Industry mourns longtime California sailmaker

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Swede Johnson, a Hall of Fame member of the Balboa Yacht Club and a longtime Baxter & Cicero sailmaker, died Jan. 14 in Costa Mesa, Calif. He was 95.

Johnson’s sail designs won Star Class world championships, Transpacs and countless dinghy races.

More than a few Southern California sailmakers, including Dave Ullman and Scott Allan, began their careers with Johnson’s encouragement, fellow sailor Skip Allan wrote for Sailing Scuttlebutt.

Allan said Johnson designed and built the first small boat tiller pilot in his garage.

He also invented a clock that divided time into tenths to ease the job of race committees dealing with handicaps. Most people would just muse on ideas such as that, but Johnson actually made the clocks in finished boxes and many are still in use today, Allan said.

Johnson loved music, handcrafted his own instruments and played guitar with his beloved Channel Island Guppies.

Allan said Johnson was considered by many to be the cutting edge of radio-controlled model boats. He built countless ship’s models and especially favored schooners.

Allan said that when Humphrey Bogart died, Lauren Bacall asked Johnson to build a model of Bogie’s’ favorite, Santana. Johnson did so and the model was displayed on the pulpit at Bogart’s funeral.

Allan said Johnson was the best of shipmates, a man of many skills and calm demeanor. He always listened with his eyes as well as his ears, giving careful thought to what you had to say before he spoke. The answer was always worth the wait.

Allan said Johnson loved children and could often be found aboard his Cal 20, Taco II, anchored at White’s Cove on Catalina, strumming his guitar while a group of children turned Taco’s cockpit into an aquarium.