Paul first came into our lives years ago in St. Barths, to which my wife, Dorothy, and I had sailed in the summer of ’71, in Venceremos, our 28′ sloop. It was our first crossing of the Anegada Passage, the
first time we’d taken an overnight trip. We had lived on our boat, working for three years to pay it off and learn the ropes. We were excited to be finally off and cruising.
St. Barths was our first stop. It was a calm day and we followed for miles the long trail of garbage floating in the clean sea –mostly boxes and plastic bags—St. Barths was a simple West Indian island in those days, not an internationally famous jet set/haute couture watering hole. The island’s garbage was collected in a dump truck and dropped over a cliff. Likewise every Saturday morning bright and early, they slit a cow’s throat at the mouth of the harbor and turned the water red with blood.
We anchored in the inner harbor where we were surrounded by hills with quaint old shingled houses near the public dock where the West Indian schooners and island sloops took on their cargo of spirits, which they
smuggled back into the Windward Islands. Yachts were much scarcer then and we were greeted by some enthusiastic local boaters with an effusive welcome, whisked off the boat to have supper ashore, and when it grew late, a bed ashore. When jobs were offered us we decided to stay for a while.
Thus it was that late one night—a bad one with furious squalls and occasional thunderbolts—I heard the flog of sails, then the rattle of chain. In the morning when I came on deck, a 28′ gaff rigged ketch rode to her anchor close at hand with her tan bark mizzen still up, sheeted tight to keep her bow into the wind. She was different from the other boats in the harbor. Besides being gaff, her masts were solid trees, she had a full yet jaunty stern, an out thrust bowsprit, and high crowned decks and looked as rugged and buoyant as a barrel.
A man emerged on deck and looked around the harbor. He was about 35 with a full curly beard and deep weather-beaten crow’s feet about his lively eyes. He had a booming laugh and a head full of unruly hair. When he saw me he shouted over that he had just sailed across the Atlantic from England via the Canaries, couldn’t be bothered to wait for dawn and so had threaded his way into Gustavia’s teacup harbor, past outlying rocks and shoals, without benefit of chart or engine. His name was Paul Johnson and he was famous in France, he said.
We stayed for 6 weeks in St. Barths and I got to know Johnson pretty well. Paul was a most talented, flamboyant character. Artist, sailor, boat designer and builder—he had the vitality of a Rasputin. Night after night he drank rum into the wee hours, his booming laughter audible across the harbor, and still was early to work in the morning. He was a fount of wit, especially original and genial obscenities thrown out to make men laugh and enliven the job.
Paul had been born and brought up on a boat, a Colin Archer design legendary for its seaworthiness, whose lines were the departure point for Paul’s own designs. Growing up in a boatyard he absorbed nautical information like a sponge. Before he turned 21 he’d rebuilt an 18′ Shetlands fishing boats and sailed it around Europe and across the Atlantic to the West Indies. The Lesser Antilles were at that time (before the rush of cruising boats and bareboats arrived) a relatively pristine cruising ground. The West Indians still had their distinctive culture, very earthy yet courtly and imbued with respect for others. They were quintessentially islanders, they loved and understood the sea and boats. They worked their picturesque gaff cutters and schooners, hand built on the beach out of wood, up and down the arc of islands. They were fishermen, boat builders, sail-makers.
They also, like Johnson, were fond of rum and women. The West Indies was made to order for someone like Paul and he made it his adopted home. There he picked up odd jobs (I mean odd, like off-the-cuff underwater demolition, or delivering leaky old boats no one else would touch) and cruised the Lesser Antilles, the Bahamas and the eastern seaboard. He was a focal point at any given rum shop or tavern. Telling stories, laughing at his own jokes, dispensing nautical lore, or warning his listeners about the treachery of stainless steel which had no place in standing rigging, Paul was unusually bright, energetic and focused, and had a following that reached into every ocean, wherever cruising boats went.
Gifted way beyond normal, he was truly “the master mariner.” He was an artist too—his talent found its way, beyond painting pictures, into all aspects of his boat. The rigging and rope work were all exemplars of the ancient art of marlinspike seamanship, neat, symmetrical, deft. Below decks everything was attractive, comfortable—and clean. He kept better house than any woman he ever had aboard—I remember him beating a carpet and complaining about the woman of the week.
Everything had a place and was secured in it with clever touches. He used lignum vitae and leather and hand stitched canvas to fabricate hinges and bearings and buckles. Glass fronted cabinets held rare leatherbound tomes on seafaring as well as clippings of every article ever written about him—there were lots. In the galley he had a neat gimbaled table onto which he laid a hand towel for traction and could leave a teapot and cups—full—in almost any weather
Though tireless on a boat-building project, Paul loathed conventional work and did as little of it as possible. His solution to the problem of money was draconian—he rarely spent any. He claimed he lived on $200 a month, and his habits backed that seemingly impossible boast.
He hated to spend any money except for absolute necessities. He built what he needed himself, generally out of scraps other people had thrown away, and he stoically did without what he couldn’t improvise. He did without ice, electricity, new clothes, fresh vegetables. He once set off across the Atlantic with less than $90 and with only onions in the vegetable locker.
Two things helped him. He was so charismatic, authentic and broke that people vied with each other to give him stuff they didn’t really need, and his conversation was so interesting that he rarely had to buy drinks. He was easy to find in a crowd… his sudden booming “Ho ho ho!”— an eruption of laughter explosive as cannon fire—marked the spot, usually from the center of a knot of listeners. It should be graved on Paul’s tombstone “He lived far beyond his means” –and the ramifications of that statement will be his legacy to the world, a world bloated with consumerism in the face of abject poverty
He excelled at doing things quickly and cheaply. His most stunningly Cost-effective stroke was building his first original design, 28 ft Venus, from the timbers of a 70 year-old church that was to be torn down. Paul offered to dispose of the lumber and the deal was struck—the minister saw a pile of used wood, old, with nail holes from the preceding century. Paul saw that it was all old growth Florida pitch pine cut from trees that had grown for centuries in the virgin forests before they were felled.
There are no more 300-year-old pitch pine trees. A more impervious material for a boat is hard to find at any price. Suffused with pitch, the wood is proof against rot, marine worms, rust, termites, or water
As far as Paul was concerned, 70 years in a church had properly seasoned his lumber. He borrowed a truck, rented a sawmill for a night, and by dawn had cut up all the frames, strips and timbers he needed. He worked dawn to dusk building the hull in a girl friend’s back yard, salvaged bronze hardware from wrecks, and sewed his own sails at night, all of which inspired admiring onlookers to donate spare hose, a coil of line, a length of chain and old tools that were collecting dust in an attic. He claimed he spent just over a grand in cash by the time she was launched. Paul did exaggerate, and mightily, but still…it was a remarkable achievement performed on relatively no funds.
Paul substituted prodigious energy, skill and charm for money.
Although she was the same length on deck (28 ft.) as my Venceremos, Little Venus had twice the room below, sailed as well off the wind, and looked a lot saltier. Paul put her to her work, sailing her all over the North Atlantic. He would spend winters in the West Indies, summers in England and stop at places like the Bahamas, Florida, Bermuda, Galicia, Madeira, the Canaries en route. She proved herself in rough weather, Paul telling about meeting hurricane force winds in a tight low several days south of the Canaries on one trip and having to heave to for two weeks straight during another.
After a number of years Paul built his 42 ft boat, “Big Venus” and sold Little Venus to a friend. In the neatest of twists, Paul Johnson’s son and his wife are now sailing Little Venus down to the West Indies from Bermuda as I write. Look for two gaff rigged, double ended ketches coming to a harbor near you!