Electa Johnson, 95, sailed around the world seven times
HADLEY, Mass. -- Electa "Exy" Johnson, who took young people on seven around-the-world voyages on tall ships, died Friday at a nursing home in Holyoke. She was 95.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Johnson attended Smith College and the University of California at Berkeley. While returning from a summer in France aboard the schooner Wanderbird, she met Irving Johnson, a crew member. They were married in 1933 and she began her adventurous life at sea.
"She knew nothing at all about sailing at the time," said her son, Robert P. Johnson, of Sherborn, who grew up on the ships his parents sailed around the world.
From 1932 to 1958, the couple recruited young people to serve as crew and sailed around the world seven times in an early version of the now-popular programs that build character through outdoor adventure.
At first, they sailed aboard a 92-foot wooden schooner and later on a 96-foot steel brigantine, both called Yankee. Between circumnavigations, they took Girl Scouts on summer cruises along the New England coast.
The couple were the "de facto parents of character-building sail-training," said Jim Gladson, president of the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, a sail training program that named a pair of its training ships after the Johnsons.
The Johnsons toured the country, presenting slide lectures and films about their trips. They wrote eight books and were featured in articles in National Geographic magazine, as well as in the society's films and videos.
In 1958, they built a 50-foot ketch, once again named Yankee, and for the next 18 years they sailed Europe's canals and inland waterways and voyaged up the Nile River.
"They really worked as a pair; they complemented each others' abilities," their son said. His mother "was not the phenomenal hotshot sailor my father was."
"Her abilities were in the linguistics," he said. She was fluent in French and German and spoke six other languages.
"She bought all the food and bartered with islanders, sometimes trading clothing, a machete, or a stick of tobacco for a machine part or whatever else we needed," he recalled.
In 1975 they retired to Hadley, where Irving Johnson had grown up on a farm. He died in 1991.
A memorial service will be held Dec. 4 at in the First Congregational Church of Hadley.
She donated her body to Harvard Medical School.