Robert S. Douglas, captain of the topsail schooner Shenandoah, received the Walter Cronkite award Saturday at the 21st annual Sail Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Buffet and Auction at Tisbury Wharf. The award is bestowed to those who have distinguished themselves above and beyond, following the precepts of Sail Martha’s Vineyard’s own goals, to enrich the lives of others.
Mr. Douglas is the third Island person to receive the award. Two years ago Ray Ellis, an Edgartown artist, received the award, and last year’s Walter Cronkite award recipient was Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury. Mr. Stackpole introduced Mr. Douglas, saying that Vineyard Haven would be a very different harbor were it not for the arrival of Shenandoah and Mr. Douglas’s vision, in the summer of 1964.
The evening was a spectacular show of maritime affection and high regard. Those 280 in attendance had many options. They could visually enjoy the many classic vessels tied up at Tisbury Wharf, including Shenadoah, see an exhibition of maritime art, or they could enjoy the fellowship of friends at the meal and auction.
The fundraiser portion of the program was quite successful, according to Hope Callen, administrative director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard.
“We are still feeling the afterglow,” Mrs. Callen said Monday by phone. The numbers had not yet been added up, but it was indeed a successful affair.
Indeed, it was Captain Douglas who drew the interest and attention of those who had finished their dinner and finished their bidding. Mr. Stackpole described Captain Douglas’s living dream, Shenandoah, as the signature of the harbor and the signature of an Island. He said the vessel, and those who sail her, set the tone for all of the boat building, boat restoration and boat maintenance and seahandling. Mr. Stackpole praised Mr. Douglas for setting a standard that ripples throughout this community.
Mr. Stackpole said his own introduction to Martha’s Vineyard came in 1966 when he signed on as crew aboard Shenandoah and worked for Mr. Douglas. “That decision changed my life,” Mr. Stackpole said.
About the captain, he said: “Shenandoah never sailed once without Robert S. Douglas.”
He said thousands of young people have sailed with Captain Douglas, and they too have been touched by the soft glow of a kerosene lamp at night when the vessel is anchored at Tarpaulin Cove.
Mr. Douglas, whose family owns the Black Dog Tavern, has been honored in the past. A decade ago, Mr. Douglas was the recipient with others of the much-coveted Gosnold Award for their contribution to the Island. The award was created to commemorate 400 years since Bartholomew Gosnold discovered the Vineyard.
He spoke of his years sailing Shenandoah and the delight he has had in particular with young sailors. For the last 15 years, Mr. Douglas said he has taken Edgartown fifth graders for a week of sailing. He reported he just got back from taking his latgest group of fifth graders out on a sail. He described the youths as having “open sponge-ness.” They are the best receptors, he said. “Whatever you do, you’ve got their attention,” Mr. Douglas said.
“It is a win win, to have a boatload full of eleven-year-olds.” He said he wished he had figured that out before 15 years ago, when he started taking principally youngsters out.
Mr. Douglas praised Vineyard Haven for being the seafaring community that it has become in a fast-changing coast. He emphasized what a treat it is to see at least 11 wooden schooners in Vineyard Haven harbor. “We have the infrastructure,” he said, to support their care. In Vineyard Haven harbor, wooden sailboats are designed, built, maintained and are sailed, he said.
In two years, Vineyard Haven will host a visit by the Mystic Seaport whaleship Charles W. Morgan, Peggy Schwier, president of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, announced. The ship is undergoing an extensive restoration that began in 2008 and is due to be completed prior to sailing in the summer of 2014. The $5 million restoration project is the ship’s most extensive. During one point in her life, the ship sat in sand.
There are many Vineyard links to the vessel. Her first captain, Thomas Norton, was a Vineyard captain. Her last on-deck captain, who oversaw her while she was in New Bedford, her home port, was George Fred Tilton of Chilmark.
Between those two captains, the ship had an 80-year career traversing the oceans of the world, with many crew members from the Vineyard.
There is plenty of reason for those in attendance Saturday night to have an interest in the old ship. Part of the reason she will be able to return to the Vineyard is tied to Ralph Packer, who donated a tugboat to escort her.
Mr. Stackpole divides his time between his home in West Tisbury and working at Mystic Seaport Museum promoting and fundraising for the restoration project that has drawn international attention.
The seafood buffet is a part of a busy season at Sail Martha’s Vineyard. Next weekend, the nonprofit organization is hosting the Vineyard Cup, a three-day regatta in the waters off Vineyard Haven, East and West Chop.