By Bob Rich
“He was one of that class of rovers you sometimes meet at sea, who never reveal their origin, never allude to home, and go rambling over the world as if pursued by some mysterious fate they cannot possibly elude.” – Herman Melville, “Typee”
“Believe it or not, in my day hardly anybody had a license, including me. In our salvage company, we were often sub-contracted to do research work. I was running a 169-foot research vessel doing navy work in the Tongue of the Ocean and one of the scientists came on the bridge and asked why my license wasn’t posted. I said, “It’s right here in my wallet” and I showed him my driver’s license. He said, “How can you get away with that?” My reply was simple: “I’mpart owner and she is research vessel registry.”
That was a long time ago and the rules have changed a bit since then …”
– Don Patton in an address to the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.
When asked how a 20-year-old kid just arrived in Miami with nothing but some sailing and hockey skills parlayed that pittance into a life of sailing the finest yachts on all the seas, brokering, salvaging, operating research vessels, and finally settling into surveying and consulting on the largest yachts in the world, his soft-spoken reply: “Just being in the right place at the right time.”
Don Patton arrived in Miami on 1946 with fellow Connecticutian, Ernie Gann. Gann’s celebrated sense of novelty and adventure may have rubbed off on Don — or maybe it was the other way around. It was through Gann that Bogie offered Don the captain’s berth on the Santana, a job he passed up for a chance with a 1902 Buzzard’s Bay 30 because “it was a better boat and easier owner.”
Now, seven decades into a career, he is still deep in the business, working on super megayacht projects, and traveling the seas. Don has sailed all the Earth’s oceans, and brokered, surveyed, and worked on some of the most notable yachts of all time, including the restoration of the Nahlin, the grand yacht where Edward and Wallace once partied hard.
In 1978, taking some time from the yacht and ship brokerage he shared with Paul Amend on South River Drive, Don went to Australia and delivered back to the Miami River for finishing at Martin’s Point the 70-foot, 6,000-mile-range expedition yacht Tintinajo.
One of Don Patton’s passions is maritime history, and his shaded office in Coconut Grove is a library and gallery of notable boats, especially yachts. It’s as close to a maritime museum we have here in Miami. Hung with paintings, models and classic paraphernalia, it includes works by locals Joe Selby, James Flood, Capt. Freddie Anderson, and many more, as well as a library of books, catalogs, charts and photos.
Paul and Don moved up and down the River with their various ventures – and you never know what you’re going to find.
“Back in the ‘70s, I had an option on 300 feet of riverfront property from the railroad bridge on to the east,” he remembered. “There were a few buildings on it, and in one Paul and I moved our brokerage office. The property supposedly belonged to a Jewish Las Vegas mob bunch. When we went to move to the bigger office to the west, on the day we went to move, the main guy’s carcass — said to be a bolita kingpin — had unfortunately been found in the middle of our new office. It was still marked on the carpeted floor. Big fellow. Police say he went nearly 300 pounds and took five shots to the back of his head. They also said that he was a hit man himself and usually did his own hit work. Once in a while, we would find some headless chickens at the front of the building. My son Jim found a pistol stashed behind a panel by the front door. Wild times in Miami.”
He has regularly crewed all these later years in the St. Barts Yacht Regattas and Antique Yacht Regattas in Europe. Calls himself an antique. But here in 2015, he just transited the Straits of Magellan (this time as a passenger).
Bob Rich, son of the founder of Rich Marine in Miami, is writing a book about the characters and boats of the Miami River. Mr. Patton was helping him in his research by sharing his experiences and memories. This is a draft of his chapter about Mr. Patton.
Click to read more about Mr. Patton’s life.