The Life Of Legendary Boatbuilder Forest E. Johnson

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Classic Memories

All-Cat was the first raceboat Forest E. Johnson  built

Forest E. Johnson built thousands of still-popular classic wooden powerboats, many emblazoned “Prowler.” Johnson’s famous marine photographer son pays tribute to his dad, his dad’s boats, and the early days of Miami boatbuilding.

It was a simple plan. Forest Johnson, one of the biggest names in the marine-photography biz, would drive north to Orlando from his home in Ft. Lauderdale with the archival material we’d been talking about for weeks. I would simultaneously head south from the ol’ ranchero in Tallahassee and meet Johnson at noon in the lobby of Orlando’s J.W. Marriott Hotel, where we’d kick back, enjoy a sandwich, look the archival stuff over, and talk about Johnson’s boatbuilder dad, Forest E. Johnson. With luck, a story would result, focused primarily on a series of classic wooden powerboats built by Forest E. between the late 1940s and the late ’60s, each distinctively designated “Prowler.”

“Hey Forest,” I yell, spying Johnson in the Marriott’s parking lot, heading for the hotel with folders of black-and-white photography stacked atop a giant cardboard box full of old newspaper clippings. I grab the folders to be helpful and we proceed into the palatial lobby where we commandeer two comfy chairs and a giant coffee table.

The first photo off the top of the stack shows Forest E. in Key West in 1918, rail-thin, darkly tanned, awkwardly holding a trophy he’d just won racing the first raceboat he’d ever built, an 18-foot outboard-powered speedster called All-Cat. He’s got a young, but steely, hardscrabble look to him, and huge hands, blackened with grime and grease. The hands of a mechanic, obviously.

Forest E.’s earlier race boats

“He was born in Key West in 1899,” says Johnson, leaning in more closely, “so he was probably 18 or 19 years old when this picture was taken—he had to quit school in the fourth grade to support the family after his father died. For most of his life, his good friends, the ones who knew him well, called him Conchy—you know, because he was a Conch. Originally from Key West.”

I examine more photos as Johnson continues his story. Forest E., he says, began learning the boatbuilding trade from local shipwright Ronny Watkins and, thanks to the races he was winning in the boats he was building, a customer base rapidly materialized. In 1921, the young man moved his shop north to Coconut Grove, calling it Forest E. Johnson Boat Works. The die, as they say, had been cast.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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