Eight Bells: John Russell

Published on March 28th, 2017

On March 26, Captain John Russell crossed the bar at 72 years in Huntington, NY.

Big John, The Gentle Giant, JR… since the early 1970’s, John and I have sailed thousands of offshore miles together. On one memorable Thanksgiving, about 600 miles offshore, we used wooden sail battens, canvas, flattened coke cans, and underwater epoxy to stem the gushing flow of seawater through the seams between the planks of Golden Eagle, a classic Alden wooden ketch.

Undeterred, John sailed with me for years in numerous trips between the US and the West Indies. Later, John sailed with Eric Ritter in his various sized Tempests, racing hard and working hard. John joined the Dolan crew, skippering their Swan 57 Bravo over thousands of miles, both racing and cruising.

Antigua Race Week was a highlight of each year. John would not only captain Bravo in the races, with an all-female crew, he also was tasked with the organization of the other two race boats (Encore & Sagamore), plus the accommodations for the crews on the 5 large chartered vessels.

Each fall, John sailed Bravo, and later Encore, south from Oyster Bay to the West Indies; each spring, he made the return trip. John logged more miles on “I-75” than any sailor I know.

With his signature full bushy beard, standing 6 feet 7 inches, he made a commanding presence; his “little” brother Jim, 6 feet 3 inches tall (and later captain of Golden Eagle), also sailed with us. I always felt safe while walking between these two brothers in some of the sketchier places in the islands.

I actually saw John’s shaved bare face for a few weeks one America’s Cup summer in Newport. The conservative boat owner’s wife made it clear that she did not like beards, though the owner reminded her that her father wore a beard. He had to make a case, reasoning that he could understand the “need” for a beard in extremely cold weather, but it certainly wasn’t called for during a Newport summer. Reluctantly, John shaved his beard…just for the few weeks of the races.

John was meticulous in everything he did…his techniques in varnishing yielded beautiful brightwork. With a background in a machine shop, he was great at repairing and maintaining the multiple systems on yachts. His soft spoken competent manner made him a perfect shipmate with all who were privileged to sail with him.

He will be missed. – Capt Ron Schaper

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