In Greece, Griffiths — always funny, ever professional, according to one friend — rose from deck hand to yacht captain, finally making his mark, he says, in command of a vessel chartered for a National Geographic expedition. A later charter on another yacht was, to Capt. Griffiths, a disaster. But the American couple who had chartered the yacht were thrilled, and the gentleman asked Griffiths to cross the Atlantic and become his skipper. By now, his lady friend had, with Julian, moved on, so he was free to accept.
The yacht was Brandaris, a 53-foot Dutch sailing barge with a 17-by-17-foot saloon, owned by a Rhode Island entrepreneur. Griffiths sailed her between Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and the Bahamas, gathering crew where he could. One of them was Robert Browning, a green kid from Annapolis.
“I’ve got my version [of our meeting], and he’s got his version,” says Browning. “His is much funnier than mine.” (Ah, yes, the “shanghai” story.) “So we usually go with his.” Browning says that Griffiths, a meticulous, knowledgeable, charismatic captain, “changed my life” from that of an undisciplined youth to a man who now owns a construction company.
Griffiths sailed Brandaris and gathered many new stories for three years until, in 1973, the owner decommissioned the yacht. But with a year’s salary as a “seeeeerious” thank-you from the owner (Griffiths always exaggerates this word) the captain was able to return to Greece with another love, a young southern belle he called Chattanooga Sue Sue, and ship his ailing Rosalind to North Carolina.
“So I did a massive amount of work on Rosalind, and the phone rang, and it’s the owner of Cotton Blossom.” Griffiths knew the 72-foot William Fife design — “one of the most beautiful boats” in the United States, he says. Would he be her captain? the owner asked. Griffiths had a condition: He would not sail the yacht to the Caribbean. He knew of many classics lost on deliveries to the islands. “I’m in the yacht preservation business,” he told the owner. He was hired.
It happened that Cotton Blossom needed work. Griffiths brought her to North Carolina where, with two crewmembers, he began a major refit “to turn her into something that represents me,” Griffiths says. “One of the reputations I had was that boats that I ran were the most beautifully kept.”
His crew remembers him also as a skilled sailor. “One of the things he loved to do was show it off,” sailing Cotton Blossom into a harbor, says Patti Nicholson, a Washington caterer who cooked for Griffiths. “We’d just slip right up where we wanted to go. People were always in awe.”
In his eighth year commanding Cotton Blossom, Griffiths, now living with Waterworth, hired 19-year-old Julian as his eighth crewman. But then in rapid succession, he says, Waterworth and Julian left him, and the owners put the yacht on the market. Crushed, he retreated permanently to Rosalind’s embrace.
“His life is a story of going off the rails in crucial times,” says Bob Skene, a Canadian trucking company owner who crewed for Griffiths in the 1960s. “That’s why he is where he is today … trying to keep body and soul together. [He] careers from one sort of victory to the next catastrophe.”
After all the heartbreaks, still there is Rosalind, the enduring love, and many, many good friends, all of those named above among them.
“Perhaps,” says Waterworth, a nurse in Vermont now, “Rosalind is his muse and his security and his home and also, ultimately in some respect, his creation, his work of art — his testament to his life, really.”
To contact Richard Griffiths, e-mail tudruk1951@ yahoo.com.
See related article: "A baptism by fire ... and scotch"
This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.