End of an Era

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

Forest E. Johnson congratulates his friend Howard Hibbert

End of an Era

The last few photos we look at feature Forest E. himself, rather than the boats he built. And as we sort through Johnson and I talk about a lot of things, among them how his dad’s life came to a close. Forest E., emphasizes Johnson, was first and foremost a wooden-boat man. When the demand for fiberglass came in the late ’60s, he opted to try the stuff but loathed it.

“With reluctance, he did two fiberglass Prowler models,” says Johnson. “One was a 32-footer and the other a 23-foot runabout.”

In addition to the gloomy shift from fragrant cedar to smelly polyester, Forest E. had to also contemplate a shift in leadership. As the ’60s transitioned into the ’70s, the large, big-city facility he now occupied on the Miami River underwent an especially poignant transition, becoming Forest E. Johnson & Son.

“But it really didn’t work out,” says Johnson. “I remember one night in particular—my dad must have spent two hours trying to explain to me why shaft angle was so important, how it could make or break an inboard boat’s performance. But heck, I was 14 years old at the time—my mind was on other things. Today, I frankly don’t remember any of it. Which is one of my greatest regrets, I’d have to say.”

Heidi, young Forest, and a proud Forest E. Johnson

A classic impasse had arrived, the same one that many, if not most, fathers must eventually confront. Forest E. wanted his only son to take over a business he was deeply passionate about, but the young man had a different direction in mind, thanks to a hand-me-down Polaroid camera. After Forest E.’s death in 1971, Johnson and his mother kept the Miami enterprise going for another five years but, at length, the energy crisis of 1976 (which made polyester resin virtually impossible to get), coupled with the increasing popularity of the deep-V hull (versus the Prowler’s flatter, shallower-draft design), forced them to let go, painfully but inevitably.

“I became a professional photographer,” says Johnson, with a grin. “And, as you know, a deeply passionate one.”

“Like father,” I add, with a grin of my own, “like son.”

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