Francis Robert Tibbetts: Sailor. Teacher. Talker. Polymath. Born Dec. 29, 1936, in Halifax; died Oct. 13, 2022, in Halifax, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; age 85.
Francis Tibbetts was like the province he lived in. An old salt who intimately knew his surrounding coastline, its hazards and its harbours, and well understood the direction of an ocean wind.
He enjoyed liberal quantities of black rum, the choice of Nova Scotian sailors for centuries. When greeted familiarly by employees at the liquor store, he joked, “It reflects poorly that those working at such an establishment know me by name.” His authenticity made him tough to forget.
Francis was raised in a Maud Lewis landscape. He passed Maud’s house daily on his way to school. He lived on St. Mary’s Bay in Digby County, the sole son of Willis – an ardent Salvationist and volunteer Santa Claus who measured his worth not by what he amassed, but by what he gave away.
Tuberculosis claimed Francis’s mother, Ivy, when he was four.
They had no electricity. But they had firewood, blueberries a-plenty and – instead of a vehicle – a beloved ox named Star. Francis learned to swim in the bay and visited the boats in Digby Harbour. The ocean became the childhood sweetheart he never left.
Money was scarce, but Francis was wealthy in internal resources. He was adroit with language and a master of the slide rule. As a teenager, he built a radio and electrified their tiny house. He made contact. He made light.
At 17, newly minted his village’s first-ever high-chool graduate, Francis enlisted in Montreal. He travelled the Panama Canal and South America aboard the HMCS Quebec, and flew the skies after reporting for naval air training in Pensacola, Fla.
Nova Scotia eventually called him home.
Francis married his first wife, Bernice, in Halifax in 1959, and soon began a 33-year career teaching electronics for the Department of National Defense.
As the young father of Andrew, Janice and Cheryl in the 1960s, he yearned to sail again. But boats were expensive and funds tight. Francis studied yacht design and worked his slide rule.
By 1967, Francis was racing on Little Sister, a sloop he designed and built himself. It was the first of a series of progressively longer and faster boats. His opus, created in partnership with his son, was the 40-foot, 12-crew, Apocalypse II, a local legend that in 1999 won Atlantic Canada’s highest honour, the Prince of Wales Cup. Its mast still rises today as the flagstaff of Armdale Yacht Club, where Francis raced for more than 50 years.
Francis loved the ocean gusts, but also its lulls. No topic was off limits when stranded without a puff out beyond Chebucto Head. Francis poured the rum. A knower of all things. If anyone wanted to learn about transatlantic sound waves or the intricacies of travel insurance, now was the time to ask. Else, brace for a shot across the bow: “How does National Geographic differ from Playboy?”
Caught between former Salvationist and irreverent man of progress, Francis was a study in contrasts. He gobbled up science periodicals, only to throw his empties overboard “to help the divers of the future.” He stewed over costs and shopped at the Salvation Army, yet accepted knit slippers in lieu of rent from hard-luck tenants and gave away his time for free.
He was a volunteer swim instructor at the YWCA in the 1980s when he met his wife, Everetta, in his adult “Scared Stiff” class. Together, they traced scattered coastlines by motorcycle, and sailed the intracoastal waterway from the Gulf of Mexico to Nova Scotia.
In retirement, Francis was a doting granddad to Meredith, Oscar and Anna. He became a cross-border big-rig trucker and double-decker bus driver and raced his boat Wednesday Knight until his final year. He was forever a man in motion. A gypsy spirit, at one with the wind.
Cheryl Tibbetts is Francis’s daughter.
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