Richard DeRosset was shipwrecked on the 21st of May 1977 while returning from a commercial fishing trip off the banks of San Nicolas Island. There was a stack fire on the Petrel that night. It quickly engulfed the vessel, an old Coast Guard cutter built in the 1920s. This was just after they had passed Santa Barbara Island, which is between San Nicolas and Catalina. DeRosset and the others onboard were forced into the water about 75 miles out to sea. The gusts of wind were 60 knots. The swells stood 18 feet before they crashed down. DeRosset, along with the captain and a crew member named Charlie, hung on to a hatch cover. The lifeboat had burned in the fire.
“And then,” says DeRosset, “I heard this boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom. And I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, guys, but the boat’s underway.’ So we were watching as she headed straight for us. And Charlie said, ‘Looks like we’re goners.’ And then the captain said something that still brings tears to my eyes. He said, ‘No, she’s not coming to get us. She’s just coming back to say good-bye.’ ”
No one died. “The ocean is like religion,” says DeRosset. “If you love the ocean it overpowers the fear. The ones who die first at sea are those who fear it the most.”
DeRosset is a painter now, a marine artist, self-taught. He works in oil, acrylic, and house paint. Twenty years ago, when he was 29 and still working at sea, he went to an art show on Shelter Island; he thought he could do better, and so he began. The artist is also an amateur marine historian, with a savant’s recall for minutiae, and anybody who engages him in conversation had better have plenty of time. A friend of his, when told that I had already spent a day and a half with DeRosset, said to me, “Oh, well, then you already know a lot about Richard — and about everything else in the world.”
DeRosset’s publicity says he is internationally famous. A flyer for a talk he gave at the Foothills Art Association in La Mesa on May 3, 2001, says his commissions and speaking engagements are “booked years in advance.” That isn’t exactly the case. It is true that his paintings hang in some prominent public places in San Diego and elsewhere. The out-of-town venues include the George Bush Gallery of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and the Port Columbus Civil War Naval Center in Columbus, Georgia. But DeRosset works also can be found in a few pretty inconspicuous places. One is the photocopying room at his church.
The painting at the First Baptist Church in Lemon Grove is the size of a door; it is a door, in fact. DeRosset often uses doors as “canvas.” It shows the Titanic in the Irish Sea on the 3rd of April 1912. That was 11 days before she hit the iceberg and 12 days before she sank. Her sea trials in Belfast had been completed, and she was headed toward Southampton to pick up passengers before proceeding across the English Channel to Cherbourg, where more people would come aboard, including Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, their three servants, and their pet Airedale, Kitty. Other passengers — lucky ones — would disembark there.
The Titanic is not alone in the horizontal composition. To her left and headed in the opposite direction is the Olympic, one of the Titanic’s sister ships (that is, built of similar design). To the Titanic’s right is a small British fishing smack. The black shadows of its scarlet sails fall perfectly.
“There are surprising placements throughout Richard’s work,” says Helen M. Ofield, executive director of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, where DeRosset had a one-person show of his artwork last fall and winter. “There’s dynamism and movement and action.” She calls his paintings “celebratory” and praises his “sense of pounding waves, the moody changeability of the ocean, the exhilaration of moving between open sky and sea.”
DeRosset doesn’t speak abstractly about his work. He’s a storyteller. “What’s really nice,” he told me before I’d had a chance to see the painting at the church, “is that I’ve got the crew of the smack waving to the crew on the deck of the Titanic. The fishermen are cold, wet, and miserable. It could have been either a good trip or a bad trip for them. In either case, they don’t know when their next trip will be or when they’ll get their next paycheck after this one. And they’re looking at these guys on the Titanic and they’re thinking, ‘They have gainful employment, good lodgings, good food. They’re comfortable. Boy, I sure would like to have one of their jobs.’ And yet, in less than two weeks, the ship will be lost with over 2200 people onboard.”
The Titanic is one of DeRosset’s preoccupations. He has painted her innumerable times. There are two door-sized Titanics for sale at Maidhof Brothers, International Shipware Merchants, on San Diego Avenue in Old Town. One shows her being launched, with various tugs and excursion boats nearby, their crews and passengers looking on. The other shows a different view of the Titanic and the Olympic passing each another. (Because the Titanic’s life was so short, the two passed each other on only one occasion; this painting and the one at the church commemorate the same moment.) Each is priced at $5000. In the office of Maidhof Brothers hangs a DeRosset that isn’t for sale. It shows the Carpathia and the Californian, two liners that heard the Titanic’s call for help and responded in varying ways.
“The Californian came around the left side of the ice field,” DeRosset told me. “She came up, went around the stern of the Carpathia, then made a big loop, and headed away from the scene. That’s because the first rocket the Titanic fired was white, which means they don’t want you to come any closer. ‘There’s something dangerous in front of me.’ So she showed up only after working her way around the ice field. I forget the name of the third officer who was on the deck watch, but he went to wake up the others, because there was a ship that was looking ‘queer,’ according to him. He actually witnessed the Titanic going down from, at most, 16 nautical miles away.” (A nautical mile is about 6076 feet; it takes into consideration the curve of the earth. A land mile is 5280 feet.)