as well. His aim was to wrestle a few modern Americans away from their televisions and other isolating gadgetry, their compulsive in-touchness. Let them spend a week under sail, in the wind, flying over the water, doing some rough labor and dining together, without technological mediation, with folks they didn’t know well but learned to know.

Recently, Bob, experiencing a few – amazingly and thankfully, a very few – of the knocks that are part of getting over 80, has left the mooring in company with his son Morgan. Kristofer Rabasca, a designer I work with at The Times, took a few minutes the other day to tell me about his trip with his daughter Hannah aboard Shenandoah. Kristofer reminded me of the indelible effect of those days and nights, so different in every respect from the lives we and our kids live every day. Kristofer and Hannah delighted in the wild, free, unmatched pleasures of the sunny, windy days, the kerosene lit deck at night, the storytelling and music at dinner in Shenandoah’s saloon, everyone sitting sleepily around the two great gimballed tables, Bob telling sea stories, the tired children nodding. He said he and Hannah would happily make the trip again, for two weeks if they could.

For me, Kristofer’s account confirmed a durable suspicion, that Bob’s intention when he built Shenandoah endures. His schooner is the instrument of a design as finely wrought as the vessel itself. He wanted to take a week, wrench his passengers out of their everyday lives, immerse them in long gone sounds, smells, and sensations, familiar to 19th century Americans but lost to their 20th Century successors. Who besides a man possessed, and also endowed, could fashion his life to affect the lives of so many others in ways they could not have imagined, but in ways that exactly suited him.

I met Bob in 1966, when I worked one college summer in a Fairhaven, Massachusetts shipyard. I was scraping the bottom of a hard-used New Bedford dragger on one railway, when Shenandoah, pristine, white, perfect, appeared on a railway nearby. Without a moment’s reflection, I left work, climbed the ladder to Shenandoah’s rail and asked Bob for a job. He said no, but a few weeks later, he called to ask me to fill in for a few weeks for a departing crewman. He offered me a full summer’s berth for the 1967 summer, but I was getting married that September and needed to make some money. Seagoing wages at the Coastwise Packet Company had a 19th Century flavor, just as the schooner did. In 1970, Bob called with another job offer. This time, I quit a teaching job that I didn’t like, was no good at, and had no appetite for, and moved to Vineyard Haven.

Over the years, I’ve sailed with Bob on Shenandoah several times. Some of the people I know and like the most, now Vineyarders too, began their Island lives as crew for Bob. During the mid-1970s, when Bob feared that Vineyard Haven’s waterfront and its history were at risk, he tried his hand at politics, running for selectman. It was inconceivable that a man who in his life and dreams dwelt in 1830, and always aboard a ship, could meet the 20th Century head on and change its course. Ultimately, his success would not be political but subversive, 30 passengers at a time. I wrote or rewrote speeches for his campaigns and typed and edited his longhand letters – rants, really – when I was at the Gazette. All to no avail. How could it have been otherwise?

The biggest contribution I made, and it was not selfless, was to encourage my two sons to work several years each as crewmen on Shenandoah, and later Alabama. They were susceptible to Bob’s design, as I have been, and their grownup lives are marked by the experiences they shared with him, as mine has. Not controlling experiences, mind you, but abiding, always in reserve, always informing, always brightening and illuminating life as we live it these days.

Honoring a half century of Bob and Shenandoah, Black Dog Tall Ships has operated day sails throughout the week and they will continue until Saturday, from 3-6 pm, onboard Shenandoah. Make reservations through the BD Tall Ships office. Everyone is invited to a dockside event on Sunday evening from 5-8 pm, at the head of the Black Dog Wharf (weather dependent). Visitors may come onboard for tours and meet Captain Douglas and his crew. Shenandoah’s chanteyman, Bill Schustik, will perform.