In the early 60s, when John first started what became a yachting career, it was run on a basis of “if you can do you it, you can have it”. There were no requirements for any sort of training as it was assumed that you got that on the job. John was 25 when he went to Plymouth College of Maritime Studies. He started in January and sat his exams in April, around four months of study in the company of mates, second mates, and half a dozen people like John simply looking for a professional qualification. Even if he passed all his exams with honours, he would not get a certificate, just a letter from the board of trade stating he had made the grade but would not be given a full certificate until he was 40 and still had 50% vision left in one eye. It was certainly different back then.
John’s earliest experience on the water was with rented rowing boats on Ireland’s Wicklow coast trolling for mackerel for hours on end, losing many a rowlock over the side – much to the annoyance of the renter. Having abandoned a career in agriculture, he went off to the Channel Islands in search of waterborne adventure. Based in Jersey, there was plenty of work in construction and plenty of boats. John joined a rather old ketch, Elaine, which had no engine and a distinct lack of good gear. The owner and he sailed from France to the Isle of Wight where, having been driven ashore on St Catherine’s Point, they were rescued by the RNLI. John says his continued existence on Earth is thanks to those men of the RNLI and he makes sure to remember them any time he’s back in the British Isles.
John returned to Jersey after this ‘adventure’, and a chance meeting in a pub led to an interview with the skipper of a 50 foot motor fishing boat which was due to sail for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. They set sail on 2 January 1963 with a crew of five including the skipper, a certificated Merchant Marine captain.
“We had our share of incidents from fuel barrels breaking loose in a gale to running out of cooking gas after a pipe leaked. Running out of lube oil from a leak in the gear box was rather more serious as we had to shut down the engine. Fortunately, the captain was handy with the Aldis signal lamp and he called up a passing freighter who gave us not only oil but also bread sugar, margarine and cigarettes. Meanwhile, an irreparable leak in the main engine exhaust filled the interior with black smoke which permeated everything and left all of us, and our possessions, black. We were a fine sight when we arrived in Tortola a few days later.”
Next, John joined Windjammer Cruises on their topsail schooner Caribbee and then left in the US Virgin Islands to join a yacht, Polaris, for a round island passage to Martinique for a haul out in Fort de France. By late summer, work had pretty much dried up and all of the yacht crew in those days were West Indian. John had a promise of a job on a harbour dredger in the US Virgin Islands, if he could get a visa. He took a chance and flew down to Martinique to see the US consulate. Irritatingly, there was no luck with the visa and, with no other work in sight and a diminishing cash reserve, something had to change.
During this period, John had managed to cosy up with the crew of Swedish banana carrier, Sandahm, which was being hand loaded in Fort de France – the last ship to be loaded for Europe that year. A chap from California had joined the group, and the Swedish Bosun suggested that if they wanted to sail with them he could get them on board as stowaways. He was as good as his word, and the pair of them were slipped on board to be ‘found’ the next day. The captain was distinctly unamused. John was sent to the engine room, where he was given a bucket of hot water liberally dosed with caustic soda, a handful of cotton rags, and dispatched to the lower part of the engine room to clean machinery. The port police in Le Havre made short work of him and escorted John to the ferry, whereupon his passport was handed to the purser, only to be returned once the ferry set sail.
“My poor parents, who rarely knew where I was, were probably relieved when I went away again,” admitted John. “My father, a psychiatrist, diagnosed me as having a ‘psychopathic wanderlust’.”
In the 60s, Mallorca was the place to be for a sailing ship enthusiast. All the transportation was done by timber-built schooners and all were rigged to sail in some degree. They were all making money, the schooners were well painted and the brass in the wheelhouse was polished. Where Astilleros de Mallorca is now, there was a shipyard that hauled a schooner on a greasy ways with mules turning around a capstan.
Needless to say, jobs for day workers were in short supply and John walked the docks of Real Club Náutico in search of anything. Enquiring after one schooner, an English owner came out and asked if he could splice wire. John’s answer was ‘no’, but he promised to find out as soon as possible. A few years down the line, John was skipper on that very same schooner.
Eventually, John found work as a hand on a ketch bound for Poole. There were three of them on board, including the owner, and they all got on well rotating watches three-on-three-off. John was on the wheel as they crossed the Bay of Biscay at night in a near gale of wind. His shipmates were safely below with the hatches closed. John heard the roar of the wave as it came onboard and he was swept off the helm, allowing him just enough time to see the yacht underwater before fetching up in the mizzen mast shrouds. Back on the helm, the cockpit door cracked open where an enquiring voice, clearly with no intention of stepping on deck, asked politely if he was still onboard.
Next came a spell on steel ketch Patrina. A charterer, Stephen Currier, heard John speak of the Balearic schooners and asked him if it was possible to convert a schooner into a yacht. John believed it was, so Stephen matched Patrina’s wages to send him off in search of a suitable schooner. The quest barely got out of the starting blocks as, while waiting for the ferry to Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, John stepped into the path of a speeding motorcyclist and spent six weeks in hospital with a fractured skull. He was left with limited hearing on his right as a result.
The hunt was resumed and John visited every port in Spain and Portugal before Stephen called asking him to check out the 1876-built Amphitrite in Mallorca. She was sailed to Tarragona for survey, but the boss changed his mind having been advised she was too old. (As an aside, Amphitrite is still sailing around the Baltic as a training vessel.) Stephen set the next task, to find a 50 foot yacht – but she had to be in New England for August. This was John’s first time as skipper. Sandavore took a northern route, but she was leaking so much through the garboards that they bore off to the Azores and across to Bermuda. Sandavore arrived on time – just.
After a few tweaks in the yard and a tightening of the keel bolts, Sandavore was sailed to the Virgin Islands, where they would meet the owner for a Christmas cruise. A horrendous thunderstorm sealed the fate of Stephen and his wife as their private plane came down, shockingly never to be seen again.
John was in limbo. He took a place as mess man in the brigantine Romance and, in the weeks that followed, learnt more practical seamanship from the captain than in the previous five years. A message was received saying that John was wanted as skipper on the brigantine Centurion, so he happily took a flight to Antigua and sailed on Centurion for the next two years.
In 1968, the new yachtmaster tickets were being prepared so John decided that was the thing to do. By then he’d married an American girl and together they headed back to Plymouth College of Maritime Studies, where John spent five months studying for his Yachtmaster Ocean. This is a ticket you can earn in a week today, so you can imagine the depth of learning that has been sacrificed.
It was then time to return to the States and find a job. First up, he shifted the yawl Kim from the US Virgin Islands to Antigua, then John flew to Malta to take part in the Midsea Race and subsequently brought 73 foot Sparkman & Stephens Bolero back to the Caribbean for charter work. The next year, 1972, they duly returned the yacht to the Med and left her in Málaga.
There was a summer racing on a ketch called Maruffa on the east coast of New England after which, at the end of the season, John took up delivering new small boats down to the Caribbean. It was cold, hard work, with just a sextant, a radio receiver and a good watch. They would do one delivery and then go skiing for ten days before picking up the next boat in Rhode Island where they were being built.
As a result of the deliveries, John was offered a job managing a small boatyard just outside New York. His wife took over the running of the Patrick Ellam delivery agency, pretty much the only one in those days. When the crews came back from a job, they would stop by the bar next to John’s boatyard and regale him with sea stories. John inevitably became discontented with his work and decided it was time to return to sea.
Flooding the market with copies of his CV, John and his wife picked up skipper and cook aboard Sorrento, a Phillip Rhodes design ketch of 82 feet. Sorrento was a busy yacht, chartering in the Caribbean in the winter and the Med in the summer. John was on her for four years from July 1973 to October 1977 when she was sold. His wife had gone ashore by this stage, having had enough of yachting and the life that goes with it. Foreseeing the sale of Sorrento, John bought a 38 foot gaff ketch named Jenny Wren built in 1927. When Sorrento’s new owners realised they had bought with the yacht some charter commitments, they made John an offer he could not refuse and he stayed until the end of the summer.
John and his brother David decided on a voyage with Jenny Wren around the Atlantic Islands, with the prime destination being the Falkland Islands. There was a lot to do and only six weeks to complete the work, which included a complete strip and paint in the interior, engine rebuild, and almost all new rigging.
The Falklands proved to be so appealing that they stayed for six weeks, running cargo for the Falklands Island Company, before returning to Antigua where a new job awaited John – except it didn’t. The owner had decided to retain the current skipper and John was handed about 4,000 dollars as compensation. Meanwhile, John’s wife had rather suspected that he’d drowned somewhere around the Falklands and, as he hadn’t, asked for a divorce.
It was summer 1978 and John ran Nicholson Yacht sales while living on Jenny Wren. He then captained Zolana, a 250 ton lump of impractical steel ketch, followed by 116 foot schooner Panda and then put his CV forward for 105 foot America. The owner feared he’d worked on too many boats, but John retorted this meant a lot of experience, and he signed on 2 April 1979. In the next 18 months, they covered 35,000 miles, including a couple of Sail Training Races in the Irish Sea.
In autumn 1979, America was in a very congested Canaries harbour and there was no room to manoeuvre, so they hailed a RIB to give them a shove. Unbeknownst to John, his future wife was on the mother ship to that RIB. He met Lucy again in the Caribbean and she sailed back to Europe with him from where she returned home to Scotland. Meanwhile, America’s owner had his head turned by a faster schooner and tracked down designer Arthur Holgate to build him one. America was sold, and Astilleros de Mallorca was chosen for the new project – Jessica. John asked Lucy to join him, and for her hand in marriage – she said ‘yes’.
It took a long time to build 200-plus-foot Jessica. During this time, John was married and had two children. The shipyard owner said it was easier to make babies than to build ships. She was launched in 1984 and was a very strong, fast, powerful yacht designed to be self-sufficient and low maintenance. In fact, they went from Palma to Australia in around 55 days burning only half their fuel reserves. John spent a long time away from home, perhaps seeing Lucy and the children for only eight weeks in a year and a half.
Jessica was sold to Alan Bond in 1988, and John stayed on board with Phil Judge as second captain until 1989, when an offer came to take over 63 metre Creole, the world’s largest wooden sailing yacht – he couldn’t refuse. She was in a sad state in Toulon, but with John’s help under the loving stewardship of the Gucci family, they got her sailing. For three or four years Creole raced in the classic regattas. Racing a three-masted schooner is quite hair-raising but, with stellar crew including Niall Robinson, Nick Hill, Mark Ratsey and Diego Colon, it also proved to be quite the thrill.
In 1995, Maurizio Gucci was tragically murdered and, once everyone had recovered from the shock, John was asked to stay on. Over the next five years, buyers were sought, but none were found, so Creole was kept by daughters Allegra and Alessandra. After disagreements over the yacht’s future, the family lawyer sent a literal and metaphorical ‘Dear John’, and Niall invited him to join Savarona in Miami as staff captain. She had 50 crew of all nationalities and, when the Turkish captain was given the option of National Service or jail, John found himself master of a 4,750 ton yacht. Beyond the 3,000 ton limit of John’s ticket, a new Turkish captain was promised but never materialised, so he returned the yacht to Istanbul at the season’s end.
Needing to spend more time at home in Mallorca, John entered into a four-months-on-four-months-off arrangement on motoryacht Senses. In the only four months he completed before the owner decided to lay up, John was in port just 17 days and the rest of the time was playtime with a toy cabinet stuffed with sailing boats, high speed motorboats, jetskis, kayaks and a seaplane. Returning to Mallorca to restore a ruined olive mill almost felt like a rest.
Spring 2002 saw an offer from 158 foot three-masted gaff schooner Shenandoah and, having decided he rather liked the new Italian owner, John accepted. The boat went here, there and everywhere from Greece and Turkey to the French Riviera and Egypt. With the British set to join forces with the United States for the invasion of Iraq, flying a red ensign in Egypt suddenly didn’t look too clever, so John suggested something completely different – a tour of the west coast of Scotland. The owner brought his helicopter and they had a fabulous time cruising around searching for places for the chopper to land.
In the winter of 2003-4, Shenandoah sailed from Palma for the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It was the adventure of a lifetime and a long way from Palma. The return voyage from the Falklands to Antigua was nonstop. The Pacific was next on the cards but, not keen to leave Lucy rattling around their large Mallorcan country home much longer, he stepped off in Antigua in 2004.
There followed relief work on 20 or more motoryachts as part of Malcolm Kelliher’s project, Relief Captains. In early 2008, an email came in from a 34 metre turn-of-the-century gaff cutter Merrymaid. A winter cruise was being planned around Cape Horn and they wanted his opinion as captain. John took a sharp intake of breath and voiced that it perhaps wasn’t the best idea. Nothing more seemed to come of it, so he helped 43.9 metre motoryacht Marlena travelling from St Barth’s to Grand Bahama. In time, a follow-up email arrived stating that John clearly wasn’t interested in the Merrymaid jaunt and would he please send a bill so the relationship could be terminated.
The next trip John did with Shenandoah was from the Seychelles up to Istanbul. A force seven wind whipped up just west of the Yemeni island of Socotra, and the yacht was covered first in a layer of sticky salt followed by a coating of dust. There were big concerns over pirates at the time and he didn’t suspect they came out in that weather, but sure enough a couple of canoes seemed to be menacingly heading straight for them. Completely helpless, John advised the crew to put their hands in the air, but the ‘pirates’ paid zero attention and continued to the African coast. As Shenandoah approached the Black Sea, they ran into an enormous squall and visibility vanished, but so too did the dust and salt in the torrential rain. As John’s grandfather always said, “It’s better to be lucky than rich.”
By October, John was in France for the tenth edition of Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. And then, Merrymaid’s owner called. He had a bit of a problem. The boat was in Cape Verde, but all the crew had left and were in Saint-Tropez, and would John help him out of his spot of bother. John replied with a formal email stating his willingness to step in and find a solution. He called on friend, Justin Holvik, who held a Norwegian Master Mariner Certificate (perhaps a little OTT for a gaff cutter) and scooped up a bunch of other crew, including his daughter Laura, another avid keen classic sailor, and headed to Cape Verde.
The owner was undeterred from his Cape Horn plan, so John’s first task was to send him off the ship and get the boat properly ready for this ambitious cruise. Shortly after, with Justin as captain, they set off for South America and Merrymaid did indeed journey to the Falklands, Cape Horn and beyond. John, however, had hopped off in Brazil and was now happily ensconced on 1939-built 30 metre ketch Iduna.
And then in 2009 came Germania Nova. With an overall length of 47 metres, Germania Nova was an exact replica of the 1908 gaff schooner Germania and was under construction in Galicia. John was invited to be build captain and, when the intended mate backed out on account of not speaking Spanish and not wanting to be in Galicia, Justin reappeared as mate. Aside from a brief interlude race training on New York 50 Spartan in New England, a responsive 72 footer that could be brought back from sea to anchorage at full tilt with everything up, John stayed with Germania Nova until her commissioning in 2011. John and Justin then entered into a rotational captaincy right until to 2016, when his counterpart was handed full command. Thereafter, John only sailed the transatlantic passages, until her owners decided to no longer send her to the Caribbean. Jamaica to Palma in spring 2017 marked the end of his captain career – but certainly not his retirement. During spells ashore, John and Lucy restored two ruined country houses, one of which they now live in.
The owners of Hill Robinson Yacht Management got in touch and asked John to become a Director of their new company, Hill Robinson Spain. Nick (Hill) and Niall (Robinson) were good friends of John’s. When John joined Creole, he took Niall with him. Nick had taken captaincy on another yacht but, as soon as time allowed, signed up as joint captain on Creole for a transatlantic. John is thrilled to be colleagues some 30 years on.
Now 76, John is not the retiring sort. There’s no golf, no sitting on beaches, his true interests in life are his farm (full of rocks and pine trees, a silly place for a farm), and Hill Robinson – plus his family, of course. All three daughters have followed John to sea. At the time of interview, the middle one was in the Caribbean with her husband on pretty Fife-designed yacht Latifa, the youngest stuck in STP for the summer on a high-speed carbon fibre and the eldest at home quietly nursing a broken arm.
John has been in yachting 55 years and has literally lost count of how many boats he’s worked on. He’s seen a great number of changes, not all he is comfortable with. John feels there’s too much emphasis on motoryachts, too much money being spent, and too much priority given to push-button sailing. While the latter may mean that a crew member never has to be sent forward on a dangerous dark windy night to get a sail down, it also means that they can be out of touch with the practicalities of sailing and the forces of nature around them. Nonetheless, he is extremely grateful for the opportunities he’s had with some of the world’s finest yachts, and his wife Lucy for putting up with him.
Sarah Forge, firstname.lastname@example.org