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Paul Erling Johnson (1938-2021): Iconoclastic yacht designer and ocean rambler

Sailing legend Paul Johnson (Photograph by Ken Matthews)

A world-renowned sailor, builder of boats and frequent caller on Bermuda was recalled by friends for his motto in life: “Never be afraid to be terrified.”

Paul Erling Johnson, famed for crossing the Atlantic alone in a sailboat at 16, died last month in the Caribbean island of Carriacou where he lived aboard his last boat, Cherub. He was 83.

Many of his boats were popular in Bermuda and are still sailed.

Born on a sailboat on the Hamble river in England, Mr Johnson spent his life aboard various boats of his design.

John Frith, who with his wife Gillian and their children lived and sailed aboard one of Mr Johnson’s creations, said he was “magnetic, with a great sense of humour”.

Larger than life and devoted to the sea, Mr Johnson was something of a professional vagabond who “never had any money – he would tell his stories and people would feed him well”, his friend added.

“He was an unforgettable character,” Mr Frith said. “We met him when he sailed into Bermuda – we were interested in anybody who would do that. He had an amazing history of crossing the Atlantic Ocean single-handed.

“Many people in Bermuda knew him well because of his character.”

The two formed an informal company in the 1970s, Venus Yachts, to build boats to Mr Johnson’s specifications.

Mr Frith said: “His boat designs are still being bought and sold around the world. His boats are not a modern type but based on an old Norwegian design.

“We sailed 100,000 miles in ours, Moon – we bought our three children up aboard the boat.”

Mr Johnson built a “carbon copy” of the Friths’ boat, and called it Venus.

Mr Frith said he was also an accomplished painter, with three of his works still at the couple’s home in Paget.

He added that Mr Johnson was “a great aficionado of rum; I believe he is being buried with a bottle in Carriacou”.

A 2013 profile in the magazine Sailing World hailed him as a “legend” to sailors worldwide, with a cult following for designs that blended old with new.

“Suddenly, the trendiest people in the traditional world of yachts were yearning for Paul Johnson designs in wood, fibreglass, and steel.

“At one point, there were five new Paul Johnson designs match racing in Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbour.”

He told the magazine he had no idea how many times he had sailed across the Atlantic, adding: “Heavy weather doesn’t bother me or my vessels. In fact, I rather enjoy being scared. It makes one feel alive.”

His friend Ken Matthews, of West Palm Beach in Florida, said Mr Johnson’s exploits were captured in a 2018 documentary, The Sailor, as well as numerous books and articles.

After a stint in the Royal Navy in the Shetland Islands, Mr Johnson took to the sea aboard an 18-foot dinghy built in 1895, and ended up spending much of his life in the Caribbean.

Mr Matthews said he had three children a son, Magnus Johnson, of Flores Island in the Azores; a daughter, Eliala Salvadori of Amsterdam, and another son, Merlin Johnson of Florida.

⋅ Paul Erling Johnson, a respected sailor and designer of boats, was born in England in 1938. He died on June 28, 2021, aged 83.

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Published July 20, 2021 at 7:57 am (Updated July 20, 2021 at 7:57 am)

Paul Erling Johnson (1938-2021): Iconoclastic yacht designer and ocean rambler

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