I am proud to share this story of my late sailing mentor and friend, Len Johnstone. I wish to thank the Lestor family for their permission to reprint the story that initially was contained in the book ‘History of the Sandgate Sailing Clubs 1897-1990.’ Ian Kirk.
‘The Len Johnstone Story.’ by George Lestor, 1990.
A legend in his own lifetime.
Without doubt, the most outstanding and remarkable small boat skipper produced in Sandgate, Queensland, Australia and possibly the world would be Len Johnstone.
Outstanding for his successful career in 12 and 16 ft. Skiffs, outstanding for his natural ability to ‘tune’ a boat for maximum performance, outstanding for his ability to rig and set up a boat, outstanding for his ability to win in the most demanding of all small boats-the completely open 12ft. and 16ft. Skiffs.
These were the older type skiffs-no buoyancy to allow righting after capsizing. A capsize meant finish. No automatic bailers, no exotic sail cloth, no modern fittings and aluminium spars, no trapeze, but heavy steel centreboards, spars, rigging etc. Those who have sailed in this type of boat know the skills required to stay afloat and still drive the boat hard. Those who have never sailed in this type will never know, as sailing skills were far different in those boats.
Remarkable, for Len Johnstone was a paraplegic having lost the use of his legs from a babyhood illness.
Remarkable for his will and determination not to let his disability prevent him from doing things better than most of his able bodied competitors, who were the ‘greats’ of that time.
Remarkable for not letting his disability prevent him from being a winner. His 52 championship wins confirm this.
Len was born to Marina and Watty Johnstone on the 6th of May,1915 and was still a baby when illness struck. This did not deter Len and as he lived close to the water, he soon learnt to swim, becoming a very strong swimmer. When Watty bought the Linton Hope Rater ‘Scott’ in April,1929, Len got the sailing bug. Watty renamed her ‘Shamrock’ and she was sailed by older brother Jack, or Johno as he was usually called. Len served his sailing apprenticeship as bailer boy, which was solid work on a Rater in bay conditions. Later on he sailed Shamrock on several occasions until she was sold to Bowen.
When the Sandgate Unrestricted Sailing Club was formed in 1932, Len decided he would have his own boat and acquired a 12 ft. flat bottomed dinghy.
Without help, he fitted a centreboard case and decking using old packing case timber. He obtained an old mast and fitted all the rigging. He had also learnt to splice and was expert with both rope and wire. The next problem was to get sails. Miss Sandgate (Rater) had ruined her mainsail on a beacon, and it was given to Len. He recut this to suit his boat and sewed it together on his mother’s sewing machine. He was now in business, named the boat ‘Viking’ and sailed her with success in the Unrestricted Club races. He virtually lived in that boat and sailed almost daily. Len still claims that ‘Viking’ could sail higher into the wind than any other boat he owned, and put this down to the very wide wooden centreboard that he used.
As Len grew, his upper body, chest and arms developed quickly and gave him tremendous strength. His determination to be mobile was so great that he used his hands as feet in a crawling motion, hauling his legs behind him. No wheelchair or crutches for Lennie.
Len, and some other enthusiasts, became interested in the 12 ft. Skiff class, and helped form The Sandgate12 ft. Skiff Flying Squadron in December, 1935.He soon obtained a skiff and named her ‘Marina’ after his mother. This was the start of his climb to skiff sailing fame, and he won several Club Championships and also Queensland Championships in this class. World War II put an end to sailing and most Clubs were forced into recess for the duration.
The Club did not resume racing after the War as most members were turning to the 16ft. Skiff which was much better suited to Bay conditions, and cheaper because of sail area restrictions. The 12 ft. Skiff had unrestricted sail area and carried huge spinnakers, plus balloon jib and ringtail. Although this was the end of 12 ft. skiffs at Sandgate, it was not the end for Lennie and the best was still to come.
The Sandgate 16 ft. Skiff Club was formed in 1944 and Lennie immediately came to the fore in this class.
The 16ft. Skiff was the most competitive of all the classes, with several Metropolitan clubs, all with big fleets and big name skippers. To succeed in this class was probably the toughest task in sailing, but this not deter Lennie, and succeed he did. His successes were all the more meritorious because most of his triumphs were in second hand boats, in most cases using second hand gear, against many who could afford new boats and gear regularly. His Championship wins are too extensive to list, but include Club, South Queensland, and Queensland Championships and as a regular State representative in Australian Championships from Brisbane to Perth. He stayed in the 16ft. Skiff class until his retirement in 1957, and had some six or seven skiffs all named ‘Marina’ except one-‘Red Hand’.
Len’s determination to be mobile turned his thoughts to cars and in 1943, he bought his first car, an old Ford A Model Tourer. Ingenuity was needed to enable him to drive so the clutch was modified with some rope and pulleys which allowed him to operate this by hand. A ratchet type lever allowed him to use the footbrake and a hand throttle was fitted to the steering column. He passed his driving test and obtained his license, probably the first Queensland paraplegic to do so. He was now fully mobile and no longer depended on others. Subsequent cars were modified using the same principle until modern automatic cars were produced for paraplegics.
Towards the end of 1946, he decided to get a fishing dinghy and purchased the hull of the 20 year old champion 12 ft. skiff ‘Dove’ from the late Jim Groth.
He decided that she was too good for fishing and with some persuasion from the Brisbane Club, put her back on the water. To do this, he was forced to use his 16 ft. Skiff sails and spars on ‘Dove’ at Bulimba on Saturdays and on the 16ft. Skiff ‘Marina’ on Sundays at Sandgate.
He made history with ‘Dove’ by trouncing new boats with new gear. He climaxed his 12 ft. Skiff career by winning the Australian Championship in ‘Dove’ during the 1946-47 season- 20 years after she had won her first Australian Championship. He left the 12 ft. Skiffs after this to concentrate on 16’s.
After his retirement in 1957, he had a 32 cruising catamaran built, again naming her ‘Marina’, and spent many years cruising the bay in her.
Latter boating activities were confined to a 27 ft. Cabin cruiser Shark Cat.
Len also had a full business life and operated a successful printing business for many years. His older brother Jack had been a printer and taught Len the trade. It was also an eye opener to watch Len at work in his printery. He sold his business in 1977 and retired.
Those who know him, remember him not only for his sailing feats, but for his happy and friendly nature, his willingness to help others, and for his smiling face. He never felt sorry for himself and got an immense amount of enjoyment out of life.
Above all, he was devoted to his mother, now aged 97, and his family.
He is the most unforgettable character I have ever known and am proud to write this story.
(Footnote- Len has of course long gone to sail the wind shifts of the afterlife. He will never be forgotten by those who knew him. Ian Kirk.)
‘Sailing no barrier for the disabled’.
Extract from a Courier Mail article by Ian Grant 12/12/1982.
Sailing really presents no barrier to physically handicapped people who are prepared to show dedication towards mastering the sport.
In the past there have been some remarkable achievements by disabled people with perhaps the most significant being the performance of paraplegic Len Johnstone in winning the 1947 12ft. Skiff Australian Championship with the famed Dove.
Johnstone showed the determination to enjoy the water sport and when he skippered the 20 year old pine planked skiff to victory in that memorable championship on the Brisbane River he made a giant step forward, showing that handicapped people were capable of being successfully integrated into this enjoyable sporting activity.
While Johnstone’s achievement showed great skill to master his unrestricted sail carrying skiff a new breed of handicapped person is being successfully introduced to sailing through a scheme promoted by the Welfare Services Minister, Mr. White.
(This of course has lead to what we now know as ‘Sailability’ a wonderful body that conducts sailing for the disabled- Ian Kirk.)
During the restoration and re-painting of Sea Lark, I decided to apply Silky Oak veneer to the transom. This could be easily applied by vacuum bagging. To do this I needed to build a DIY vacuum bagging system as professional systems were way out of reach.
Vacuum bagging uses a vacuum pump to extract the air from inside a vacuum bag and by doing so compress the part under atmospheric pressure in order for the clamping and hardening process to take place.
I was interested to read Martin's Kortlucke's note a while back on "American Sailing Craft" (1936). It helped to explain to me the wide interest in Australia in wooden boats from that part of the world. My own inspiration comes from the Brits and the rise of the British Victorian gentleman's indulgence in yacht racing. My great grandparents emigrated from England bringing with them a copy of Dixon Kemp's sailing manual printed in 1880 - the year my grandfather was born. My grandmother and her brothers were involved in yachting out of Bulimba at the turn of the century - not the last turn, the one before.
Noosa Classic Boat Regatta Messabout
Once again the messabout we held in conjunction with the Classic Boat Regatta was a great success. The Regatta was very well attended and filled the marina at Tewantin. The boats were on display to the public till 11:00 a.m. There was a varied selection of gleaming varnish and polished fittings, mainly power boats of all shapes and sizes.
members Coastal Cruising 2016
passage planner, wooden boat association of queensland, WBAQ, small boats, sailing, sailing adventure, boat construction
Ian Kirk recounts a coastal cruising passage with two WBAQ members by sail from Moreton Bay to the southern GBR & return
source The Log, WBAQ August, 2016
WBAQ members Ivan Scott, Bruce Morris and Ian Kirk departed from Macleay Island on Ivan’s 10 metre Crowther catamaran ‘Dakini’ for a cruise north on Monday 20th. June. Initially the trip was entitled ‘Three men in a Boat’ but that somehow in the rampant camaraderie of three mates sailing up the coast morphed into ‘the Cruise of The Cabin Boy’, Bruce being given that title as it was his first foray into the big briny. Of course Ivan was known as ‘Skipper’ because, well, he owns the bloomin’ boat. Ian was then designated ‘First Mate’ because he’d sailed the waters many a time before. Each day ‘Skipper’ would pass on the forecast of winds from the west but somehow northwest was the reality. Of course this on day one meant a nasty bash up to Mooloolaba because duh, the northwest channel runs--?
After recovering from this onslaught to the senses and some feelings of consternation for the green (at the gills too!) ‘Cabinboy’ the torn trampoline was pull-tied together and the hardy crew headed north for Wide Bay in yes, yet another northwester. At least it was light this time. This of course meant a mammoth 16 hour beat with ‘Dakini’ crossing the bar at dawn. This momentous occasion was promptly celebrated with a belated curry dinner beautifully cooked by the ‘Cabin Boy’s ‘wife Debbie. Naturally this was washed down by celebratory glasses of Merlot at 6.30 am. After a big rest ‘Dakini’ headed north into the Sandy Straits where Gary’s anchorage and later lunch at Kingfisher Resort were enjoyed by the ‘Three Men in the boat’.
Then it was off to Urangan to buy a new house battery, repair the trampoline, carry out voting duties and enjoy hot showers and fine food cooked by others. From there the good ship headed to Wathumba hoping to see whales but alas she was a few weeks early for the season. While safely anchored inside the creek a nasty north-wester came in creating surf on the beach. This then shifted to the south west allowing somewhat easier conditions to depart, this being done at 2 am. The sail to Burnett Heads in the dark in a very confused sea and a breeze of 15 knots plus was not the most pleasant having the ‘Cabin Boy’ concerned for his safety. The rampant camaraderie and hilarious laughter was surprisingly subdued until sunup when as usual, all seems better. A day with yachtie friends of the ‘First Mate’ at Burnett Heads included wonderful hot showers, a delightful lunch and transport to and from the shops.
Even the clothes washing was done for us! Then a 10-12 kn SSW breeze had us comfortably sailing north to 1770 with the ‘Cabin Boy’ on the wheel looking very happy and declaring “I’m back!” A delightful sojourn was had at this anchorage with all the crew finding it hard to leave the bar where great cold beers were served by a friendly North American backpacker, Jasmine. Once again we were heading north the very short distance to the excellent anchorage of Pancake Creek. Here the ‘Skipper’ and the ‘First Mate’ were to have a sensational time while the poor ‘Cabin Boy’ was contained to the boat with a sore foot. To keep it brief the lucky two walked to the Bustard Head lighthouse, chatted to Stuart Buchanan (yachtie and author of the excellent ‘The Lighthouse Keepers’ and ‘Lighthouse of Tragedy’) and who was known to Ian. From there they walked to Jennie Lind Creek in time to see the amphibious LARC cross it. This was followed by a stroll to Aircraft Beach where a plane promptly landed and the two sailors were invited for a free joy ride including two beach landings and a scary fake dud engine take-off provided at no charge by the cheeky pilot.
On arriving back at ‘Dakini’ there was some difficulty convincing the ‘Cabin Boy’ that Ivan and Ian had now morphed into ‘two men in a plane,’ that being the Cessna that had just buzzed ‘Dakini‘ stirring an enraged Bruce from his slumbers. From there it was off to Cape Capricorn where ‘Dakini’ anchored under the protection of the headland where the railway runs up to the buildings. Yellow Patch was explored by dinghy from here with all attempts to keep the ‘Cabin Boy’s’ sore foot dry failing miserably. Then followed a run up to Great Keppell Island where glorious beaches, walks , wonderful steaks and more cold beers this time served by ‘Cornwall Lass’ were enjoyed for a few days.
Departure for home was fast approaching for the ‘First Mate’ and the ‘Cabin Boy’ and once again at cocktail hour the talk was about “Why do so many of the boats anchored near us leave? Is it all the loud laughter from ‘Dakini’ or are we a bit smelly?” Well finally it was off to Rosslyn Bay for the crew to embark on the long train trip home. As we limped into harbour with an obviously ailing motor little did we realise that the ‘Skipper’ would be here for the next two weeks waiting for the really dead motor to be replaced. One thing we all knew was that the ‘Cabin Boy’ was now a blue water sailor who had just had possibly the adventure of a lifetime. So all of this great fun was enjoyed on a grp boat-well the friendships that made this crew so compatible and the cruise so outrageously wonderful were formed sailing simple wooden boats together and with other great folk from the Wooden Boat Association. Postscript. Ivan is at the time of writing, cruising the area from Shoalwater Bay to Mackay and his last communication was sent from the homestead at the top of Percy Island, the mecca of all yachties.
Building an Iain Oughtred “Gannet” - Ian College
"Never build an ugly boat" is good advice when choosing the design of a boat. There are so many lovely designs that a choice is difficult. I wanted a boat that sailed well, was small enough to sail solo and yet large enough to comfortably take another adult or a couple of grandchildren. Although I had never seen a "Gannet" I liked the look of the Iain Oughtred boats I had seen. The "Gannet" seemed to fit the bill. It is 4.4 m. (14?5") long, beam of 1.73m. (5?8"), sail area 10.96 sq. m. (118sqft).
Great Sandy Strait Cruise
There were 5 participants in this year's cruise from Carlo Point heading north up the Great Sandy Strait: Rick Sutton with his John Welsford Navigator, Rick O' Donnell with his Iain Oughtred Fulmar, Jim Inglis with his own design boat , Dave Micklethwaite with his Austral 20 trailer sailer (sigh, plastic!) and Tony Deane with his Laurent Giles Jolly Boat.
Like a child in a chocolate factory, it was hard to know where to start. The miles of marina packed with magnificence, or the scores of small boats ranging from furniture quality to restoration opportunity. The MyState Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart from 6 to 9 February this year was something to behold.
In addition to the look and feel and admire boats of all sizes, the place was alive with activity. Children (of all ages) rowing and paddling in Constitution Dock and beyond; demonstrations of most things related to wood and boats; the sail past; rowing events; tall ships (although two were missing due to bad weather); harbour cruises; the Open Boat program; it was all there.
The WBAQ, including wives and friends, had a sizeable contingent present. Between the lot of us, there are probably enough photos for a picture night lasting well over a fortnight (I can only contribute 489). Queensland boats I spotted included Classic (see cover photo), Laurabada, and Pagan.
With side trips to the Franklin Wooden Boat Centre, the Tasmanian Maritime Museum and Mt Wellington on a clear day, all made this first trip for me to the famous festival a real highlight. Edward Elcock
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