David Holmes; Shipbuilder, Craftsman and Inventor

David Johnson Holmes III works on a musical instrument. He was equally at home with instruments associated with past centuries and computers, but he most loved the sea.
David Johnson Holmes III works on a musical instrument. He was equally at home with instruments associated with past centuries and computers, but he most loved the sea. (Family Photo)
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By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 17, 2008

David Johnson Holmes III, 58, a sailor and builder of sloops and schooners, a folk singer and maker of guitars and hammered dulcimers, a letterpress printer and an inventor and designer of binary clocks, died of lung cancer March 13 at the Hospice of the Chesapeake in Harwood.

Mr. Holmes was also a former Air Force motion picture cameraman, a deck officer on a government research ship and an electronics engineer with Maryland-based companies that produced counting devices. He was the holder of two patents on equipment to assist in the latter work.

Described by family members as a man "who loved the esoteric and the obsolete," Mr. Holmes was said by his wife, Charly, to have had "one foot in the 18th century and one foot in the 21st century."

Born and raised in Beaumont, Tex., he dreamed as a boy of going to sea, years before he ever saw an ocean. "Other careers and interests came and went, but schoonerin' was always the recurring dream," he declared on his Web site.

Mr. Holmes dropped out of the University of Texas after one year, but he was a member of Mensa, the society that restricts its membership to those who have scored at least in the 98th percentile on supervised IQ tests. He opted out of Mensa after attending one meeting.

In 1969, he joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Serving as a cinematographer at Andrews Air Force Base, Sgt. Holmes began working on a 20-foot sloop, Bluenose, built with reinforced cement on a steel frame and wire mesh. Upon his discharge, he sailed the craft down the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, intending to explore the Northeast coast as far as Maine. But he made a stop at Annapolis and fell in love with the area. Mr. Holmes took a job with a company that built racing sailboats, and the Annapolis area became his home base.

Later, he talked his way into a position as mate and navigator aboard one of the tall ships that participated in the Bicentennial Celebrations in New York Harbor in 1976. In the late 1970s, he was a deck officer and then first mate aboard government research ships.

Most recently he lived aboard Adventure, a 40-foot schooner that docked in Galesville. The ship's motto was "No Sniveling" -- one of Mr. Holmes's behavioral creeds.

In 1979, Mr. Holmes began his 12-year career as a maker of musical instruments. He made by hand not only acoustic guitars and hammered dulcimers but also harpsichords, clavichords and pipe organs.

He once created a "player harpsichord." It was equipped with an electronic box that allowed the instrument to play back, without anyone touching its keyboard, any tune that had previously been played on it.

As a folk singer, Mr. Holmes specialized in songs of the sea. Friends said his voice reminded them of the folk singer Gordon Bok.

Mr. Holmes also established a letterpress printing shop and published four limited editions of hand-printed books. From 1983 to 1985, Mr. Holmes was artist in residence at St. John's College in Annapolis.

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