A Chat with Sailing Legend Paul Johnson
Back in the Lesser Antilles, Fatty hails an old friend.
Best of all, Paul Johnson put his money where his mouth was. One year, he sailed from England to the Caribbean, then unexpectedly received a commission there to build one of his own 42-foot Venus designs. One problem: His tools were in Jolly Ole, and winter had arrived. “Tsk, tsk,” said Paul, who then nonchalantly sailed back to England and returned to the Caribbean without comment. That made four transatlantic passages for the year, two of them made in the dead of winter, and all accomplished without damage or fuss.
“Try that with a lofty, modern IOR production boat!” he taunted any who’d listen.
No one took up the challenge.
“Heavy weather doesn’t bother me or my vessels,” Paul said. “In fact, I rather enjoy being scared. It makes one feel alive!”
How many transatlantics has Paul done?
“I can’t remember precisely,” he admits during our chat, peering down into his glass for answers. “At least 30-some, but who can say, really?”
In the day, if Paul needed money, he’d hastily dash off an oil painting or two. The rich folk would snatch them up gratefully. Renaissance man was a phrase muttered deferentially wherever Paul sailed.
The women in Paul’s life are ageless. When he was a teenager, they were in their early 20s—and they still are, 50 years later.
“The ladies are better sailors,” he contends. “They work harder and are more willing to learn. Why, just recently, I had a lovely 23-year-old deckhand for a couple of years.”
I first met Paul in the late 1970s on St. Barts. He was already a designer/builder legend. His distinctive designs were being built all over the world. He was on the cutting edge of both traditional and ultra-cheap yacht construction. He’d work all day in his cedar-scented Gustavia boat shed, surrounded by scantily clad French models draping themselves about in hopes of sensuously mixing up some epoxy for him. Then he’d retire to the famous Le Select to attempt to drink the island dry. He was as handsome as Byron: barrel-chested, wild-haired, and well-muscled. He wasn’t arrogant, precisely, just dead right, and he knew it.
In his heyday, Paul could’ve modeled for Michelangelo’s King Neptune. He had not only the physique but the mental intensity as well. A spotlight followed him around. His entourage was international: a French poet, a Spanish artist, an Italian actress, a Dutch abstractionist, a Polish violinist.
He was untamed, and his lusty appetites were enormous. People wanted to share his raw passion and to witness such classic, unbridled hedonism. A succession of Beautiful People —Lulu Magras, Mad Murphy, Jean Claude, Joe Green, Bruce Smith, Jenny May—trooped through his epoxy-splattered boat shed in Gustavia. Former girlfriends and ex-wives came and went, trailing children and divorce lawyers and other shoreside vexations. Palimony, matrimony, alimony, and plain baloney were all the same to Paul.
What did it matter what some freeway-addled stateside judge proclaimed when the Caribbean trade winds were fair and the distant horizon clear?
If there has been one big insurmountable problem in Paul’s life, it was the wicked women of his design disciples. They just didn’t seem to get it. They didn’t stay under his spell like their eager, wanderlust-smitten husbands. So these devious women continuously and quietly sniped away, pointing out the bloody obvious: Paul never grew up. He never settled down, never signed on the dotted line. Never bowed. Never stayed put. Never took the blame. Never paid—what’s the expression?—the wages of sin.
Puritans hated Paul Johnson and the strong drink in his mighty fist and the lusty song of freedom that sprung from his larger-than-life heart.
It was then that the Pacific beckoned. Yet another young lady agreed to be shanghaied. Alas, there are a lot of tiny dots in the Pacific, and some of them are very, very hard. Paul hit one. His vessel sank. But, his 18-foot dory-style dinghy was nearly as big as his original escape craft, so they piled into that for another 1,500 miles or so of Pacific fun.
Money appeared. Another vessel was whipped up, but this one didn’t last, either. It, too, slipped beneath the sea.
Today, he lives aboard one of his beloved designs in the island backwater called Carriacou. If he’s too ill to come ashore, a young, local yachtie girl heats up some leftovers and rows over. Paul then pours on the famous charm and slips in a sea yarn or two for payment.
“Is that you, Fatty?” he asks as my wife, Carolyn, and I circle his gaffer while standing on the deck of Ganesh, our 43-foot French-built ketch. “Of course I’ll come for dinner!” He keeps us laughing until the wee hours with his bawdry sea stories.
Finally he’s ready to go, but there’s one final question. “I’ve been considering sailing back across the Pond to the Azores,” he says. “Or maybe just into the lee of Tobago for the remainder of hurricane season. What you say? Which is the better choice?”
I look at the growth on his anchor rode, his sun-weary halyards, those tattered bits of baggywrinkle drooping to the deck of his nearby boat.
Yes, time has passed. Yes, none of us are quite what we once were. And yet—despite it all—there’s still fire in Paul’s belly. The horizon beckons. Why not one more grand sailing adventure?
“Both are pleasant this time of year,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful passage either way.”
He smiles. We’re sailors. We’re home upon the sea. Our vessels are our seashells as long as they are afloat. Screw the scolding doctors, the bean-counters, and those bloody Dirt Dwellers!
It takes him a long time to crawl into his battered dory and swing his twisted limbs into place. He coughs and clutches his chest. Finally, breathing heavily, he casts off his painter.
“I’m sure I will,” he says ever so softly as he sculls away into the inky blackness of Tyrell Bay.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander are bending on a new mainsail while getting ready for another transpacific toddle.