By Sophia Fischer
Could you spend seven years in close quarters 24/7 with your significant other? Dennis ’73 and Virginia (Thrash ’74) Johns did exactly that on a 46-foot sailboat traveling the world, sometimes for more than three weeks at sea without another soul in sight.
“In our careers and lives we hadn’t done a lot of worldwide travel. Virginia often reminded me, ‘You never take me anywhere,’” Dennis Johns said.
Married for 43 years, the Johns decided to see the world from a sailboat after retirement. Virginia Johns worked at UCSB for 36 years, the last five as registrar, and retired in 2010. At that point, she and her husband, a retired marketing manager, were well into voyage preparation.
“I would much rather use the sea and wind to travel rather than buy a ticket on an airplane or cruise ship,” Dennis Johns said. “On a sailboat, you can stop anywhere on the way.”
In 2000, they purchased the aptly named Libertad, a French-made Amel Maramu sailboat and spent the next 11 years learning navigation, cruise planning, electronic instruments, piloting, weather patterns, provisioning, and obtaining necessary equipment.
“What if he gets conked in the head? I needed to know basics, like how to get the sails down and navigate to a port,” Virginia Johns said.
“The squalls started to hit us, and we had very few days when we didn't get at least one squall and donned the foul weather gear”
—The Johns' blog
The couple, who live in Santa Barbara, participated in overnight practice cruises including several 10-day rallies to Cabo San Lucas.
“About 150 boats go so it’s reassuring for novices as it’s likely someone in the rally can help you out of trouble,” Dennis Johns explained.
The Johns rented their house out and lived off rental income. They visited every continent except Antarctica.
In the first year, the Johns docked their boat in a marina in El Salvador, rented a car and mapped their road trip. They stopped to hike to a waterfall and found locals and “gringo college age” people enjoying the view. Dennis Johns asked the young Americans who they were.
“They said, ‘We just graduated from UCSB and wanted to do a jungle tour,’” Virginia Johns recalled. “Dennis said, ‘My wife and her staff reviewed and approved your status for graduation. You can thank her now.’”
There were challenges. It was difficult to say goodbye to family and friends, including their son, Darren ’94, and his family who live in Goleta.
“When we left, our grandchildren were 8 and 5. Now they’re 15 and 12. The connection we had with them was intermittent during those formative years,” Dennis Johns said. “We are making up for it now.”
Virginia Johns lost both of her parents and a sister during the trip.
“When we heard my dad was ill we were in the Tuamotu Archipelago and there were no formal airports. We went to an island with a landing strip but the mail plane only came once a week and we had just missed it,” Virginia Johns said. “We immediately sailed two more days to Tahiti.”
There was the fuel tank leak that could have ended their cruise; Virginia Johns’ bout with vertigo; and reports of pirates that redirected their route.
The duo took turns doing three-hour shifts at night watching for weather patterns, course corrections, and other boats. The longest time at sea was 23 days, from the Galapagos to the Marquesas.
“You make sail changes for the daily squalls, fish, read, and play board games,” said Dennis Johns who had sailed with his father, a lifelong Naval officer.
The Johns met at UCSB. Virginia Johns says she should have known what she was getting into when they began dating. Home for the summer- she lived in Long Beach, he in Whittier- Dennis Johns sent his future wife a love letter, inviting her to sail in the Newport Beach harbor.
“It was a drawing of a sailboat. It said, ‘Memorize this by tonight,’ and it showed all the parts of the boat,” Virginia Johns said. “Boating was something new for me.”
Among multiple lessons learned from their global expedition: you will make lifelong friends around the world, and don’t make a schedule when you’re cruising on a sailboat.
“If a storm is coming in you have to change the schedule. You’ll get there when you get there,” Dennis Johns remarked.
Meeting fellow cruisers from all over the world was a highlight and an eye-opener.
“When people found out we were American, they said, ‘Oh, we want to come to the U.S.’ and I would ask, ‘Why? We don’t have thousands of years of culture to experience,’” Dennis Johns said. “But cruisers pointed out that the U.S. has more natural attractions. We take this for granted. It was a perspective I hadn’t thought of.”
As a result, the couple’s next planned adventure is to travel by RV to U.S. national parks and monuments.
“It took going around the world, hearing people talk about the U.S., to realize what we’ve got here,” Dennis Johns said.
WEB EXTRA: Dennis and Virginia Johns share more detail about their journey around the world.
Virginia Johns: In every country we would try to get exposed to local art, dancing, music, singing, as well as food. Many of these places have farmers’ markets so we would always go to the markets and talk to local people which was learning about their lives. There were greens but not spinach and kale. We tried them all and now Dennis eats a lot more variety than he used to. We learned a lot about different styles of singing and dancing. We went to elementary and high schools and were asked to speak- everybody was very welcoming. We were in a lot of places where people don’t have too much.
Dennis Johns: We learned an awful lot including some very disturbing things like that the United States has exported its culture everywhere in the world. It takes different forms everywhere we went. In some cases, it takes the form of culture with advertisers adopting some of our practices without the country having the infrastructure to take care of whatever is being advertised. For example, in countries like El Salvador, they do a tremendous amount of packaging but they don’t have a concept or infrastructure to keep their land clean. They don’t have a societal desire to pick up the trash. So the roads are basically garbage heaps. It’s disconcerting to see that. We learned quickly that we don’t need packaging on the boat. Every time we’d buy a carton of cereal we’d take the bag out and throw away the box because we didn’t need that extra packaging abroad.
In Australia the youth culture is adopting what the U.S. is throwing off. Cultural exports from the U.S. include music and clothing and cellphones everywhere. We saw a lot of general consumerism- using something and throwing it away- happening around the world. One of worst things we saw was cigarettes. Our nation gradually moving away from cigarettes but unfortunately we have exported that desire for cigarettes and mass producing to even third world countries where even the poorest person can afford them. There are no taxes like we have here to try to prevent people from smoking. You see American brands and groups of people smoking one after another.
We saw urbanization: the collapse of the rural community and family structure that supports the rural community. In Malaysia, we went to tour boatyard and came upon a fishing boat. One guy was building a fishing boat but he had no drawings, and no measuring tools. He was building it all by eye, and the skill he had acquired over years of building boats. We asked why he didn’t have anyone helping him. He said young people don’t want to build boats. They want to be on their computers. It was sad. His art will die with him. It’s a little bit disappointing when you get out of this culture. Our culture is kind of supplanting itself elsewhere.
Avoiding Pirates and Weapons
Dennis Johns: We would always be cautious and use common sense wherever we went. There are two kinds of pirates. The pirate of opportunity you can usually deal with through common sense. Secure your boat at night, don’t leave things on deck for a fisherman who happens to be out at night and might see an opportunity to steal something. Then there’s the professional pirate in southeast Asia, off the coast of Africa in Somalia, in the Caribbean. Wherever we were people advised us about the problem areas and we avoided them. Coming from the Cayman Islands to Panama, I wanted to go into Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula but I learned that there were pirating activities coming out of Honduras so we went directly to Panama bypassing the problem. There was pirate activity in Malaysia so we were careful to travel a path well populated with other cruisers. We joined a rally there and had extra security. You have to be alert the whole day. We made a decision not to carry any weapons on board. I’ve never used a weapon, never thought of the idea. If you had one would you even be able to use it against another body? What weapon could you have that a professional pirate would not have in a bigger, more violent form? You probably wouldn’t be able to use a weapon. So many countries require you to register your weapon. You have to turn it in while you’re there and they give it back to you when you leave.
Curing Horrible Seasickness
Dennis Johns: Virginia is really the hero and brave person of this group. She’s not a strong swimmer and gets violently seasick. We had to find a solution. She tried everything: the patch made her whacked out and she couldn’t stay awake. She tried the wrist thing, ginger, and over the counter medicines but she couldn’t handle the side effects. A boating friend from Santa Barbara sail suggested she try meclizine over the counter and that did it.
For photos and more details about Dennis and Virginia Johns’ sailing journey, visit their blog at http://www.sailblogs.com/member/sb-johns/