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.)