Billy Johnson - 1996
As the Squadron's 50th Labor Day Regatta begins, it seems appropriate to wonder what it was like at the first one. Billy Johnson was there and he was kind enough to share his recollections.
If you don't know Billy, you've probably seen him on the grounds. A quiet redhead with hands the size of hams, he was sailing on Sarasota Bay before most of us were born. He is the epitome of the "seat of the pants" sailor. With 60 years of sailing behind him, he knows what to do and where to go by instinct.
Billy was 23 years old in 1946, just out of the service, spending a good portion of his time hanging around the old city pier and sailing on the bay. He'd walk down to the pier from his house on 4th St., north of the Heidelberg Castle, where he "thinks" he was living at the time. "We used to move every time the rent was due.", he said explaining uncertainty about his address.
On the end of the pier, the city owned a building that housed the Chamber of Commerce meeting room. The Sailing Squadron was allotted the use of a back room in that building for their clubhouse.
The larger boats were tied up along the pier while the smaller boats were pulled up on the shore of Hudson Bayou near Selby Gardens. Larger boats were usually kept in the water because when they dried out the planks would shrink and they'd start to leak. The younger kids sailed "Orange Crates", fore runners of the Optimist Pram, which were sponsored by local merchants and displayed their advertising. Visiting boats were launched from the beach at Golden Gate Point which had "about three houses and lots of Australian pines".
Billy's not sure what boat he raced in the first regatta but he thinks it was a "Fish". He owned three of them and the Squadron owned six. Members shared maintenance and use of the 20' gaff rigged, wooden planked sloops sporting cotton sails. The Fish was the main class at the Squadron and members competed with other boats from Miami, St.Pete, Tampa, Ft. Walton Beach and Pensacola under the umbrella of the Gulf Yachting Association. Snipes, Lightnings, Suicides and Crickets were other classes that comprised the 50 boat fleet.
Races were started from the end of the pier regardless of wind direction. Permanent bleachers were set up there and the people from town would come down to the end of Main St. to watch. Island Park had not been filled so the pier was the main gathering point on the bay.The seawall was next to the Trail.
The course consisted of rounding fixed pilings out in the bay off various points of land in the shape of a big circle. They'd usually head first toward Harbor Acres. "That was a big pile of sand."Then they'd head out toward Big Pass and back to a piling between Bird Key and Golden Gate Point. "Bird Key was just a sand bar where you could find lots of good scallops. There was one spit of solid land coming off the bridge where Mabel Ringling had her mansion. I used to deliver the newspaper to her riding my bike through the gate and down the long driveway."
The last leg back to the pier was the one where local knowledge paid off. "The out of town hot shots would head straight for the pier and get caught with no wind behind those big australian pines on Golden Gate Point. We locals knew you had to stay well away from the point and passed a lot of visitors by doing that."
Back at the pier, the prizes were handed out. Billy recalls, "Prizes were anything Walter Fox obtained from the merchants. You might get a piece of rope or some nails or a cleat. Walter was the Daddy of the Squadron. He'd get the boats to come from out of town. He'd organize everyone to race. He'd get the merchants to sponsor the kids in the 'Orange Crates'. He could talk you out of your wallet."
Walter is gone now as are most of the guys who were there. Walking around the Squadron you see evidence everywhere of the contributions made by Billy and his friends when they moved the Squadron over to City Island.
As an FPL lineman, he obtained the discarded telephone poles with which they built the clubhouse. They built the first hoist which was on the pass and the stone house which was going to be a new clubhouse. They hauled cement blocks from a torn down house in Myakka to build the launch ramp. They put in the underground electrical wire with a pickup truck and a plow anchor.
One day they spied a barge hauling rubble from the demolition of the Ritz Carlton Hotel past the Squadron on the way to the mainland for dumping. The point where the hoist sits now was eroding away so they talked the demolition guys into dumping there. Those red bricks are the remains of John Ringling's big hotel on South Longboat that never rented a room.
Most are gone, but Billy's still here. In fact, he'll be running a course this year. So if you see him (or Stan Lowe, Alva Johnson or George Luzier), go up and say "Thanks". It's because of the sailors from that era that we have the little clubhouse on Sarasota Bay, which is the best place in the world to go sailing.
©Charlie Clifton 1996, 2000,2005, 2013, sarasotasailingsquadron.com
2005 Editor's note: Alva Johnson and Stan Lowe have passed on. Billy Johnson just finished restoring a '60s vintage Morgan 27 and with wife, Pat, is still sailing around Sarasota Bay. Rumor has it that they plan to sail the boat up the east coast in 2006.
Billy and Pat sailed their Sabre over to Europe and back in 1999, laying hove to for three days in Hurricane Lenny.
Billy died July 2, 2009. Pat still lives in the house on Longboat Key.