The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 14 -

The Yankees Go Around and Around

         Each new sailor has to make his own terms
         with the sea. He will inevitably learn to ac-
         commodate to the motion, he will learn to box
         the compass and steer a course, he will learn to
         sleep when watch is over regardless of the
         clock, he will learn the lines, the sails and what
         they do.(l)

Tompkins of the famous bluewater sailing family, and after a week-
end aboard Wander Bird, a converted German pilot schooner, she
took the train back to Rochester to explain to her family why she
was quitting her job to go cruising in European waters.
  The scene shifts next to a rough autumn day in 1931 off Le Havre
in the English Channel. Electa had purchased a Siamese kitten in
Paris because she had always wanted one and there they were cheap;
but the kitten, unlike Electa, did not take to the sea and died. To
console herself, Electa decided she needed a haircut especially since
there was a young crewman aboard from Boston who liked to cut
girls' hair, if it were the right girl.
  While young Irving Johnson wielded the clippers, taking what
seemed like an unusually long time about it, Electa studied him

     ~ 140 ~

surreptitiously in the mirror. They talked of many things, and
became better acquainted.
  At twenty-six, Irving McClure Johnson was what we would call
today a dropout, but he had already acquired an astonishing back-
ground in seamanship and bluewater sailing. Born July 4, 1905, to
Clifton and Anna Johnson, farmers, he was graduated from Hopkins
Academy in 1923. He and his brother owned a sloop when he was
eighteen, and he crewed on local yachts frequently. To gain more
experience, however, he went to sea for ten years in as many types of
craft as he could.
  In 1929 and 1930, he signed on for a 93-day voyage around Cape
Horn to Chile in the German four-masted bark Peking, bound from
Hamburg to Talcahuana for nitrate. On this voyage, he took some
remarkable 16mm motion pictures for later lecture tours, and also
wrote Round the Horn in a Square-Rigger.
  The following year, Johnson signed on as mate aboard Shamrock
V, Sir Thomas Lipton's America's Cup contender, for the return trip
to England. The voyage included a severe encounter with a hurri-
cane, during which the racing craft proved to be not intended for
such voyaging.(2)
  In 1931, Johnson sailed as mate with Captain Warwick Tompkins
on the Wander Bird, sailing from Newport on European excursions,
returning via the West Indies. The same year he also sailed on
George Roosevelt's Mistress in the Fastnet Race. In 1932, he was
skipper and navigator aboard the 43-foot schooner Twilight in the
Bermuda Race, coming in second in Class B.
  On September 15, 1932, Irving and Electa were married and thus
began one of the most remarkable family enterprises one that was
to culminate in seven virtually flawless and accident-free circum-
  During the winter following their honeymoon, they spent days
with charts spread out on the living-room floor, in correspondence
with yacht brokers, and in planning the ship they wanted, the ports
they wished to visit. They had this idea: to sail around the world with
a crew of young people selected for skills and compatibility, with
Irving as skipper-owner, and a paid hand or two but everyone else
would be amateurs sharing expenses. Everyone would have regular
duties aboard and would stand regular watches. The first and second
mates would always be experienced men, but aside from that, sailing
experience would not be a prerequisite. The plan was an adaptation
from Tompkins and the Wander Bird, and they both agreed that the

   ~ 141 ~

ship would have to be one of those superbly seaworthy and comfort-
able North Sea pilot boats.
  Most of these pilot boats were in the 90- to 100-foot overall class,
built heavily to last, with 7 by 7 oak frames, and 3-inch-thick oak
planks. The pilot boats had to spend two weeks at sea in all kinds of
weather on station, and their crews had to be smart sailors, for the
competition for jobs on incoming ships was fierce. With the passing
of the tall clipper ships, the old pilot boats were replaced by steam
and motor launches. A few wound up as yachts, such as Wander Bird
and the former Dutch Loodschooner 4, which was owned by Captain
Claude Monson of Ipswich, England.
  The Johnsons went to Germany as a result of negotiations with a
broker named Erdmann, who claimed to be sole agent for the
Gluckauf. This proved to be a long and frustrating experience,
during which Erdmann flipped his lid and accused Johnson of trying
to kill him; and the lady dentist who owned the vessel, with her
lawyer, gave the Johnsons an expensive runaround. Regarding the
young Americans as a couple of patsies, they baited the Johnsons on,
and then tried to double the price. But the Johnsons were not that
naive. They had already sent an inquiry to Captain Monson, who was
rumored to be in a mood for selling his pet, the Loodschooner 4, now
named the Texel.
  During the low point in the negotiations with the conniving lady
dentist and her lawyer, the Johnsons received a cable from Monson
accepting their offer. Within minutes, they had tickets and were off
for England. Captain Monson, it turned out, who had met Irving
before, liked the Johnsons and felt his ship would be well taken care
of and sailed as she should be.         
  It was spring in England and beautiful. The Johnsons went directly
to Ipswich and got ready to sail. Included in the first crew was a
German professional sailor named Franzen, who had worked for the
movies in Hollywood and who knew how to rig a ship. Also coming
aboard were some crew members from home Arthur Murphy, Bill
Yeomans, and Douglas Hancock. After changing the name of the
ship to Yankee, and the registry from British to American, they then
sailed for Hamburg and the small yard of Herr Porath on the Elbe at
Finkenwarder for the final rigging and outfitting.
  The sail plan was changed somewhat, and a new foretopmast was
obtained from the Bremen, which was being dismantled nearby.
Other crew members began to show up, until the little inn at
Finkenwarder began to look like a college dormitory. Here the

  ~ 142 ~

Johnsons acquired one of their greatest assets, a German cook named
Fritz, who was a confirmed Nazi, but otherwise a loyal and depend-
able hand.
  On July 5, they were ready to sail. Yankee had a new rig, a new
coat of white paint, and a rearranged interior. The owner's cabin was
aft, with two small cabins to starboard, one double and one single
cabin, engine room, and bathroom to port. Forward of these were the
main cabin with an upper and lower tier of bunks, six to port and
eight to starboard. There were benches and boxes for provisions
under the bunks. Along one side of the cabin was what would
become a Johnson trademark on all their vessels an enormous
swinging teakwood table that always remained level no matter how
the ship heeled. Forward of the main cabin was the galley, then a
companionway to the teak deckhouse, with bunks, chart table, and
storage for several thousand charts.
  As outfitted, the Yankee was 92 feet overall, 76 feet on the water-
line, 21 feet wide, and drew 11 feet of water. She had four water
tanks holding 2,000 gallons, and oil tanks with a capacity of 350
  First they sailed back to England, anchoring at Cowes at the Isle of
Wight for the Fastnet Races and then went to Falmouth, in Corn-
wall, looking for the Wander Bird. There she was, just as the
Johnsons had arranged with the Tompkinses on a cold March day in
Boston, when they had said good-bye; and nearby was the old Cutty
Sark, the last clipper afloat, tied up across the harbor, a symbol of an
era that was not yet dead, not while there were Johnsons and
Tompkinses to sail the seas.
  From Falmouth, they sailed to Ireland, then across the North
Atlantic in the steamer lanes to Newfoundland, St. Pierre, the Bras
d'Or Lakes, and finally to the home port of Gloucester. Yankee's
maiden voyage had been a boisterous but delightful one.
  The next two months were spent collecting a ship's company for
an eighteen-month cruise around the world. Times were tough. It
was the early years of the Depression. Millions were out of work.
Breadlines and riots characterized the streets of the large cities. Never
had the compulsion to escape been stronger, and from a mountain of
mail, much of which bordered on the crackpot, they settled upon a
crew of seventeen. The first mate was Frederick Jackson of Provi-
dence, a Dartmouth grad who had been second mate on the Atlantic
voyage; Douglas Hancock, as second mate, had also been with them
during the summer; Arthur Murphy of West Newton, and Theodore

  ~ 143 ~ 

Hixon of Springfield, two other veterans of the maiden voyage.
Unfortunately, six days before sailing, Arthur was involved in a bad
auto accident, but he arranged to meet them later in Tahiti.
  Robert Murray of Waban, a friend of Arthur's, signed on as
"engineer." Dr. Rufus Southworth of Cincinnati became ship's
surgeon he was the oldest member of the crew, at fifty, but had a
hardy constitution and much experience in foreign places. He was
signed on in spite of Irving's conviction that men more than forty
had no place aboard a sailing vessel, unless they had done a lot of
sailing in the past. Southworth also brought along the youngest
member of the crew, Edward Danson of Cincinnati.
  Others included Peer Johnson of Beverly, Massachusetts, Charles
Tifft of Boston, Dr. Walter Garrey of Massachusetts General Hospi-
tal who was going as far as Panama, and Roland Wentzel, a young
German-American commercial artist from New York, as cook's
  Most welcome aboard were two girls, Betty Schuler of Rochester,
New York, and Dorothy Brandon of Toronto. Dorothy planned to
leave at Singapore. Peer Johnson's sister was to meet them in Tahiti.
All of the girls were between twenty-four and thirty, including Electa,
and had the same general interests. Betty was signed on as black-
smith, Dorothy as lamptrimmer two old windjammer jobs 
Deborah and Electa as stewardess and hairdresser. None planned to
be overworked in their official capacities, the titles of which caused
considerable confusion among petty and often ignorant port officials
around the world.
  On November 5, 1933, the new-born Yankee sailed from Glouces-
ter on its first circumnavigation. As soon as the harbor was cleared
and the crowds gone, the sails were hauled up and the shipboard
routine began. That night it snowed. Through the bitter winter
night, they pressed out to sea toward the Gulf Stream. Those who
had never been on a sailing ship before were obliged to go aloft and
work sails and they learned quickly. South of Hatteras, they en-
countered a proper gale, but soon passed out of the bad weather and
the days became sunny and warm with moderate winds. By this time,
the new crew was thoroughly initiated and began to enjoy the voyage.
  At Colon, the crew went ashore for the first of many celebrations.
They then passed through the locks, where Yankee was given a
thorough threshing and crashed into one wall. With power and sail,
they went through Gatun Lake, and late in the afternoon tied up at
the dock in Balboa.

  ~ 144 ~

  Here they stayed a while and the crew scattered on various adven-
tures, shopping and exploring. Electa bought a Thanksgiving turkey
in a local market. Charlie and Doug went into the hospital with an
infected ear and an appendectomy respectively.(3) The crew was joined
by Frank Longshore of New Orleans, who had signed on for Tahiti.
  The fourth day at sea, Charlie's appendix began acting up. The
skipper and Dr. Southworth decided to go on. The next day, Charlie
had another attack, so Irving changed course for Buenaventura,
Colombia, which had air service to Panama. Using the diesel engine,
Irving made port the day before the scheduled flight. The town was
eight miles upriver, and the channel was filled with unmarked shoals.
When almost to the town, they went aground in the mud the rainy
season had started. Charlie's appendix was worse, and now the
Yankee buzzed with angry officials who had not been informed of
their coming, and who were insulted because the Yankee did not fly
the Colombian flag.
  After a series of misadventures during which they nearly lost the
ship, they got Charlie ashore and to his airplane. The next day they
got a telegram from Gorgas Hospital saying that the appendix had
been duly removed and that Charlie was doing well.
  At last, the Yankee escaped from the miseries of squalid Buenaven-
tura and its officials, and headed for the Galapagos Islands. The next
day they crossed the equator with appropriate ceremonies.
  Their stay in the Galapagos was delightful. Christmas was cele-
brated at Chatham. They visited the colony which included the
beautiful Norwegian girl of Robinson's voyage, Karin, now married
to Senor Cobos.(4) They left letters at Post Office Bay. Electa and the
others also made the acquaintance of the Ritters, the Baroness and
her lovers, and most of the other eccentrics on Floreana.(5) Electa's
account of the settlers and what happened to them was probably the
last reliable one to be published.
  One day at San Salvador, a shore party came upon a tin box con-
taining a message from William Robinson who had been there in
Svaap in 1928. The original, which was still in good condition, was
replaced with a copy of their own.
  Just before leaving, a ship hove into sight. It was the Blue Dolphin
of Gloucester, which had been fitting out near them, and which was
now under charter to Alfred Chandler and family of Wilmington,
Delaware. Then the Yankee's bowsprit was pointed toward Pitcairn,
more than three thousand miles away.
  Pitcairn was seldom visited by any ships, much less yachts, which

   ~ 145 ~

was typical of the pattern the Johnsons followed in all their voyages.
They had no idea of what they would find there, but it turned out to
be the first of many visits with the descendants of the Bounty muti-
neers, and the beginning of a close relationship.(6)
  It was hard to break away from the Pitcairn hospitality, but as it
turned out, they would return sooner than they thought. At Manga-
reva, they found seven Pitcairn islanders who had been stranded for
five months after their trading schooner from Tahiti, the Patria, piled
up on a reef,(7) and who had managed to get to Mangareva in the
lifeboat Now they were homesick and wanted the Yankee to take
them back to Pitcairn, which the Johnsons reluctantly did.8 On the
way, Captain Jollnson married one of the islanders to a sixteen-year-
old Mangareva girl who came along. At Pitcairn, their arrival caused
no surprise. The Johnsons were told that they had been expected.
  In 1934, Tahiti was far different than the island today, with its jet
airport and booming tourism. The Yankee's crew thoroughly enjoyed
this tropical paradise. When the steamer from San Francisco arrived,
aboard was Arthur Murphy, recovered from his accident. Charlie
appeared in a native dugout. He had been waiting in Tahiti for two
weeks. Newspapers from the States carried strange stories about the
New Deal and something called "N.R.A.," bank holidays, and social
and economic experiments. But life in Tahiti was one round of
parties. The only link with home was that most of the merchandise
and furnishings of the villagers outside Papeete came from the Sears
Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs.
  They visited Moorea, across the way, then Bora Bora, the Cook
Islands, Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides, the Solomons, Borneo, poking
into out-of-the-way places. Captain Johnson did not realize it, but he
was covering water with which, as a wartime captain of a navy survey
ship, he would become intimately acquainted.
  Arriving at the mouth of the Bangkok River in Indochina, they
went up that chocolate waterway to Bangkok to become the first
American yacht to visit that city. Here the Johnsons celebrated their
second wedding anniversary, and reflected on all that had happened
during those two years. A train trip was made inland to the Angkor
Wat, the ruins of the ancient city in the jungle, built by a vanished
race of Khmers and lost to the world for centuries.
  Next came Singapore, crossroads of the Pacific. Here, where labor
and teak was cheap, the Yankee acquired new floors and other
improvements. Then they were off for Sumatra, Bali, Java, passing by

   ~ 146 ~

Krakatoa, which had erupted in 1883, killing 36,000 people and send-
ing tidal waves around the world.
  Then came the Indian Ocean, Keeling-Cocos Islands, and Mauri-
tius. On Cocos, Electa found members of the Clunies-Ross family
who remembered Captain Slocum's visit nearly a half century before.
  Christmas was spent at sea. On December 31, they sighted Africa,
then came into the harbor of Durban and tied up to a berth only ten
minutes' walk from the center of town. They appeared on a South
African radio broadcast and then departed for Cape Town. Expecting
the worse, they had a pleasant run around the Cape, logging one
record noon-to-noon passage of 234 miles.
  They enjoyed a visit to Cape Town, then pushed on to St. Helena,
Ascension, Fernando de Noronha, and Devil's Island. Coming to
anchor off the French prison colony, they were refused permission to
land. But it was well that they hurried on, for near Georgetown,
Ned's appendix flared up, and he was taken to a tropical hospital
ashore for an emergency operation the third appendectomy of the
  Here they encountered Art Williams, an American bush pilot, who
flew Johnson and several others on a spectacular run into the jungle
where one waterfall, 840 feet high, was discovered and named
Yankee Falls.
  Next came the West Indies, which they had missed on the out-
bound trip. They stopped at Trinidad, Antigua, Saba, and the Virgin
  On May 5, they sailed into Gloucester harbor, accompanied by a
fleet of boats sent out to meet them with flags flying and whistles
blowing. Their first circumnavigation had been completed.
  During the pre-World War II days, Yankee made two more
voyages around the world with amateur crews. The Johnsons' two
sons were born and learned to walk on heaving decks. In the spring
of 1941, they sailed Yankee back for the last time. Two months later,
Irving was an officer in the Navy, and the family was on its way to
Honolulu. Yankee was sold to the Admiral Billard Academy. Irving
was assigned to the War Plans Office because of his intimate knowl-
edge of the Pacific islands.
  Then came the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Irving went to sea on
the survey ship, U.S.S. Sumner, charting the islands and passages
where the fighting became hot and desperate Guadalcanal, Tarawa,
Kwajalein, and Iwo Jima. In early 1942, he was with the marines in

     ~ 147 ~

the landing on Wallis Island, where he had once taken Yankee.  
Ultimately, he became skipper of the Sumner, on which he served
three years. During the Iwo Jima operation, the Sumner was under
continuous attack by air and shore batteries for eleven days. Johnson
retired with the rank of Captain, U.S.N.R., after the war.
  Coming home to Gloucester, he sailed in the 1946 Bermuda Race
on the Brilliant. Meanwhile, he and Electa searched for another
Yankee. They found her, with the help of a friend, the movie actor
Sterling Hayden, who had been mate on the second world cruise, in
the Duhnen, the last schooner the Germans built before steam took
over. During the war, the schooner had been a Luftwaffe recreation
ship. The British took her over as a prize, and she ended up as an RAF
recreation ship.
  After some convincing, the Air Marshall agreed to sell. The ship
was refitted and renamed Yankee at the Brixham yards. The new
Yankee was 96 feet overall, with a waterline of 81 feet, a maximum
draft of 11 feet. She was a smart sailor with a top speed of 12 knots,
had a pair of diesels with plenty of tankage, and electric power for
lights, refrigeration, and hot water. She even carried an electric
welder, a handy thing to have on a steel ship. The rig was changed to
that of a brigantine with 7,775 square feet of canvas.
  The first crew included the wife of General William (Wild Bill)
Donovan of OSS fame, who had sailed around in the old Yankee. The
Johnsons' two sons, Arthur and Robert, eleven and eight, also came
aboard as veterans. Arthur had been given the middle name of
"Cook" and Robert that of "Parkin," in honor of the great English
explorer and of Parkin Christian, one of the Pitcairn islanders.
  The first voyage of the new Yankee included Irving's nephew,
Stephen, a merchant marine veteran; Jack Braidwood, a former
Canadian navy commander; Frank Power of Santa Monica, Cali-
fornia; a North Hollywood doctor, Charles T. Bothamley, forty-five;
Peter Sutton and Hazard Campbell of Buffalo, New York; Alan
Pierce of Fairhaven (where Slocum's Spray was born in a pasture);
Jack Trevett of Evanston, Illinois; Eric Wolman, the youngest
member at sixteen; Larry Bard; Neil Chase from Deerfield; John
Wright of Sharon, Massachusetts; Ray Moeller, an engineer; Ed
Douglas, an actor who had toured in Kiss and Tell; Jim Wells; and
Don Crawford, a professional cook.
  This time, the girls included Louise Stewart of Philadelphia,
Wellesley grad and columnist for Ladies' Home Journal, and a former
captain in the Marines; Mary Booth of Larchmont,(9) who had sailed

  ~ 148 ~

with the Johnsons one summer, a Smith grad and aeronautical engi-
neer; Terry Glenn of Chicago, also an aeronautical engineer and a
pilot; and Meg Young of Muskegon, Michigan, a former secretary
and saleslady.
  Between 1947 and 1958, the Johnsons made four circumnaviga-
tions with amateur crews. On one trip, Irving discovered and raised
the anchor of the Bounty at Pitcairn. Between voyages, the Johnsons
published several books and lectured extensively. They also chartered
on short trips up and down the coast, one summer carrying 2,200 Girl
Scout mariners from New York to the Bras d'Or Lakes.
  Irving was a member of the prestigious Cruising Club of America
and always flew the CCA pennant. Surprisingly, the Johnsons were
never cited with the Blue Water Medal, although they had the
respect and admiration of the club members.
  In the CCA book, Nowhere Is Too Far, the late John Parkinson, Jr.,
wrote: "It is almost appalling when we consider that Irving Johnson
skippered the two Yankees seven times around the world. Certainly
he is worthy to take his place in history with Magellan and Sir
Francis Drake as one of the world's greatest sailors in sail."
  Then, at last, after a quarter century of voyaging around the world,
the Johnsons sold the brigantine Yankee. The old North Sea pilot
boat was soon after wrecked on a reef in the South Pacific by the new
owner. Irving and Electa had Sparkman and Stephens design for
them a third Yankee, this one a 50-foot steel centerboard ketch with
shallow draft, masts stepped in tabernacles so they could be folded
for passage under low bridges, and began a retirement period cruising
the vast canals of Europe. On one trip up the Nile, Irving suffered a
bad fall while climbing on the ruins, but recovered.
  The Johnsons were among the most unusual and competent of all
the voyagers who have undertaken a circumnavigation, and certainly
hold the record for the number of times around. More important, all
these voyages have been made with consummate skill, with unending
attention to detail and vigilance, and good old-fashioned judgment.
Because of the Johnsons, hundreds of amateurs from all walks of life
who had dreamed of the sea were able to make a voyage of a lifetime
in complete safety and without the burden of yacht ownership and
years of preparation necessary to make it on their own.
  There was always unfailing discipline aboard the Yankees, but this
never intruded on the easy comradeship and the informal life the
Johnsons tried to maintain. With few exceptions, those amateurs
who signed on were able to adjust easily to shipboard life and the

  ~ 149 ~

inevitable togetherness on long passages. Perhaps the secret of the
success of these voyages was the fact that the Johnsons themselves
never lost that feeling of excitement and curiosity that comes with
visiting exotic places and meeting different peoples. They were essen-
tially inveterate tourists, with insatiable enthusiasm and curiosity.
  For those hundreds of amateurs, no matter how humdrum or
frustrating was the rest of their lives, they would always be able to
look back on the great adventure, when for one brief period the
world and its romance spread out before them on a magic carpet
called the Yankee.

    ~ 150 ~

 - end Chapter 14 -

To Chapter 15.

=================================================================== AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Fourteen 1. Yankee's Wander-World by Irving and Electa Johnson (New York. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1949) 2. Shamrock V's Wild Voyuge Home by Irving Johnson (Springfield, Mass.: Milton Bradley Co., 1933). 3. For other episodes of appendectomies in this part of the world, see the voyages of William Robinson and the Cap Pilar. 4. See other accounts, including Robinson, the Cap Pilar, Kauffman and Mefferd, the Strouts, and others. Practically every voyager who visited the Galapagos mentioned Senora Cobos and her life story. 5. Of all the accounts of the eccentric colonists in the Galapagos, that of Electa's in Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee is the most sym- pathetic and accurate. 6. One of the Johnsons' sons was named after a Pitcairn leader, Parkin Christian. 7. Mangareva, in the Gambiers, will be remembered as the scene of the tragic and sinister story of the mad priest Pere Laval, who destroyed most of the native population with his grandiose schemes of a feudal Popian empire. 8. Aboard the Patria when it was wrecked was none other than James Norman Hall, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty. 9. Among the many shipboard romances that flowered on Yankee voyages was that of Steve Johnson and Mary Booth, who were married subsequently.

To Chapter 15.

Return to Table of Contents.