Francis (Pat) West Jr. Dies at Age of 96: Islander, Engineer and Man of the Sea
Francis (Pat) West Jr., a major Island personality enjoyed by all who knew him, died at the age of 96 at his Lake Tashmoo home on July Fourth.
Mr. West was one of the founding organizers and commodore for life of the Holmes Hole Sailing Association, which became the sponsor of the now well-
established annual George Moffett Race. In recent years, he organized a race exclusively for gaff-rigged boats to follow the Moffett Race by a week. He was quick to extol the virtues of the gaff rig and loved to debate its superiority over the Marconi rig. Friends later decided the race should be called the Pat West Gaff Rig Race.
From beginning to end, Mr. West's life was involved in one way or another with boats. Born in 1906 in Brookline, his family lived in Falmouth and Pompano, Fla. As a child he accompanied his father fishing from a sailing canoe as well as on Iona, the family's Crosby catboat, making passages from Falmouth to their summer cottage in Menemsha in the canoe and on one occasion transporting a cow, a family pet, aboard the Iona.
In his late teens, Mr. West delivered yachts up and down the coast and summers skippered the sloop Venture out of Vineyard Haven. Eventually he was able to purchase the Venture from the owner, who realized that he would care for her, after which he took fishing charter parties out from Menemsha and raised money for his college tuition.
After graduating from the University of Miami with a B.S. in physics, Mr. West worked on a patent for a remote-reading compass and spent one winter living aboard the Venture on the Hudson in New York city during one of the coldest winters in years. His interest in remote-reading compasses and, later, steering systems led him first to the Kelvin & Wilfrid O. White Company in Boston, where in 1938 he married the boss's daughter, Isabel White. In 1940, the Sperry Gyroscope Company bought his patent and hired him as a project engineer developing compasses and steering devices.
The high point of his career came in 1950 when his lab at Sperry was commissioned to install the steering system for the S.S. United States. Under his direction a Sperry gyro-pilot was installed on the superliner, and Mr. West and his engineers sailed aboard the ship during her sea trials. The ship still holds the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic passage. When Mr. West retired in 1970 and moved to the Vineyard, he became the Island's compass adjuster.
He owned Venture for 40 years. When he could no longer keep up with the maintenance of the old 38-footer, he turned her over to Nathaniel Benjamin - who would rebuild her for his own family yacht - and replaced her with a 23-foot Friendship sloop, Erda.
Ashore, Mr. West had a lifelong love affair with bicycles. He always biked to work at the Sperry plant in Garden City, Long Island, N.Y. Later he rode to the railroad station and took the train to New York or Brooklyn. With his son, Danny, and a nephew, Frank Van Zandt, he belonged to a cycling club that toured Long Island early Sunday mornings and raced against other clubs in the metropolitan New York area. When Sperry sent him to Paris for three years as an engineering liaison, he daily pedaled his bicycle through the Bois de Boulogne into the city to his office. Pat believed it was important to get your heart rate up every day; until he was almost 90 he took a daily ride on the same bicycle that he bought in Paris up and down the sandy Herring Creek Road.
During the Paris years, deprived of his beloved Venture, Mr. West contrived a folding rubber kayak with outriggers and a gaff-rig sail from a Dyer dinghy to get afloat on the River Seine. When he had business in Scandinavia, he'd make sure he snuck off to Sweden to sail with a friend.
Mr. West was a great believer in the power of democracy and was an ardent Democrat, beginning with FDR. When Bill Clinton was elected, he got a group together and hosted an inaugural ball that was a great success. At the ball, Mr. West proposed a toast that turned into a lengthy speech on the importance of democracy.
Mr. West loved music: Louis Armstrong for dancing and Wagner for listening. His daughter, Christine, made her operatic debut in Seattle singing the role of Erda in Wagner's Ring. He admired the ladies and was quick to turn on the charm and invite them to dance if there was music handy. Growing up with three beautiful sisters introduced him at an early age to the ways of the female sex. When meeting a young person for the first time, he would ask, "Do you like to dance?" He thought it was important for them to know the joy of dancing.
When Pat and Isabel West retired to the Vineyard they remodeled the family barn at the Meadows for their home. They had been married at the farmhouse across the road and scenes of the wedding appear in the film This Is Our Island, which is still shown occasionally.
In the last years of his life, Mr. West was determined to have the Coast Guard place a marker on the great underwater rock that lies southeast of West Chop, for he, among others, had hit it while sailing. He and Hugh Schwarz persevered for two years, dealing with agency after agency, until they gained the necessary approval. He was proud to announce that finally a tall marker had been imbedded in the rock, warning navigators of the hazard now called Douglas Rock.
At the urging of his friend Tim Chilton, Mr. West told stories into a tape recorder about his life and times aboard Venture. The result was a book, The Sloop Venture of Vineyard Haven, Stories by Pat West, published in 2001.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Isabel; a son, Nathaniel of Friendship, Me.; a daughter, Christine Goessweiner of Vienna, Austria; two sisters, Janet of Vineyard Haven and Sue Bruce of Menemsha and Ft. Lauderdale; five grandchildren, Thomas, George and Peter of Vienna; Christopher of Thorndike, Me., and Alexandra of Vineyard Haven; two great-grandchildren; four nephews, and two nieces.
A memorial gathering will be held Monday, July 15, at 11 a.m. at Pat and Isabel's home on Herring Creek Road. Please carpool when possible; starting at 10:15 a.m., shuttle transportation service will be available from the lower end of Daggett avenue to transport guests to and from the West residence. In memory of Mr. West, sail your boat to Tashmoo or ride your bicycle.