A Chat with Sailing Legend Paul Johnson
Back in the Lesser Antilles, Fatty hails an old friend.
After a seven-year absence from the Caribbean, I’m happy to report that it’s still a safe haven for unconventional people. Take, for example, the yacht designer Paul Erling Johnson, now 74 years old. He’s currently living aboard and hard aground on his coffee grounds in Carriacou, in the Grenadines.
The last few years haven’t been easy for Paul. The problem isn’t sailing or the sea, it is the land. It can be treacherous. There are hidden dangers everywhere. There has been a succession of crazy shore adventures: He recently went to sleep on a discarded sheet of plywood on the beach and became a lethal (to himself) projectile when a frisky gust of wind sent him airborne over the harbor. His own 18-foot dinghy managed to land on him at the outset of a hurricane, thrusting a piece of its stem through his right calf. More recently, in the parking lot of the local grocery store, Paul mistakenly thought that all the screaming white folks were fans of his design work, not that he was about to be run over by a truck.
“The nurses at the local emergency room are sick of seeing me,” Paul admitted ruefully during our recent visit. He put down his water glass of rum in a studied manner so he could point to the spots where various bits of boats and houses and trucks have impaled his once-bronzed body.
I was a pre-teen when the 16-year-old Paul Johnson became my hero by sailing across the Atlantic in a beat-up, 18-foot lapstrake gaffer named Venus. Even back then, in the 1960s, he had a clear vision of who he was and what he was doing. Modern yacht design was off on a wrong tangent, he believed. The lofty Marconi rig was truly good only for racing hard on the wind, something that ocean-crossing sea gypsies didn’t do very often. Why put all that strain on the rigging? Why even have backstays? Gaff-riggers were cheaper, safer, faster, and more easily repaired. They were altogether superior in every way.
A cult sprang up around him. Sure, such designers as Dick Newick, Bob Perry, Gary Hoyt, Charlie Morgan, and Jim Brown all had fans and devotees, but only Paul was The One. Suddenly, half of the traditional sailboats being built by amateurs on a shoestring budget weren’t referred to as traditional or gaffers. They were reverently called Paul Johnson designs.
Paul blended the old and the new in unique and seamless ways. He quickly embraced PVC and Airex coring materials, which gave his vessels light displacement. And his designs, sporting a very modern run aft in the buttocks lines, were fast, fast, fast off the wind.
“Sure, the Marconi rig has advantages when you’re hard on it,” he’d say, “but once you crack off a tad, the power of the gaff offers clear advantages. With a gaffer, you can harness more power more quickly, and in a safe, controllable way. You don’t have to luff up to douse or hoist. The center of gravity is low, so there’s less roll. The result can be an almost maintenance-free ocean vagabond that can stay offshore for very long periods of time for very little money.”
Back in the late 1960s, Paul said, “Most modern boats are like governments. They look good on paper, despite the fact they don’t work too well in reality.”
In the big picture, though, not many agreed. The yacht assembly lines in America and Taiwan rolled out their profitable look-alike cookie-cutter craft, with more attention paid to the sales brochure than to the hull. The IOR racer/cruiser dominated. But so what? Paul didn’t care. He refused to suffer fools gladly. He wasn’t running a popularity contest; he was designing practical, ocean-worthy boats that could put to sea and stay there.
Why should he pay attention to the quibbles of the harbor queens, the club racers, the naysayers? So what if the landlubbers thought he was totally nuts: All the better! And those few contrarian sailors who did agree with Paul Johnson became, well, disciples, if you will.
You didn’t just build a Paul Johnson design. You took up The Cause.
Dozens of Paul Johnson boats started springing up under palm trees in Bermuda, the Azores, and the Lesser Antilles. John Frith got involved with his Moon. Peter Muilenburg started Breath on St. John. Lulu Magras of St. Barts purchased Pluto. Bruce Smith glued up Woodwind. Shadrock, Cherub, and dozens of others splashed.
Suddenly, the trendiest people in the traditional world of yachts were yearning for Paul Johnson designs in wood, fiberglass, and steel. At one point, there were five new Paul Johnson designs match racing in Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbour.
And Paul fed the PR fire on many diverse levels.
National Fisherman did an in-depth article. Other publications, like Yachting Monthly, sent reporters. Paul was suitably elusive and cryptic—but not too elusive or cryptic.
Who was that rum-reeking, Shakespeare-quoting sailing madman on The Today Show in New York? Surely, that couldn’t be—wait, is that Paul Johnson on Larry King’s radio show?
“I’ve seen your boat, Paul,” said Larry King. “And I wouldn’t sail it across the Miami River!”
“And given what I know of your sailing skills,” Paul replied, “that’s very wise, Larry.”