Tom Colvin passed away in Ft. Myers, Fla., on Sept. 1, 2014 at 4 p.m. or in sailing terms, 8 bells … the changing of the watch.
He was born in Chicago, Ill., on June 27, 1925, the son of the late E. Richard Colvin and Miriam Colvin Beatty of Mathews, and his step-father, R. Arnold Beatty. He was also preceded in death by his brother, Richard Colvin of Dallas, Texas; his sister, Miriam Colvin McCreary, also of Dallas, and his wife, Jean West Colvin, who shared every part of his life for 52 years.
Tom was born with saltwater in his veins. He was designing boats at such a young age that his mother had to hold the ruler for him as he drew his designs—no cute childish drawings would do for him. He spent his early years living by Lake Michigan and his favorite place to be was the local Coast Guard Station. He built his own little boats to sail and spent his summers on some of the old sailing ships that were in that area.
He was 16 when WWII began and that was old enough to join the Merchant Marine. He served on vessels in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and was lucky to make it through alive as it is estimated that 1 in 26 of the men in the Merchant Marine died during the war. He graduated from the U.S. Maritime Service Officer Candidate School before he was old enough to actually get a license. He gained his Master in Sail (any ocean, any tonnage) by age 20, and his Master in Steam (unlimited) at 23. There weren’t many jobs available at the end of the war and Tom bought land in Florida and ran a sawmill and built wooden boats.
President Truman sent letters to those that served in the Merchant Marine excusing them from being drafted—apparently the U.S. Army didn’t get the memo because they drafted a lot of men and that included Tom. Men from many nationalities served in the Merchant Marine and Tom had a gift for languages. The Army put him in a unit that translated “acquired” documents and wrote pamphlets to be dropped from planes. Being in the Army was not his favorite thing but it did give him contacts that he used to get a job with the Newport News Shipyard in 1952. He eventually became a senior designer in the Hull Technical Department and was one of the designers of the USS Forrestal. The biggest advantage to being in Hampton was that he met Jean Haywood West in April of 1953. With Tom’s usual determination, he persuaded her to marry him in August of that year.
The next step in his career was with Kaiser Aluminum Company as a consulting naval architect. Then he and Jean began to fulfill his dream of having his own business and living on a boat. They built the 40-foot Apostle (which is now back in the family and owned by his son Kevin) and started Colvin Manufacturing Corporation which later became Colvin Shipbuilding Company. Tom, Jean, and their children eventually built a home and shipyard at Miles, Va., where they lived for several years. Tom continued with his designing, built boats up to 100’ in wood, steel and aluminum alloy, and also wrote several books. The two schooners, Alliance and Serenity, which offer cruises in Yorktown, are Tom’s designs.
Tom designed and built the Chinese junk, K’ung Fu-Tse (some might remember the red sails), they sold their home and business at Miles, loaded the family on board, and sailed away to warmer waters. He and Jean continued to live on the boat for 16 years.
Tom and Jean eventually bought land and they built their home in Alva, Fla., by themselves. He still did his designs, wrote books, and sometimes made sails for others. He continued his international correspondence up until the last weeks before his death. His body gave out but his mind was sharp.
He is survived by his three children, Karen (Jim) Porter and her two children, Noel and Karly Fedosh, Kevin (Penny) Colvin and his daughter Kellie Colvin Brooks, and Kenneth (Angela) Colvin; his two sisters, Patricia Beatty of Tulsa, Okla., and Barbara Beatty (Sidney) Read of Mathews; as well as several nieces and nephews and their children.
A funeral service will be held in the Hampton area, where Jean is buried, at a later date.
Gifts in Tom’s memory may be made to the Mathews Maritime Foundation, P.O. Box 1201, Mathews, Va. 23109.