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Electra Johnson, 95; With Husband, Told of Adventures Sailing Around Globe 7 Times

December 04, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Electra "Exy" Johnson, who with her late husband, Irving, circumnavigated the globe seven times in 25 years with amateur crews and chronicled their adventures in books, travelogues and National Geographic articles, has died. She was 95.

Johnson died of natural causes Nov. 19 in Hadley, Mass., said her son, Robert.

In recent years, the doyenne of sailing helped fund two brigantine sailing ships named the Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson, which were launched in 2002 by the nonprofit Los Angeles Maritime Institute. The tall ships sail out of San Pedro to Santa Catalina Island and beyond for the TopSail program, established in 1991 to benefit at-risk youths.

But long before Exy Johnson the ship set sail, Exy Johnson the person was happily at home on the water.

The former Electra Search was born in Rochester, N.Y., graduated from Smith College, and attended UC Berkeley for a year. After a summer in France, she returned aboard the schooner Wanderbird -- falling in love with the rugged mate, Irving McClure Johnson, and his sea-roving lifestyle.

Married in 1932, the Johnsons became pioneers in introducing young people to the joy, art, discipline and plain hard work of sailing. In tandem, the couple sailed a schooner, a brigantine and a ketch -- each named Yankee -- more miles than an astronaut's round trip to the moon.

Aboard their schooner Yankee, they girdled the globe three times before World War II intervened. They searched for aviator Amelia Earhart, whose plane disappeared near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

They determined the death of an eccentric Baroness von Wagner, who in the early 1920s declared herself empress of a nudist Eden on lonely Charles Island in the Galapagos group. And they discovered five previously uncharted South Sea islands and named them for Johnson family members.

After the war, with a newly outfitted brigantine named Yankee, the Johnsons led crews -- primarily ages 17 to 25 -- on four more world voyages. A favorite port of call remained Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, peopled by descendants of the fabled mutineers of the HMS Bounty who jumped ship and settled there in 1790. In 1957, the Johnsons recovered the ship's anchor in Bounty Bay, which they encouraged residents to preserve along with other important historic relics.

Unlike today's underprivileged youths who sail aboard the Johnsons' namesakes in Los Angeles Harbor, the two dozen well-to-do young people who boarded the Yankee for each cruise paid for the privilege of adventuring with the Johnsons.

In 1947, the going rate for the 18-month sailing lesson and visits to about 120 ports of call was $4,860.

Because of Irving Johnson's knowledge of South Sea islands, he was made a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve in 1941 and assigned to making charts for use by troops.

He sailed aboard a Navy aircraft carrier and did extensive diving -- exploring passages and blasting new ones out of coral -- in preparation for U.S. invasion forces.

In civilian life, before and after the war, the Johnsons divided their time into three-year cycles: 18 months at sea and 18 months ashore writing, lecturing and making films about their remarkable adventures. Summers at home meant leading Girl Scout Mariners on cruises along the New England coast.

When their sons, Arthur and Robert, were born, the babies learned to climb rigging almost as soon as they could walk.

"The Yankee is our home," Irving Johnson, who died in 1991, once said. "My wife and I have lived in her with our children for years. It just so happens that the world passes by our front door."

Among the couple's half-dozen books about their seafaring life were "Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee," "Sailing to See" and "Yankee's Wander-World."

A Times reviewer, writing about "Wander-World" in 1949, recommended that readers voyage vicariously through the book, which he said provided a "whacking good time."

The Johnsons narrated travelogues at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles in the early 1950s before such chronicles became mainstays on television. Both "The Latest Voyage of the Brigantine Yankee" in 1950 and "Cruise of the Brigantine Yankee" in 1953 earned Times reviewers' praise.

National Geographic was a ready publisher of the Johnsons' articles and travel film footage, and produced its own specials about the sea-roving couple.

After the Johnsons gave up sailing the brigantine and leading world voyages in 1958, they christened a ketch Yankee and used it privately to explore European waterways until 1975.

Johnson is survived by her younger son, Robert, of Sherborn, Mass.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for today in Hadley.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, Berth 84, San Pedro, CA 90731; or to Mystic Seaport Museum Inc., P.O. Box 6000, Mystic, CT 06355, or to Sea Education Assn., P.O. Box 6, Woods Hole, MA 02543.

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