All about boats – SailMV honors Capt. Robert S. Douglas

Capt. Douglas, master of the topsail schooner Shenandoah, in his command position, all the way aft, watches the familiar landscape of his favorite cruising territory pass. The diesel-powered yawl boat hangs in davits from a strongback behind him. — Photo courtesy of Susan Nabreski

One rainy day in the 1970s, maybe 40 years ago, Bob Douglas visited a shipyard in Boston to have a look at a big old schooner hauled out there. He was with the tugboat captain Roy Campbell, a man who saw everything and sized it up quickly and was always prepared. Roy, who died several years ago, had a flinty realism that he applied unhesitatingly, whatever the situation. Bob was the reason they were at that untidy place standing in the rain underneath this aged wooden sailing ship. Bob heard she was there and wanted to see her, but when Roy was hopelessly drenched, he ducked into a little building nearby, probably the winch house. Bob didn’t come in out of the rain. Roy watched him stand gaping at the hull, wandering around it, poking at it, measuring it with his eye, taking it all in.

“If you split open that boy’s head, you know what you’d find?” Roy said to me later. “You’d find a boat.”

What follows is a brief, frankly admiring and affectionate account of the unique, memorable, masterful Capt. Robert S. Douglas, designer, builder, and captain of the topsail schooner Shenandoah for 48 years. Captain Douglas will be honored for his contribution to the historic maritime habit of Vineyard Haven by Sail Martha’s Vineyard at its annual dinner and auction on Saturday, July 7. No one can have done more to earn this recognition than he.

Roy Campbell was right, of course. From his summers at his family’s West Chop house through what is now his 80th year, Bob Douglas has been a sailor and a marine visionary, albeit one with a sharply narrow vision, one which has relentlessly faced aft into history. He is a polymath, steeped in marine history, sailing ships, wooden boatbuilding and design, marine engineering, and the preservation of seagoing traditions. All that — combined with his delight with the Vineyard and its long marine tradition and his unwavering belief that there are no better waters for cruising under sail than along the southeast coast of New England — makes a fairly complete catalogue of Bob’s range of captivating interests.

In between his youthful adventures in Vineyard Haven, summering and sailing in Vineyard waters from his parents’ West Chop summer place, and the beginning of his affair with Shenandoah in the early 1960s, Bob was a jet fighter pilot for the Air Force from 1956 to 1958. He ejected from a malfunctioning jet, and I suspect that as he floated to earth he may have compared the experience to a nifty reach across Vineyard Sound before an ebullient summer southwester.

Early in the 1960s, he made his way to South Bristol, Maine, where he worked at the Harvey Gamage Shipyard building the Mary Day, a smaller, fore and aft schooner destined for weekly sailing excursions out of Camden, where the windjammer business was going strong. There was no such business in Vineyard waters, and Bob figured he would create one, to sail on weekly cruises between Nantucket in the east and, say, Mystic, Conn., in the west. The foundation of that business was Shenandoah.

Bob adapted the design for an 1830s revenue cutter called Joe Lane to his purpose. He found Joe Lane in one of marine historian Howard Chappelle’s volumes of annotated plans, reproduced from the Smithsonian’s collection. She was launched from the Gamage shipyard in 1964, christened by Bob’s father, James. I imagine that Harvey Gamage let out a sigh of relief when Shenandoah slid down his ways. Bob says he often debated with Gamage, whose yard was famous for fishing boat construction, something simpler and maybe coarser than Bob had in mind for Shenandoah. The issues generally had to do with the quality of the materials the builder was using, the true sweep of the lines Bob had drawn on the plans, the location of this bit of deck hardware or that. Bob says that one of these discussions ended when the perturbed builder said, “You’re too fussy, I can’t suit you.”

That suggests one hallmark Bob Douglas attribute. He is fussy – over all things and especially all things marine – and he is unwaveringly opinionated about what he likes in a boat and doesn’t. He likes wooden boats, schooners, old-fashioned seafaring discipline, sensible engineering, running rigging that runs fair, and a fairly flat sheer with a modest upturn at the quarter. He loves Vineyard Haven and cherishes every wooden schooner that gets added to the Vineyard Haven fleet. Once, when I had some boat problem, I suggested that I could jury rig the part that was giving the problem. He said, “Don’t do that, take it out, do it right. You ought to aim for perfection.”

In the Maine windjammer fleet, the vessels were smaller and designed for efficiency and economy, with small crews. Bob had in mind something more. He wanted a bigger, more majestic vessel, built for speed. He wanted square sails, a more complicated, tall rig, and for his crew and the passengers, which were adults (about 30 a week in the early days), an unstinting, authentic experience. But the real point of the more complicated rig was educational, to give passengers a chance to see and sail under such a rig, but most important to give the young people who would be the crew a chance to test themselves against the hard work, the dizzying heights they had to reach to set and furl the two square sails and the main gaff topsail, and the experience of working as a seafaring team.

It is in this way that Bob’s life’s work and the mission of Sail Martha’s Vineyard are so neatly aligned. Although the business he created in Southeastern New England attracted admiring copycats, including other schooners built by Gamage to sail out of Newport, R.I., and elsewhere, none of them embraced the educational challenge that Bob had imagined when he conceived his vessel and its work. There were followers, but they were mostly smaller, fore and aft rigged, more efficient but slower, with small crews. They made the Coast Guard regulators happy, unlike Shenandoah whose extreme design, tall rig, lack of an engine, and college-age crews led, from her launch, to decades-long contention with the changing Coast Guard bureaucracy. The newcomers didn’t want that kind of trouble, so they adjusted their plans. Some of them even had engines. They had a more business-minded, less ideal model than Bob had chosen.

Bob has sailed his creation faultlessly every summer week for nearly 50 years. As the market in adult passengers declined, he began kid cruises. Lots of Island school children have had the experience. Lots of others, me included, and my two sons, have served as crew on Shenandoah. That experience, common to many others over all these years, has led some of the former crewmembers to sea as merchant marine officers. Some are Island businessmen today. All have been marked by their experience in exactly the way Bob had in mind nearly half a century ago.