Class of 2016: Exy Johnson

Nine new members of the US National Sailing Hall of Fame will be inducted at a ceremony on October 29-30 in San Francisco, CA. Roger Vaughan provides this report on sail training pioneer, adventurer and author Harriet Electa Search “Exy” Johnson, one of the members of the 2016 induction class:


At Smith College, Electa Search had become friends with Gwen Bohning, who would marry Warwick Tompkins, skipper of the pilot schooner Wander Bird. Tompkins was making Atlantic crossings with paying customers at the time. A non-sailor, Exy joined Gwen on a voyage and met Irving Johnson, who was on Wander Bird’s crew.

One brisk evening at sea, Irving tucked Exy under his arm and carried her to the end of a yard arm for an unobstructed view of the sunset. It was love at first fright.

The Johnsons were a unique team. Neither of them could have carried off the ambitious plan of making world voyages without the other. Captain Irving managed the boat and the sailing, while First Mate Exy worked just as hard at the mountain of logistics involved, and the advertising and public relations.

Exy was the writer in the family, responsible for those Rochester Times-Herald, New York Times, and National Geographic pieces from exotic lands, and the eight books that brought their voyages alive, stimulating the dreams of young readers. She also had the babies (two boys), mothering and educating the children afloat while managing the galley, and standing watches.

On the tall ships race from Bermuda to New York Harbor in 1976, Exy and I were watch mates. She insisted on taking her turn going down the narrow, vertical metal ladder into the mad clatter of the engine room for half hour stints.

In her own sweet way, Exy was as tough as her husband, and as committed. During a stopover in Egypt on one voyage, a wall Irving was standing on collapsed under him.

Irving was badly injured, bleeding from 27 puncture wounds in his body. A crewman reported that Exy rushed to her unconscious husband, held him close and whispered, “Irving, if you can hear me, and if there is any reason you don’t want pictures taken, make a movement.” When Johnson didn’t move, Exy looked up and nodded at the photographer to proceed.