Nova Scotia

Family of boatbuilding icon hopes Northwood deaths lead to change

Doug Rosborough, 91, died of COVID-19 at Northwood in April and leaves behind a legacy of more than 100 custom wooden vessels, some of which can still be found sailing around the globe.

Doug Rosborough died of COVID-19. His name is synonymous with shipbuilding in Nova Scotia

Doug Rosborough at his drafting table working on a yacht design. (Submitted by Lynda Rosborough)

He was an icon of shipbuilding who leaves a legacy of vessels that can still be found sailing on the world's oceans and seas.

James Rosborough — who went by his middle name, Doug — died of COVID-19 on April 23 at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax, one of dozens of residents at the facility to die from the virus. He was 91 years old.

Rosborough became a well-known figure in Nova Scotia and among seafaring communities across the globe after starting his custom yacht business, Rosborough Boats, in the 1950s.

Over three decades, he designed more than 100 wooden vessels for customers from throughout North America and Europe, enlisting the help of his family and boatyards across the province to see them built. 

Lynda Rosborough, one of his five children, said her father's passion defined her youth.

"If you were having a bad day or you got in a fight with your best friend or anything went wrong at school or you were having a little, you know, rough patch through any of your stages growing up, Dad would say, 'Well, the best cure for any of this is work,'" said Lynda.

She recalled brushing gold paint onto the detailed trim and carved nameplates of boats when she was a child, and later taking design lessons from her father at his drafting table.

One of the custom wooden sailboats designed by Doug Rosborough during his 30-year career. (Submitted by Lynda Rosborough)

In the summer, the family would break from the business and venture out on their own sailboat, dropping anchor all around the province.

Lynda said sailing around the hundreds of small islands that pepper Nova Scotia's waters felt to her like scenes out of Gilligan's Island.

Some of Rosborough's knowledge was founded in his training as an engineer, but when it came to the specific skills of boat design, he was self-taught.

Rosborough wound down his design work in the 1980s as the demand for custom wooden vessels dwindled, but his son, Bob, and grandson, Heaton, continue to run Rosborough Boats today. The company now focuses on commercial fishing vessels and cruising yachts.

The Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association awarded Rosborough with a lifetime achievement award in 2007. After his passing, the association said in a statement he had made a "huge contribution" to his industry, and "was one of our boatbuilding industry's most colourful characters."

The Thoreau years

Rosborough felt equally at home in the secluded woods of his home province as he did on its open waters. After retiring from the boat business, he moved to an off-grid log cabin on the Eastern Shore.

Lynda said he wanted to live like Henry Thoreau on Walden Pond — simply, with plenty of space and time for introspection. He spent his time writing poetry and working on the property, building trails and treehouses for his grandchildren.

James Doug Rosborough with his youngest grandson, James Max Rosborough, in 2019. (Submitted by Lynda Rosborough)

Alexander Rosborough, Lynda's son, said he has some memories of his grandfather's boats, but his strongest early memories are of his "camp."

"As a young kid having a place to go in the woods and play and discover and build was a great introduction to getting outside and everything that goes along with that," said Alexander.

Rosborough moved back into Halifax in the 1990s to be closer to health-care and other amenities, but Lynda said he always maintained the quiet, introspective lifestyle that he nurtured during his 15-or-so years in the woods.

After moving into Northwood in 2017, Lynda said she would sometimes ask him if he was bored and if he'd like a TV in his room.

"And he said, 'No, I don't need a TV. I'm very busy, very busy in my own mind.'"

Lynda visited her father in Northwood often. She said she always looked forward to their time together on Sundays when the facility, which has almost 500 beds, had fewer activities and was more quiet than on any other day of the week.

On Sunday, March 15, the same day Nova Scotia reported its first three cases of COVID-19, she went to Northwood in the morning. Rosborough was tired, so she decided to run some errands and return in the afternoon, but by the time she got back, the facility had started locking down in response to the pandemic. She wasn't allowed in. 

Northwood has since become the epicentre of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia. As of May 26, 52 of the province's 59 deaths were Northwood residents; Northwood staff and residents accounted for the bulk of active cases in the province. 

The facility remains closed to visitors, with some exceptions for end-of-life goodbyes. Staff have been designating time to one family member per resident and providing full personal protective equipment for them to don at the entrance before going to their loved one's room. 

A few days after Rosborough was diagnosed with COVID-19, Lynda was offered that chance, but her father died before her scheduled visit.  

Lynda had seen visiting restrictions implemented before, during bouts of the common flu, but she said the novelty of this virus and the severity of the outbreak made the experience traumatizing. 

Concerns about the future of long-term care

Lynda and Alexander both said they hope lessons can be learned from their family's grief. 

"What I'm really hoping for is that these losses that a lot of people are suffering will not just be for nothing and instead will open up dialogue with the future of long-term care homes," said Alexander.

Experts have said outbreaks of the coronavirus at long-term care homes across the country have underscored flaws in the system. Rosborough's family said they hope those flaws will be corrected before the Boomer generation begins moving into long-term care facilities, increasing the strain. 

There have been calls for a public inquiry into the outbreak at Northwood from experts, family members of residents and Nova Scotia's political opposition. So far, Premier Stephen McNeil has rebuffed those calls, saying it would be inappropriate to launch an inquiry while the outbreak is ongoing. 

Northwood CEO Janet Simm has said the facility is continuously reviewing its practices and would be open to a more formal inquiry.

About the possibility of an inquiry, Alexander said he worries that by putting it off, the opportunity could be lost.

"I think my No. 1 concern is that ... that when COVID and this pandemic comes to an end, whenever that is, this doesn't become a talking point that's just simply forgotten about and gets pushed aside."

CBC Nova Scotia is sharing stories of the victims of COVID-19 to commemorate those we've lost to the pandemic. If you've lost a loved one and want to share your memories of them, reach out via cbcns@cbc.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taryn Grant

Reporter

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at taryn.grant@cbc.ca

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