Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Johanne Regina

Built in Fåborg, Denmark in 1929 the 69-foot ex-Baltic trading vessel Johanne Regina features in the classic sailing book,  A Gypsy Life by Clare Allcard. Clare and her husband Edward Allcard first saw the neglected hulk on a slipway in Antigua in 1974 and fell in love with her fast lines and wineglass transom. But the boat was not for sale. Her Antiguan owners however, spurning nautical lore, changed her name and immediately fell upon hard times. The Allcards seized the opportunity, selling everything they owned to buy the oak and pine gaff-rigged ketch. They immediately set to work re-fastening, re-caulking and re-rigging finally putting Johanne Regina back into service. The Gypsy Life tells the story of the Allcard’s subsequent journey. Educating their young daughter aboard, relentlessly restoring and maintaining the boat, they sailed from the Caribbean via England, Denmark, the Mediterranean and Suez to their residence—a native shack on the Seychelles where they hoped to dive for treasure.

Years later I was lucky enough to have a passing acquaintance with Clare and Edward when they kept Johanne in the local marina at Torredembarra. The couple lived in Andorra and Edward, in his late eighties, would drive down to spend months at a time working on the boat. I cherish the times I spent with him on Johanne, whether helping him re-lay the deck with iroko or poring over his back issues of classic boat or drinking tea in the small galley listening to his adventures; how he spent his school holidays as an unpaid cabin boy aboard a Hull trawler, how Johanne was rammed by a French fishing boat, raided by the Camorra mafia and how the crew were arrested as spies off the coast of Yemen. And about the craft he had owned. Edward had rescued some 18 boats from rot and ruin including a 36-footer called Sea Wanderer originally built in 1911 in which he doubled Cape Horn and made a single-handed circumnavigation. For me these were inspiring afternoons that consolidated my interest in boats and ultimately led to the building of Onawind Blue and my own seaborne adventures.

I never got to sail aboard Johanne; the few opportunities to crew were always stymied by work or the fact that we never exchanged phone numbers. (I’m pretty sure Edward never had a mobile) And as he spent more time in Andorra I lost touch. One day, three years ago, I drove down to the marina after a long absence and even from a distance I could see that those distinctive masts, thick with rigging, were not there. A fixture had disappeared and no amount of blinking and eye rubbing could bring it back.

I heard that he’d sailed north to Barcelona to sell the boat and had since moved back to Andorra, nobody at the marina seemed to know exactly where the boat was and a few internet searches revealed nothing.

Then working in the city of Badalona I borrowed a bicycle during my lunch break and pedalled down to the new marina on the off chance there might be a interesting boat tucked away somewhere. When I saw those masts through the forest of aluminium poles, I couldn’t believe my eyes and with mounting excitement I cycled round to the fuel dock, as near to the boat as the tight security on the pontoons would allow, and gazed over the water. It was her alright, under a different colour scheme but essentially the same old Johanne Regina.

Convincing the harbour master of my interest in the boat he agreed to open the gates and let me take some photos but before we left his office he pointed to a cannonball on his desk and told me that it had been plucked from the ocean floor in the vicinity of the Seychelles. Edward had left it as a parting gift to the marina.

Johanne had been bought by the city council to fill the roll of cultural heritage. And she had undergone an extensive refit. I looked at her decks and there it was, the fifth plank in from the port side, the one I’d helped to caulk and the one that was giving me an overblown sense of ownership. I took the changes that had been made to her personally, particularly the new deckhouse amidships but, given her history, I was more concerned to see that her name had been changed. In half a mind to warn the harbour master of impending doom I took a few photos, if the past history was anything to go by they might be the last. But superstitions aside I was more than happy to see the boat and to find that she continues to survive. And trust Edward and Clare Allcard, a couple who had put over thirty years of their lives into restoring Johanne Regina to find a good home for her. Under the wing of an entity with funding for maintenance her future should be assured for some time to come. Ciutat de Badalona, (City of Badalona) as she is now called, will be used as a training ship and hopefully many young people will learn the joys of the sea aboard her. She certainly played a part in my sea story.


Anonymous said...

Please, correct "Ciutat de Badalona" instead of "Cuitat de Badalona".

What a coincidence ! I live 15 minuts walking from that boat.
My daughter use to call her "el barco pirata".

In Christmas "Els reis d'orient" arrived to Badalona in that boat.

The City Council is not using her too much,...

Whenever you work in Badalona, if you want to go sailing with my patin, feel free to contact me: mosquit(at)gmail(dot)com

Nice blog.

Ben said...

Thanks for your offer Mosquit. I might well take it up some time.

Mark B. said...

Thanks for the info on Johanne.
I am currently reading The Gypsy Life and am happy to find that the boat still exists.

tamborjim said...

Wow. Incredible story. I sailed on the Johanne Regina in 1970 and 1971. She was berthed in St. Thomas and a friend and I were in from San Francisco, 19 years old and looking for adventure. We hauled fruit from Dominica, Guadalupe, Martinique, etc. up to St. Thomas. Oh, do I remember starting that ancient semi diesel motor! We rode out two hurricanes in 1970 on board. The captain was 23 year old Englishman, John Letton. Thanks for the memories and the photos. Jim Shaw, Paquera, Costa Rica

Anonymous said...

What a joy to discover that Johanne is alive and well. Hi Jim, I often think about you and John, all the adventures we had,the characters we met and the dangers we faced in our innocence all those summers ago. How are you, what are you up to?
I rescued Johanne from Lymington UK
where she lay half full of water out on the mud. This must have been around 1969. How we arrived in St Thomas in 1970 is a whole other tale.......

John Letton, Hamsey UK March 2010

nancywat said...

Hi Jim,

I remember you and John B? I crossed from England on Johanne and was their doing the fruit thing too. Glad you remember those crazy days, oh to be young and foolish. Wouldn't it be fun to get together the Johanne aged pirates and reminisce.

All the best, Nancy Waterhouse

Anonymous said...


Long life "Barco Pirata".


Xavier Fornes said...

I would like to contact Jhon Letton and everybody that knows about Johanne Regina as I am a memberr of The asociation Amiocs del quetx Ciutat de Badalona amnd I am trying to write her story from the very begyning.


Anonymous said...

Hi everyone, I'm Clare Allcard and I wrote A Gypsy Life. Great to read all your news and associations. We bought Johanne in 1974 after she had sunk in St John's harbour and been raised by Edith Matthews. I think John Letton owned her before that. Now she is in really good hands with the Association of the friends of the ketch Ciutat de Badelona. They have even set up a choir in her honour! Right now A Gypsy Life is being translated into Catalan.

Ben said...

Hello Clare, I have good memories of JR's time in Torredembarra, though didn't see that much of you and Edward. Actually the port has always looked slightly bare since those distinctive masts disappeared. Glad to here that The Gypsy Life will be coming out in Catalan.
Best wishes,

Xavier Macia said...

On December 11th, 2013, Clare and Edward were in Badalona for the presentation of the Catalan edition of "The Gypsy Life", Clare's account of saving and living aboard the Johanne Regina. Clare made her comments in Catalan to an appreciative gathering of about 200 members and friends of the Association. Edward stood aside as it was Clare's book that was being celebrated but he told me that he too has another book in the offing, to be issued sometime in 2014. It is an account of his crossing the Pacific single-handed. Look forward to that. I hauled down my copies of two of Edward's books and Clare's "The Gypsy life" and they were both kind enough to sign them all. I of course bought a copy of "Rodamons de la Mar" the translation of Clare's book. (The translation was by Josep Estruch Traite.) The Catalan edition has been nicely done, a hardcover with the same photos as the original and Clare has added an epilogue.