Harken Derm

Class of 2016: Irving Johnson

Published on October 18th, 2016

Nine new members of the US National Sailing Hall of Fame will be inducted at a ceremony on October 29-30 in San Francisco, CA. Roger Vaughan provides this report on sail training pioneer, adventurer and author Irving Johnson, one of the members of the 2016 induction class:


When he was crew on a 60-footer, Irving Johnson would pick up the 75-pound anchor and casually toss it overboard. He rowed the yacht’s dinghy so fast its wake rocked the big boat. He could lower himself down the leech of a square sail by pinching the cloth between his fingers. It was all just for fun, and because he could.

In the course of writing about Irving Johnson as he turned 73 (1979), I traveled to his family farm in Hadley, Massachusetts where he and his wife Electa (Exy) chose to retire. During lunch at the kitchen table, Irving quietly put down his fork, rose up silently like a cat, and disappeared. “It’s the groundhog,” Exy said, looking out the window toward the big oak tree.

We watched Irving come into sight around the corner of a shed, carrying a hoe. He stealthily approached the animal, raised the hoe, and bambambam! it was over. Irving dangled the groundhog by a hind leg for us to see, then began high stepping toward our window, brandishing the hoe.

Three years before, the Johnsons and I had been together on the tall ships race from Bermuda to New York Harbor. One afternoon, we had lost the tops’l sheet on Te Vega, a 137-foot schooner. In a flash, Irving started aloft. I dove below for a camera, and by the time I’d reached the hounds he had reattached the sheet and was halfway back from the end of the gaff, 140 feet above the deck. When he saw me and the camera, he stopped, held up a hand, and went back to the end of the gaff for the photo.

Irving Johnson’s immense store of sailing talent, his strength, ingenuity, curiosity, and outstanding blue water seamanship allowed him and his wife to complete seven successful two-year world voyages under sail in three different vessels with a crew of a dozen or more college boys. In all, he and Exy sailed half a million miles.

In addition, Johnson was a wonderful storyteller whose lectures of his trips and adventures to exotic lands were so riveting people referred to him as “the old spellbinder.” That was because the adventures never lost their magic for him. “I could whip up a romance over a rowboat,” Johnson once confessed, “And romance is a powerful disease.”

For a complete list of inductees… click here.

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