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Home > Daily News > Captains of Ships – Simon Johnson

Captains of Ships – Simon Johnson

To condense Simon’s life into a few thousand words seems at best a shame, and at worst downright disrespectful, but it is exceptional to encounter someone who has slumbered with snakes, battled black widows, and fled a country – all before the age of 13.  It’s not too tricky to imagine how eventful the rest of his life has panned out.

The story starts in January 1965 in Rhodesia, where Simon and his twin sister Tessa were born to a fourth generation Rhodesian mother and a father who’d arrived from Britain in his early 20s and joined the police force.  Together with younger sister Colette (three is the secret number for African siblings – if one gets injured with a snake bite, another can stay with them, while the other gets help), they grew up in a rural village without running water or mains electricity, and life was idyllic.

Simon’s youth was brimming with wildlife and nature.  He became very good at watching his step so as not to disturb all manner of snakes, spiders, scorpions, and poisonous ants.  He and his sisters would don long socks and sleeves to protect themselves from venom and the fierce sunshine, and each was accustomed to the noise of wild hyena and lions.  Simon could identify birds simply from the tracks they left or the sound they made, and how far away wild animals were from their paw prints and dung.  He didn’t wait for the world to come to him, he went out to learn and discover and is full of gratitude for his wholesome pre-internet youth.  Sadly, the idyll wasn’t to last.

Crucially, Simon’s father formed part of the prosecution when former President Robert Mugabe was charged with his own brother’s murder and jailed for 11 years.  In 1974, Mugabe managed to escape and, by 1980, was Prime Minister of the newly-declared Republic of Zimbabwe.  In the intervening years, Simon’s father had entered Government.  He knew his card was marked and they would not survive a Mugabe regime.  Clutching two suitcases apiece and the sum total of £640, the family fled first to Pretoria, where they were each given a British passport, and then took a long flight to Heathrow.  A cousin of a cousin put them up in their dining room in Kettering.

It was the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent.  The chaos of riots, strikes, unemployment and snow came as quite a shock.  Simon desperately missed Africa and cried himself to sleep for months.  With nothing to occupy the long dark evenings, and little in common with his peers who wanted to talk football and not lions, Simon decided to learn navigation.  At the age of 14, he enrolled on a National Marine Correspondence Yacht Master course.  As well as breezing through his regular schoolwork, Simon passed his Yacht Master theory with ease.

Despite Rhodesia being landlocked, Simon’s interest in yachting had been piqued from reading Swallows and Amazons in his early teens.  It captured his imagination and had him itching to leap in a boat and embark on an adventure.  Several large dams were built from the 1950s, irrigating the great plains allowing farmers to grow bumper crops of fruit and vegetables.  The resultant lakes provided Simon with an outlet for his sailing cravings and he managed to obtain a little boat and loved every moment on the water.

In spring 1979, he was once more desperate to get in a boat.  He spent every penny of his pocket money on a Competent Crew course and joined a 31ft sailing boat captained by Tony Harris.  It was Simon’s first encounter with a tiller, winch and proper compass, and he keenly absorbed everything.  They sailed the Solent and across to the Channel Islands – his first night sail.  After that, he hung around the marina and traded boat cleaning for mile builders.  Soon, Simon had his Yacht Master – the youngest ever at the time.

In order to keep up his regular schooling in tandem with copious sailing opportunities, Simon went to Christies in London to auction a pocket watch left to him by his godmother.  The sale funded boarding school in St Peter Port Guernsey where he did O Levels and A Levels – grabbing every chance to discard his uniform for the sea.

Education complete, the aforementioned Tony recognised Simon’s demonstrable talents and invited him to join his business as a partner.  Together they set up Scimitar Sailing in Gibraltar, making good use of its tidal waters and British status to establish the first ever RYA teaching establishment outside the UK.  Simon recalls his first ocean trip to Gibraltar, returning via the French canals.  So flawless was his astro navigation that, aside from Robin Knox-Johnston, Simon was the only person insured to sail the Bay of Biscay any month of the year.  He and Tony built up a fleet of 20-plus boats and represented British boat builder Westerly to boot.  Simon also earned a fine reputation for delivering boats.  Needless to say the business went well, but he felt there was something bigger out there for him so, age 22, he sold up.

Money in his back pocket, Simon decided to put some unfinished business to rest and went to Manchester University to study maths.  His timing was impeccable.  All around him unemployment was rising, interest rates doubled, house repossessions hit record levels and companies were folding.  Degree in hand, he went straight to an auction and picked up 22 metre John Illingworth-designed schooner Robert Gordon for £33,000.  She’d recently been seized by British customs for attempting to smuggle in 4.3 tons of high-grade cannabis resin from Cyprus, although she had been built with slightly better intentions in mind as a training sailing vessel.  Family and friends helped with the refurbishment and, complete with Colefax and Fowler fabrics and Royal Doulton crockery, she was ready for Caribbean charter.

Originally designed to be run by a dozen cadets in the North Sea, Simon had to tweak Robert Gordon’s sail handling and steering so she could be managed by a trio – Simon, a chef and a deckie – and was positioned in Antigua ready for business.  Unable to afford twice-yearly transatlantic crossings, Robert Gordon also stayed in Antigua for the off-season doing in-between hurricane charters.  It was tough.  Simon needed two weeks charter per month, every month, just to pay the boat’s running costs.  He put everything into that boat.  He paid his crew every week without fail, but was essentially known as an impoverished owner-operator sailor with no shoes who went through the bins for discarded treasure.

One of Simon’s greatest finds was a broken generator that he stripped back and fixed, then had on his boat for years.  While one of his most amusing stories was a lack of starter motor forcing him to do a month of sail-only charter.  Of course Simon never let on to his guests, just told them they were in for an authentic sailing experience.  English Harbour became his greatest ally when he discovered it was the only Caribbean marina you could sail into; all the others were in the lee and far too calm.  All in all it was a vibrant seven-year adventure.  It came to an end when both Simon and Robert Gordon had physically taken about as much as they could.  Simon was shattered from gruelling hours and the boat was teetering on the brink of serious repairs.  In 1998, he joined 55 metre motoryacht Southern Cross III.

Simon recruited great sailors and claimed Southern Cross III to be the best charter boat in the world.  The partying was off the scale, they entertained Steven Spielberg, Elton John, Princess Diana and more.  Once more he was forced to use his ingenuity when an MTU engine went mid-charter.  He convinced the guests of the virtue of renting a Mangusta to take them around the Monaco coastline, while keeping Southern Cross III on her privileged berth.  Simon then slyly flew the MTU guys in to effect the repairs.  At the close of year one, Simon had made £1.2 million profit for the owner.

Southern Cross III was also funding the ailing Robert Gordon.  All Simon’s wages and tips went on maintaining the boat, with a captain in place so he could use her whenever he liked.  The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta was always at the top of his list.  After notching up a handful of second and third spots, he finally grasped the trophy in 2006.  Simon walked around with a grin on his face for a good three weeks.

Back to 2002, after a falling out with the owners’ rep for wanting a slice of crew tips (not on Simon’s watch), he left Southern Cross III and was put in charge of the Aga Khan’s fleet of seven yachts, including Kalamoun, Alamshar and Shergar – he ended up running the latter.  The 47 metre Lürssen had twin turbines and could travel from Nice to Mykonos in 20 hours.  Using both turbines, she’d burn 3,500 litres of fuel each hour.

After Shergar, Simon had shorter spells on 41 metre sailing yacht Helena C and 54 metre Benetti Midlandia, before being headhunted to join 77 metre Devonport Samar.  After 30 months and 26,000 nautical miles, Simon was bone-weary once again and, despite the owner wafting an extra €5,000 under his nose, some time off was far more appealing.

Having kicked back for the summer, Simon did a spot of relief work on 82 metre Amevi, then joined 53 metre Elisabeth F for three years, followed by 18 months on 65 metre Lady Lau.  June 2014 heralded 61 metre St David and then in 2016 Arcadia impresario Philip Green’s 65 metre Lioness V – formerly known as Lionheart.

The interview for Simon’s most recent career move lasted a whole week and took place entirely without his knowledge.  A Lioness V charter guest wanted to build a brand new boat and very much warmed to Simon.  Fortunately, the feeling was mutual and off he went to Turkey to build the largest yacht to date from the Turquoise shipyard – 77 metre Go.  Taking care of everything from teaspoon and tender selection to recruiting a 25-strong crew, Simon welcomed the owner and guests onboard the day after the boat was signed over in June 2018.  He has since gone on to visit 112 ports in eight months, covered some 12,000 nautical miles, and, having hit the jackpot of  good boat, good owner, good crew, is happy to stay with Go as long as they’ll keep him.

Of course there is a time when Simon will retire and he wants to pass on his wealth of experience.  He has stood on the shoulders of others and it’s his turn to share his knowledge.  When there are no guests on board, each day, between 11am and midday, Simon holds classes on Go’s bridge, particularly in skills that are gradually being lost, such as interpreting shipping forecasts and the pre-GPS navigation of old.  He fosters an environment of encouragement, and wants his crew to share a sense of togetherness.  It’s a hard slog to get a job on a boat, and an even harder slog to get a job on a good boat, so Simon had a warm flutter in his heart when a crew member organised a Greenie Appreciation Day at a Palma bar, buying beers and answering questions.  It meant that they’d truly grasped what it’s all about.  He has an extraordinary crew and is extraordinarily proud.

Simon has no family, as he believes to be good at something you have to be truly committed, not just dip your toe in, and as such treats his crew like family.  He has other great friends in the business, many sailors, only a few landlubbers, and has a particular soft spot for Richard Masters who looks after the yacht’s safety, accounting and so on via his company Master Yachts.

After 36 years at sea, Simon doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore.  He just does the best he can.  Whoever employs him gets the mileage of his extensive experience.  And experience has left Simon in a very privileged financial position.  He has a portfolio of rental properties, a 1961 Fairey Huntsman yacht that he keeps on the Hamble, several garages replete with classic cars, and a camper van on which to pack his hang glider and enjoy instant escapism.

Arguably, there are few adventures left for Simon to tick off.  With both British and Spanish pilot licences (the plane licence came first, followed by the boat licence and lastly the driving licence), he is a keen flier and owns two planes, including a 1941 Boeing Stearman Biplane.  His great ambition is to complete the Crete2Cape Vintage Air Rally.  Taking in 27 stops and breathtaking African scenery, it’s the Paris-Dakar for planes, and Simon fully intends to take part.

By Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com