Berkeley resident, marine engineer, avid seafarer Donald Schweter dies at 80

Suzanne Siebert/Courtesy

Marine engineer and Berkeley resident Donald I. Schweter, who spent 38 years seafaring, died Oct. 25 at 80 years old.

Born in New York City on July 12, 1938, Schweter graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Schweter worked as an engineer on merchant ships, often spending six months of the year out at sea before he retired in 1999.

“He had all kinds of amazing ideas running around his head,” his stepdaughter Guen Sublette said. “He was a big thinker, always an engineer in his mind, devising and figuring things out.”

Drawn to warmer winters in California, he lived and sailed out of San Francisco during his early career, where he met his first wife, Birthe. They were married for 30 years and had one child, Heidi, together.

After moving to Oakland, Schweter studied naval architecture at UC Berkeley as a graduate student but did not complete his studies. He left to continue sailing as an engineer because he missed the sea, where he felt most comfortable, Sublette said.

After living in Hawaii, the family then moved to Garibaldi, on the coast of Oregon, where Schweter spent about 20 years building a 46-foot catamaran by hand — which he named Sojourner. He fabricated and machined the cabin fittings and hydraulic motors from scratch, with help from Birthe and Heidi.

Sublette said Schweter would often use his engineering skills to build contraptions in his own home, using the same techniques he would use on a boat, such as putting awnings on the house with ropes. He also attached a light switch to an upholstered chair, which would turn on a light fastened from a pulley above.

Schweter, Birthe and a small crew sailed on Sojourner to Northern California, landing in Sausalito. Schweter then continued sailing on his own, making his way south and landing in Mazatlán, Mexico, in 1997, where he sold the boat.

Being out at sea with a small crew “suited his solitary way of being,” said his second wife Suzanne Siebert, whom he married in 2001. They lived together in Berkeley for about the last 20 years of his life.

“He was not very good in groups. … It was better for him to be one on one or with just a couple other people,” Siebert said. “He was a voracious reader. … He was very good in one-on-one conversation, talking about all kinds of things he had read.”

Sublette also commented on his passion for reading — she said he loved to go to the senior center and read The New York Times aloud to people there.

According to Siebert, Schweter had been facing medical challenges for some time. He is survived by his daughter Heidi, his wife Suzanne and her children, his first wife Birthe and his brothers Herb, Bob, Larry, Victor and Steve.

Contact Katherine Kemp at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katherinekemp.