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Rich Goben, Captain of Star of India: 1953-2016

By Joe Ditler

“The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done…”

–Walt Whitman

SAN DIEGO SAYS GOODBYE TO A “CAPTAINS’ CAPTAIN

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When the great sailing ship Star of India heads to sea, as she does on a semi-annual basis, people look upon her with awe and amazement. Entire fleets of smaller sailboats tag along in her wake. News helicopters hover above and press boats circle in search of that special photo. There are times when it seems all of San Diego comes to a halt to watch Star go to sea.

From the moment Star of India leaves the dock, she is under the command of Captain Richard Goben. Barking commands at the crew aloft, communicating with the tugboats, and then, finally, watching the enormous sails fall into place, Captain Goben made it not only look easy, but fun. This represented the culmination of a long-held dream for Goben — to one day become Master of this great tallship and San Diego icon.

A young Dick Goben and his pet parakeet.

A young Dick Goben and his pet parakeet.

Recently, the yards of the great sailing ship were scandalized dockside – set askew in an age-old tradition. It happens when someone of great importance dies. Captain Richard Garth Goben died of complications from pneumonia in January. He was 62.

Goben, a former Coronado resident, resided in Descanso at the time of his passing. Born the youngest of three children in Great Lakes, Illinois, to Capt. Howard and Virginia (Halligan) Goben (USN, Ret), he was raised in a military family but never saw service himself. Still, he had the utmost respect and admiration for our military men and women.

In 1958, at age 5, Dick Goben and his cat China get used to their new surroundings in Coronado.

In 1958, at age 5, Dick Goben and his cat China get used to their new surroundings in Coronado.

Goben attended McLean High School in McLean, Virginia, graduating in 1971. He received a BA in Visual Arts from the University of California San Diego in 1979.

Goben’s relationship with the Maritime Museum began as volunteer crew aboard Star of India on her second modern era voyage (1984) – the year famed newsman Walter Cronkite sailed on board. Over the years he rose to become first mate, and then master. He was master of the ship on every sailing since 1998, when he became the first captain to sail Star of India under the Coronado Bridge.

The family car, a 1958 Buick station wagon, just before a trip across country to Coronado. Seen here are Rich and his two sisters, Ginger (right) and Elizabeth.

Known as a “captains’ captain” along the waterfront, Goben began his love affair with the sea as a sailing instructor while attending UCSD. During this time he earned his first Coast Guard license, which enabled him to do professional charters under sail or power. He supplemented his income by writing articles and taking photos for national magazines such as SAIL Magazine and SEA Magazine.

In preparation for the 1983 America’s Cup Races, Goben served as navigator on the Freedom Campaign’s trial-horse boat. As his skills and reputation grew, he gravitated to more steady employment. He served as captain for Invader Cruises (1984-1986 and 1988-1990), was captain for Schooner Bagheera Charters (1987), and successfully competed in numerous schooner races and Ancient Mariner races.

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Dick Goben in 1969. He and his sister Ginger worked as volunteer set builders at the Coronado Playhouse.

When Hornblower acquired Invader, many felt their greatest asset was the acquisition of Captain Rich Goben. For more than two decades he helped shape the personality and success of Hornblower as port captain (1990-2015), building a consistent and enviable record of safety and service on the water.

“Captain Rich led a life of exemplary kindness, humility, fairness, and love towards others,” said Jim Unger, general manager of Hornblower Cruises & Events. “We are grateful for the positive impact and legacy Captain Goben has left with us. He will never be forgotten.”

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Rich Goben was a Renaissance man. He loved music, antique cars, his home — affectionately named “Rancho Goben” — and he loved people. He had an insatiable desire to learn more. In his spare time, he would work tirelessly to increase his level of knowledge in any number of areas.

His enthusiasm was unbridled, and he surrounded himself with others who shared his love of the sea, music, and antique cars — in particular, the British MGB. In 1987, he married the love of his life, Carolyn Johnson. They were inseparable and shared a variety of adventures together, both at sea and in their land yacht, a Class-B camper van.

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Goben also captained the 1904 steam yacht Medea and the State Tallship Californian. He was back-up skipper for the HMS Surprise (the museum’s movie ship), sailed the U.S. Coast Guard bark Eagle, and participated in a crew exchange at sea between the two great sailing ships (1999).

A man of great humor and quick wit, Captain Goben kept his sailing crew on Star of India on their toes. Once, as the crew arrived to ready the ship for sea, they found the wheel, the ship’s helm, locked with an anti-theft device one might find in a car. Goben had placed it on the wheel the night before as a joke, as though anyone but he and his highly trained crew could ever sail the ship.

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Before every voyage of Star of India, Goben placed a foghorn on the deck of the ship and had the entire crew dance around it. Star of India, in her heyday, rounded Cape Horn, aka “The Horn,” 21 times. As his crew danced around the horn on the main deck, Captain Goben informed them they had now successfully “been around the Horn on Star of India.” Things like that endeared him deeply to his crew.

One of Goben’s traditions as captain of Star of India, Medea, and other ships he captained, was to signal passing military vessels by dipping the American flag or with semaphore flags as they passed in the channel. The semaphore message was usually, “Safe Sailing,” or “Welcome Home.”

Goben got a kick out of watching young ensigns aboard large naval vessels scramble to get their signal flags in order for an appropriate response. They never expected such a signal from a non-military vessel, but he always got a return message.

Captain Goben aboard the tallship Star of India. The tallship Eagle, a Coast Guard training vessel, ghosts along off the starboard beam.

Captain Goben aboard the tallship Star of India. The tallship Eagle, a Coast Guard training vessel, ghosts along off their starboard quarter.

“I’ve known Rich for more than 40 years,” said Dr. Raymond Ashley, CEO of the Maritime Museum and also a Coast Guard licensed captain. “We went to school together at UCSD, helped each other get jobs, hung out together. He was a great guy and a really good friend who always dreamed of being captain of Star of India one day.

Captain Goben and the crew of Star of India in 2001.

Captain Goben and the crew of Star of India in 2001.

“That wasn’t an easy thing to do,” said Ashley. “It was a highly contested job. Rich gained the trust and respect of everyone who ever sailed Star of India. Not out of intimidation, or because people were afraid of him (unlike earlier captains), but because they genuinely wanted to please him. They knew how much it meant to him. It meant a lot to them too, to have one of their own rise from crew to captain,” said Ashley.

Goben received a special Coast Guard endorsement for Sail Vessels Limited to the Star of India, and became her captain in 1998 – a quest that began in 1989. He held an unlimited Radar Observer’s License, and a certification as Able Seaman, Unlimited. He also held a cherished Master’s License for Power, Steam and Sail Vessels of not more than 1,600 tons.

On every voyage of Star of India Captain Goben would carefully pack his fiddle as an integral piece of the day's gear. Once the great ship was set on a steady course offshore, he would join the crew on the main deck for music. Captain Goben's wife Carolyn can be seen behind him, in the carpenter's cabin.

On every voyage of Star of India Captain Goben would carefully pack his fiddle as an integral piece of the day’s gear. Once the great ship was set on a steady course offshore, he would join the crew on the main deck for music. Captain Goben’s wife Carolyn, the museum store manager, can be seen behind him in the carpenter’s cabin.

“Rich’s Coast Guard license was just for Star of India,” said Ashley. “But he didn’t want it to be an endorsement with an asterisk beside it, so he set out to challenge the extremely administrative route of the Coast Guard licensing process.

“The sort of sailing license he sought is difficult to achieve following the kind of career path Rich had chosen,” said Ashley. “It was unnecessarily difficult for him to achieve, incredibly unnecessarily difficult. It took him years, but he really wanted this. His persistence paid off and in the end he had his license for unlimited tonnage under steam and sail. He was very proud of that, and he never gave up on that quest.”

The Gobens always made time for play. Here Rich is seen in Borego, cutting up with a T Rex.

The Gobens always made time for play. Here Rich is seen in Borego Springs, cutting up with a T Rex.
On a fishing trip to Alaska, Goben landed the T Rex of halibut.

On a fishing trip to Alaska, Goben landed the T Rex of halibut.

Beginning in the 1990s, he designed a narration program for Dependents’ cruises, sharing his knowledge of the waterfront and area history for military families as the ships prepared for deployment. If he couldn’t go himself, he arranged for another Hornblower captain who could. He was devoted to this program. Being such a prominent and recognized figure on the waterfront, Captain Goben was often invited on special tours of military vessels. Frequently, he would be flown offshore for Tiger Cruises that would involve carrier landings. “The military have the best toys in the world,” he would often say. He loved our military.

A gifted musician, Goben played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and stand-up bass. He could break into Folk or Bluegrass, or even the occasional Rock tune upon request, and his mantel was filled with musical honors and distinctions. He frequently hosted Folk music gatherings at Rancho Goben.

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Music was as much a part of his life as was the sea. Here Rich Goben is performing at a wedding on the acoustical guitar.

Goben was a founding member of “Just Friends” and performed for the Sierra Club Nature Knowledge Workshop from the early 1980s until 2011. He was also the opening musical act for the Descanso July Fair (2010-2015), and was active in the Pine Valley Days park performances and Vaquero Days.

Goben was a set builder for the Coronado Playhouse for a time. He loved to work with his hands. He and Carolyn were avid photographers, bird enthusiasts, and hikers.

Captain and Mrs. Goben at a formal event during the Festival of Sail.

Captain and Mrs. Goben at a formal event during the Festival of Sail.

In addition to his illustrious career, Goben earned a wide range of awards, honors, and accomplishments that included an Amateur Radio Operator License (2012). His call sign, KK6AGP, was a familiar one on the Net.

He completed the Naturalist class at the San Diego Natural History Museum, served on the San Diego Harbor Safety Committee as chairman, Area Maritime Security Committee, and the Passenger Vessel Association of the United States.

Showing off an Alaska King Salmon caught that morning.

Showing off an Alaska King Salmon caught that morning.

Goben received an Outstanding Leadership Award from the Naval Order of the United States, as well as the International Maritime Person of the Year Award from the International Propeller Club, where he was a long-time member and served as president (2014).

He was presented the Hospitality Employee of the Year Gold Key Award from the Hotel Sales & Marketing Association and the Creative Innovation in Sailing Programming Award from US Sailing. He was nominated for the Maritime Hero Award and also served on the San Diego Harbor Safety Committee as their Chairman.

At sea aboard Star of India, where Captain Goben always felt most comfortable. Here he's sailing in company with the movie ship, HMS Surprise.

At sea aboard Star of India, where Captain Goben always felt most comfortable. Here he’s sailing in company with the movie ship, HMS Surprise.

Rich and Carolyn Goben were frequent supporters and members of the Sierra Club, Mystic Seaport, Defenders of Wildlife, Project Wildlife, the Humane Society, the Audubon Society, Maritime Museum of San Diego, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., and the Nature Conservancy.

Captain Richard Goben is survived by his wife Carolyn (Johnson) Goben of Descanso and his mother Virginia Goben of Buffalo Junction, VA. Also surviving him are his sisters Elizabeth O’Neill (Robert) of Oak Ridge, TN, and Virginia Weisbarth (Bryan), and nephews Jimmy and Andy Weisbarth, all of Reynoldsburg, OH.

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A Celebration of Life is scheduled for April 2nd, 11-2, on board the museum’s ferryboat Berkeley, where the life of Captain Richard Goben will be remembered with friends and family. His ashes will be scattered at sea from the Star of India on a future sailing.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made “In Memory of Captain Richard Goben,” to the Maritime Museum. All donations should be earmarked, “For Star of India Deck Repairs,” and mailed to Maritime Museum of San Diego, 1492 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101.

This day in 1998 marked Captain Richard Goben's first day as Master and Captain of the Star of India. To mark the occasion, he did something no captain had ever done before - he sailed the great ship under the Coronado Bridge.

This day in 1998 marked Captain Richard Goben’s first day as Master and Captain of the Star of India. To mark the occasion, he did something no captain had ever done before – he sailed the great ship under the Coronado Brid

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Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover “Coronado Storyteller.” To find out more, write or call josephditler@san.rr.com or (619) 435-0767.