Richard Griffiths has found and lost love again and again, but the lady he loves most is perhaps Rosalind, the 1903 lugger he’s been with for 50 year
Richard Thomas Griffiths, famous professional yacht captain, has a story he’d like to tell you — actually, by conservative estimate, several hundred such stories.
Do not avoid the good Captain.
You might happen to be walking across Maryland’s Oxford Boatyard when you encounter a slender fellow 5-feet-and-a-brick tall. He probably will be wearing a varnish-spattered white dress shirt with the cuffs buttoned. A wispy, curled moustache and pointy beard suggest Shakespeare. The eyebrows arch and dance. If you say hello, you may well be halted for hours, mesmerized as Capt. Griffiths, 70, regales you with a story of crushing, yet funny, irony drawn from his vast experience.
The chances are it will be a love story. The love of Griffiths’ life is only feet away. Her name is Rosalind. She’s a 1903 lugger, a fishing boat that a half-century ago he converted to a yacht. The honey-thick brightwork looks deep enough to drown in. Griffiths has been with Rosalind since he rescued her from the mud in his homeland, England.
But there are many, many stories of love of a more human, fleeting nature. Some of these affairs occurred during Griffiths’ career as a skipper sailing legendary yachts for wealthy owners. Often, his young crewmembers found the captain irresistible. “He’s entertaining, and he loves women,” says former crewmember and lover Karen Waterworth, “especially young women.”
“I am,” Griffiths declares in a most aristocratic British accent, “a romantic!” rolling his “r” as if playing the regimental drum. He is also an artist and has been one longer than he’s been a sailor. In fact, that’s how the captain met Rosalind of St. Ives.
“It was here in the harbor of Shoreham, in Sussex, south England, that I, a 21-year-old art teacher recently thwarted in love, found myself wandering forlornly through the steady drizzle of a late-November day when Cupid’s arrow was launched again,” Griffiths has written. (With the help of another younger lover, Viviann Napp, he is compiling a memoir that collects many of his tales.) “Staring at this aging, decrepit vessel, it occurred to me that if I could rent or buy her, it could be a cheap studio.”
Rosalind’s fish hold became his saloon, her care his passion, her preservation his art form. In return, she has been there for him throughout the rest of his travels, a most constant love. She was there in 1967 when, lusting for warm weather during another grim English winter, Griffiths quit his teaching job and sailed across the English Channel and through the French canals with his lady at the time and their son, Julian. They arrived in Greece nearly destitute, but happy. In short order, he was a deck hand on a private yacht.
“And that’s how I spent 10 days with God,” Griffiths recalls with a wry arch of his brow that telegraphs a certain upper-class distaste. “Actually, his name wasn’t God. It was Charlton Heston.”
Performed live, Griffiths’ stories are theatrical. Often, his stage is the boatyard gravel. Upstage would be the blue wooden front of his rented shop. The proscenium is usually marked by a mast stored on saw horses. Griffiths performs between the two. His audience: yard employees, slip-holders, guests — anyone prowling the boatyard, an institution that warmly welcomes a diverse fleet of interesting vessels and that finds a place for unconventional classics like Griffiths and Rosalind.
The Captain hooks you, his audience, with any number of dialects and gestures that magnify his words. Not just the sweeping hands, but the turn of a shoulder and a cheek toward you, the arching of that brow, the slowly arriving smile — all of these create the drama at hand, from thundering edicts of God to the obsequious flattery of a servant. He could be Hamlet, don’t you see?
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.