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Jim DeWitt, Bay Area Renaissance Man and Master Artist, Passes at 92

We are saddened to announce that we have lost a great sailor, but we are happy to celebrate a full, colorful life that was lived well.

On Saturday, James Harden DeWitt passed away at the age of 92. He was a giant in the Bay Area sailing world as a racer, sailmaker and painter, a true Renaissance man who wore his passions on his sleeve. As a celebrated marine painter, DeWitt’s style was bright and bold. If you were even remotely familiar with his work, you could recognize a Jim DeWitt painting from a mile away.

His talent was prolific, but DeWitt was kind and humble, and a distinguished ambassador for sailing.

We are grateful to have known him.

Jim DeWitt
Jim DeWitt, seen here at the 2019 boat show in Richmond, poses with a painting he did for Latitude to raise funds for youth sailing. We miss him already.
© 2022 John 'Woody' Skoriak

DeWitt was a truly a Bay Area native.

Born in Oakland in 1930, he grew up sailing on Lake Merritt. Working as a lifeguard when he was 19, Jim saved money to buy materials for an El Toro (#216), which he built in his basement. DeWitt wasn’t exactly a natural — according to one story, he kept trying to sail straight into the wind, and got a lot of dead lasts in races, before it started to click.

But Jim was clicking with art as a young man, too. Around age 5, he was drawing sailboats on paddles. At Oakland High School, DeWitt got an A in art class, and his mother eventually suggested art school. He first attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before studying at Los Angeles Art Center in Pasadena, where DeWitt realized his budding talent for painting. “Somehow, it was one of the things I was pretty good at,” he said.

“I’m crazy about color,” he said.

Jim DeWitt’s passion for color was both obvious and intoxicating.
© 2022 Jim DeWitt

Jim DeWitt would also realize that he was dyslexic, something that was not well understood or diagnosed at the time. “I was halfway through life when I realized what dyslexia was, and then when I heard that Einstein was dyslexic, I said, ‘Oh boy; I’m in a good crowd.'”

About 10 years after finally mastering El Toros on Lake Merritt — he would tie for first place for season champion his first year sailing — DeWitt traveled to Annapolis and won the Mallory Cup with crew Jocelyn Nash and Jake van Heeckeren. He won “a lot” of Litpton Cups, and was a very talented racer.

And then he started making sails, opening his loft in 1960, when he hired Jocelyn Nash. DeWitt designed El Toro sails. (“I was my own first customer.”) He designed Snipe sails. He invented the “umbilical cord” for spinnakers.

The DeWitt loft was eventually sold to Sobstad, which was then sold to Quantum. It still operates in Point Richmond.

Jim DeWitt, seen here making a painting in a boatyard.
© 2022 Jim DeWitt

As we said, we take comfort in knowing that Jim DeWitt lived a full and prosperous life, and that his legacy will live on through his paintings.

Fair winds and following seas, captain.

You can read our February 2021 profile of Jim DeWitt here

11 Comments

  1. Peter Bennett 1 week ago

    He was one of the greats in the Bay. Bought sails, paintings, and raced against him. We will miss his smiling face at the Richmond Yacht Club.

  2. Greg Carter 1 week ago

    Lectronic, would you please keep us all posted if there’s a public memorial? This should be a fantastic celebration of a sailing life. The one time I met Jim has me sure he’d want us to have a good time telling sailing tales to each other around his final campfire. Damn now I wish I had saved my yellow plastic DeWitt dinghy!

  3. Bob Wilson 7 days ago

    We will miss Jim in so many ways. A full life well lived!

  4. Ginger Clark 7 days ago

    Until this tribute with the attached picture, I didn’t know who had painted my happy PacificCup 2014 poster; one of the first paintings I put up in my new house. I just knew I loved the colors and the lively action in it. I’m very grateful to Jim DeWitt for being who he was to have painted what he did.

  5. Linda Daniel 7 days ago

    I, too have one of his paintings. My husband worked at the loft when it was off of Macdonald in Richmond. Jim was a kind and humble man and will be missed.

  6. Memo Gidley 7 days ago

    Sounds like a great individual and sad to hear of his passing. I have never met Jim but have seen and appreciated his paintings for years. Thx Jim!

  7. milly Biller 7 days ago

    I worked for Jimmy and Joc. They were willing to take me on as a kid with some sewing experience, but no sailmaking experience. It is amazing how many Industry folks like me, that they were willing to bring along and who later became icons in sailing, like Tom Wylie. He was kind, smart, funny, and generous.

  8. Patricia Dornan 6 days ago

    Love that the side of the Santa Fe Market sports one of his pieces.

  9. Gail Von Aspern 6 days ago

    An amazing artist. When he began painting dogs, he did three (4ftx4ft each/oil on canvas) for me. They all hang proudly in my family room. That was in the early 2000’s. I am proud to have known him and was so glad he elected to paint dogs. I do hope they put up his website with all his dog paintings and drawings that he did. Our condolences to you Pam. Always, Gail Von Aspern

  10. RON BARTCZAK/ artist 5 days ago

    Many “thank’s” to Lattude Magazine for the wonderful tribute for Jim DeWitt.

    Like many Artists, Sailors, and Nautical Art Lovers, I was a life long admirer of Jim DeWitts and his art. I had the good fortune of meeting him once in person at a boat show at the Balboa Yacht Club in Corona Del Mar Calif. where he was exhibiting his art. We spent some time just B.S-ing (chatting ) over coffee about our love of “painting” boats.
    To this day his art continues to inspire me.
    I wish I had known him better.

  11. Rich Buchanan 4 days ago

    Of the many years sailing with Jimmy in various places throughout the world the one race I remember most was the around the state race sponsored by Pan Am . With Jimmy on the helm , Charlie pineapple telling us where to go and a crew of 22. What a ride, what a friend…..

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