Bulletproof Plate

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The Life Of Legendary Boatbuilder Forest E. Johnson, by Capt. Bill Pike (continued)

Workers gather in the woodshop at Johnson’s facility on the Miami River

Bulletproof Plate

One of the genuine American catastrophes of the early Twentieth Century was the ill-conceived constitutional amendment that, in 1920, banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of booze. But by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Forest E. had hit the big time—his reputation as a builder and racer of super-fast, super-tough, super-seaworthy boats was known far and wide.

“This one shows another side of my father,” says Johnson, handing over an 8-by-10 glossy with frazzled corners. It shows a transformed Forest E., standing in a posh, socially sophisticated setting, his elbow against a mahogany bar, glass in hand, his tailored suit augmented with a crisp tie and a fashionable pocket handkerchief. He looks a little like a movie star. “Running rum from Bimini into Miami,” adds Johnson, “was illegal, but building boats for rum runners was not.”

Forest E. poses with a group of Pan Am flight attendants

Cash money always sealed the rum-runner deals—Forest E. never built a boat on spec. A guy would show up with roughly $2,000 as a deposit (serious money during the ’20s), list the modifications he needed, and then come back a couple of months later to hand over another pile of dough and take delivery on a brand new Forest E. Johnson Cruiser. The modifications were often extreme, pushing design concerns like weight, horsepower, balance, bottom design, and seaworthiness to reality’s ragged edge, including as they did capacious carrying capacities, low profiles, top speeds in the open ocean of 40 knots or more, and inwales layered with bulletproof steel plate.

“You’d hear about a big run somebody’d made—you know, a success,” says Johnson, handing over a photo of a gleaming white cruiser rocketing across the waves, her nose slightly raised, “and in a day or two, when my dad got home from work, there’d be a case of top-shelf stuff at the back door. Very popular with friends and neighbors, of course, although in the early days my dad wasn’t much of a drinker himself.”

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