Ralph Johnson developed a taste for the sea more than 60 years ago, but his “moment of clarity” came in 1980 when he decided to take a couple of years off from a banking career to learn boatbuilding from his father-in-law, Pert Lowell. Johnson loved the trade so much he never went back to the bank.
Thirty-eight years later, Johnson and his wife, Joanne, still run the Pert Lowell Co. from a shop at their home in Newbury, Massachusetts. Best-known for manufacturing mast hoops, blocks, hanks and other traditional sailing tackle, Pert Lowell Co. also has built more than 2,000 Town Class sailboats since the design was launched in 1932. Also known as “Townies,” these lapstrake boats are beloved for their graceful lines and kind sea manners.
Johnson’s handiwork can be found on ships near and far, including on the USS Constitution, the Pride of Baltimore II, the Spirit of Massachusetts, the Amistad and others. Johnson’s largest mast hoops are on the lumber schooner C.A. Thayer, berthed at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Most notable, however, are the 250 blocks and 312 sail hanks Johnson crafted for the HMS Rose, the tall ship that appeared in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.
First memory of being on a boat: My first memory of being on a boat is from junior high school. A friend of my parents had bought a Highliner runabout. They were made in Newbury in the ’50s and had two cockpits. It held seven of us, and we raced up and down the Merrimack River. There was a lot less traffic on the river 60 years ago. I do not recall ever seeing a no-wake buoy.
First boat you owned: My wife and I received a new fiberglass Townie from her parents as a wedding present in June 1970. We sailed her on the Parker River and would venture down to the southern tip of Plum Island. The spot is called Sandy Point. Since the Parker is a tidal river and Sandy Point was six miles away, we were often sailing around sandbars in the river at low tide. Sometimes we would beach the boat and go wading in the tidal pools.
Last or current boat: I own no boats at the moment but maintain several of my wife’s fleet. She has a wood Townie that I built in 2004 and a 17-foot outboard skiff — also in wood — that we built in 2008 to a John Gardner design.
Favorite boat you’ve owned (or skippered): During the fall of 1995, I was asked by some friends if I would help them with a canal boat they had rented on the Burgundy Canal in France. They knew nothing about boats but wanted to do this trip, so they hired me as the captain. I had to pay my airfare; everything else they would cover. I enjoyed myself so much that my wife and I have taken four subsequent canal trips in France. One trip was with 10 friends. We rented two 47-foot boats. You must understand that the canals are 6 feet deep and perhaps 60 feet wide, and the maximum speed of the vessels is 6 knots.
Your dream boat: My dream boat is a 17-foot keel sailboat called the Fleet-O-Wing. It was designed in 1939 by Aage Nielsen for my father-in-law. I found the strongback for building one in a neighbor’s barn in 1984. In the ’30s Aage was working for Sparkman & Stephens in Boston. I called the office in New York City and inquired if a set of plans still existed. I was told that if I were willing to pay for the research, they would find the plans. It took a month, but they arrived one day via UPS. Needless to say, I set about building the boat. We sailed her one summer before she was sold to a family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Currently the Fleet-O-Wing is in Castine Maine, the property of the Maine Maritime Academy. What I remember most about the boat is that she would move along in the lightest of air and that she would come about on a dime.
Most rewarding sailing experience: A trip along the Atlantic coast of Spain, the section of the country called Galicia. We were invited by friends who had sailed their 51-foot Gulfstream from Boston to the Canary Islands and then to Baiona, Spain. They were going to be part of a rendezvous of 15 sailboats planning to cruise from Baiona up to Cape Finisterre and back. Sail during the day and put into port for dinner parties at night, all arranged ahead of time. The wind was constant from the west, so it was a port tack north and a starboard tack returning to the south. The rendezvous was arranged by a shipbuilder located in Vigo, Spain, on the Atlantic coast. He and his son have the distinction of being the maintainers of the royal yacht of the Spanish king.
Scariest adventure aboard: Aboard the same Gulfstream trying to transit the Cape Cod Canal during a thunderstorm, with the wind blowing from varying directions, sizeable waves and a plethora of boats having trouble keeping headway. Also, it was raining so hard you could not see much beyond the bow.
Most memorable experience aboard: The one that comes to mind immediately involves the same Gulfstream, sailing north off the Spanish coast in a light breeze. The water was sparkling, the autopilot working, having a simple lunch of pan con tomate and red wine. It was idyllic.
Longest time you’ve spent at sea without setting foot on land: We were returning from Cape Finisterre to Baiona on the Gulfstream, two days of leisurely cruising.
Favorite destination so far: We are ready to try something new, perhaps sailing around Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. We have been to both places several times but have not had a chance to get on the water.
Favorite nautical book: Patrick O’Brian’s series is great, and I especially love Master and Commander. We made over 250 parts for the HMS Rose when she was converted to star as the Surprise in the movie Master and Commander, starring Russell Crow as Jack Aubrey.
Favorite nautical cause you support and why: Mystic Seaport. It is one big boat shop that tries to keep traditional ship skills alive.
Favorite quote about the sea: “Time and tide wait for no man.” This was my father-in-law’s favorite. “You do not have to know how to swim, but it does help.” This is mine.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.