Like a siren’s song, the South Pacific called to Ralph Higgins until he could ignore it no longer. So in 1970, he set sail from Victoria to the fabled Society Islands with his wife and three kids aboard his boat, the Gabrielle II. During the year-long voyage, they cruised amidst the palm-fringed beauty of Tahiti, Bora Bora and Raiatea, stopping to gather shells and chase manta rays in the azure waters near shore.
“Every day was an adventure,” says daughter Liz, who was 10 at the time, and although there were also frightening times when they sailed through high swells and stormy weather, she and her brothers, Dave and Chris, knew their dad would get them safely to the next idyllic port.
Ralph, who was a Knowledge Partner for many years before he passed away in February 2016, loved sharing stories about his many seafaring adventures. One often-repeated tale was about the time he ended up standing on the deck of the tall ship Freelance, machete in hand, fending off a group of San Blas Islanders intent on plundering the ship after it ran aground on a coral reef. It was 1978, and Ralph and his fellow crew members were sailing the Freelance through the Panama Canal to BC for the Quest Star Society’s youth sailing program, run in partnership with the provincial government. While the ship could have recovered from the grounding, the plunderers completely wrecked it.
The loss of the beautiful 101-foot tall ship was heartbreaking to Ralph, who loved boats and the sea with a passion as deep as the Pacific. Maritime life was in his blood, after all. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he came from a long line of sea captains and merchants, and was a descendent of Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail single-handedly around the world.
After Ralph moved to Victoria, the waters of the Salish Sea became a favourite sailing spot; he also cruised down the coast to Mexico and returned to the South Pacific on a second family trip in 1980. He loved the thrill of racing, placing second in the 1969 Victoria to Maui Yacht Race with wife Connie and his brother, Glen. Ralph didn’t just man the tiller, he built the boats, including his first when he was just 19, as well as a steel-hulled 65-foot yacht. He also refurbished schooners and huge coastal ships like the Francis Lynn II. “Dad was the sort of person who, if he had a project, would work at it until it was done,” explains Liz.
In his later years, Knowledge was a way for Ralph to keep exploring the world. Naturally, anything nautical drew him in, and he loved the stories on Coast as well as documentaries about nature and different cultures. As his health declined, Knowledge became even more important, giving Ralph something to look forward to each day. In his memory, Liz and her brothers decided to donate a portion of their father’s estate to the Knowledge Endowment. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who lived life to the fullest, and who loved nothing more than the wind in his sails and a gripping story.