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Sailing poet Briggs writes of land and sea

By Staff | Jan 26, 2012

LAHAINA – “Sometimes I have come to wonder/How it came to be/That the white man brought his Christian God/on his journeys ‘cross the sea/First they gave us ‘aina, which we then claimed as our own./We talked to them with lawyers and overthrew the throne./Then we brought them statehood and all that could be: condo- covered highways blocking access to the sea./We disrespected culture in our greedy lust for more./We walked away from all we preached as we walked across the poor.”

So writes William Whitaker Briggs, 71, a sailor-poet in our midst, whose rhymes of Lahaina, sailing ships and even Barack Obama have just been published as “Rock the Boat Gently,” a 72-page intriguing, sometimes whimsical volume sold exclusively at the Friends of the Library Bookstore at The Wharf Cinema Center.

An economist with a master’s degree from the prestigious Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, this longtime charter boat captain took up poetry as a way to express his languish about the loss of a beloved boat he had been sailing to Molokai

“As she was a gorgeous gal, truly a sailor’s dream/She owned the route to Molokai with trade winds on the beam/Wood under glass, and built to last, she sailed like a graceful dove/More than just a sailboat, the Rainbow was my love.”

“The rainbow was a part of me as close as my tattoo the only way to treat her was to love her like a wife,” he explained.

Briggs begins an interview by noting that he grew up in Crown Point, Indiana, and has had two lives: one on the Mainland as a professional and a second as a sailor. Out of college, the economist worked at Ford’s giant River Rouge plant in Detroit, served as human relations manager for an ink company with 18 plants and became a labor consultant before winding up in California’s Bay Area.

Briggs’ second life as a sailor and seaman got its start as a kid, when he found a rowboat with a friend and tried to restore it.

“We sanded it and sanded and launched it, but it promptly sank,” he said.

In San Francisco, “sailing became my escape and a vocation,” he noted. Briggs sailed near the Golden Gate Bridge every weekend with a friend. One day a gigantic wave “pitched pulled” his boat, pushing the mast into the water and turning it end-over-end, 360 degrees.

“I lived through three miracles in 20 minutes. The boat fell on top of me, the whole sea level then became like a mill pound,” he recalled, and the Coast Guard – called by fisherman also in trouble – “rescued me.” The fisherman drowned.

Rather than give up the sea, he embraced it. His marriage and life falling apart, his near death experience top-of-mind, he shipped off to Lahaina. In his new second life, he sold seashells and fine art. And, after writing an unpublished novel about his experiences, began penning poetry on July 10, 1977. (Briggs has a habit of putting precise dates to life events.)

He captained three charter boats in Lahaina and later in Washington State in the ’90s. Later, he signed up to work for Mobil and Chevron on oil tankers and ended his working career on a container ship before retirement to Lahaina Senior Housing, where he lives on Social Security

No portrait of Briggs would be complete without mentioning politics and his frequent references in his poems to marijuana. “Alcohol is a killer. Pot hasn’t killed anyone yet,” he claimed.

Had it not been for visiting Scottish poet and friend John Beaton, Briggs maybe never would have been published.

Beaton praised his “intellect, and his ear for metrical poetry” that he said “would shanghai you with delight.” Beaton printed 50 copies for him.

“I was honored,” Briggs said. “When the 50 are sold, I’ll will use the profits to print more.”

In Rock the Boat’s final poem, called “Roaming the White House,” Briggs writes of greed and the current economic situation, criticizing “right wing lunatics” as well as Barack Obama “for not standing his ground.” His knowledgeable poetry on that is another column.

Columnist’s Notebook: Briggs’ poetry is quoted with permission. Copies are available at the Friends’ bookstore.