Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

A Picture-Perfect Ederle Swim

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Maybe the magic was in the pasta.

This year, Vlad and I signed up to provide kayak support for the Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile open-water swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Vlad has done it several times, but this was my first time accompanying swimmers to Sandy Hook (though we’ve paddled there many times).

We’d each been assigned a swimmer, and the day before the swim, the organizers, NYC Swim, sent us the swimmers’ email addresses. So I reached out to “my” swimmer, Andrea Varalli, mentioned that I’d done the paddle many times, and offered what advice I could, including the detailed blogs Vlad has posted on Wind Against Current about his previous Ederle Swims (here, here, here, and here).

Next thing I knew, Vlad and I agreed to meet Andrea and his support team for dinner at a “real Italian restaurant” (as Andrea called it), Piacere. (Pleasure, in Italian.) We had guessed (correctly as it turned out) that Andrea was “real Italian”—not merely of Italian descent. So the “real Italian” restaurant was sure to be a treat!

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I Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

On the beach after the race

This was the fifth year that Vlad and I raced in the Blackburn Challenge, the 20-mile circumnavigation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a 19th-century mariner of uncommon grit. (You can read about him here.) Any human-powered watercraft can participate, and there is usually a wide range, from paddleboards to rowing shells, dories, and dragonboats—plus several flavors of kayaks.

Thus far, I’d placed every time, helped out by the relative smallness of the field of women sea kayakers—there are typically only half a dozen or so in my class.

After collecting two third-place and two second-place finishes, I yearned for a first. Last year I missed it by a mere six minutes. And I just knew I’d gotten faster this year. I’d trained hard—though not as consistently as I’d liked—and still had some stamina left over from completing the Everglades Challenge earlier this year.

So I was pretty sure that this would be my year.

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Cardboard Kayak Race, Redux

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Last year, I wrote about the first annual Cardboard Kayak Race, held on City of Water Day at Governors Island.  This year, I was in it!

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. We didn’t build a boat out of cardboard and then race it. But others did! And I was part of a fleet of “safety kayaks” whose job it was to rescue paddlers whose cardboard boats sank (and fish out the sodden detritus).

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Celebrity Sun

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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In Manhattan we get our share of celebrities. Some live here year-round. Many zoom by in a blaze of flashbulbs and applause.

And some show up reliably every day, unapplauded, but make a celebrity entrance a few minutes out of the year. That’s what happens at Manhattanhenge. Twice a year, roughly three weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun lines up precisely with the east-west streets of Manhattan’s street grid.

It’s  a well-known phenomenon, and has become more so with each passing year. Photographers gather at major intersections, awaiting that perfect moment when the sun touches the horizon, framed precisely between buildings on either side. For a moment or two, the sun is a celebrity.

I’ve heard about it, and Vlad has taken pictures of it many times. But this year was the first time I’d actually experienced it.

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Halsey: The Unstoppable

By Johna Till Johnson

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Admiral Halsey in a WWII poster (from Naval History & Heritage Command)

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There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.

—Admiral William (“Bull”) Frederick Halsey, Jr.

This sketch is one of several inspired by the book, The Admirals: The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter R. Borneman. It’s about Admirals Halsey, Nimitz, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II, and were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history. (For the other sketches in the series, see Triptych: Three Admirals.)

More than that, the book is about leadership, character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). His courage and determination helped re-energize and inspire a Navy demoralized and depleted by the hideous surprise of Pearl Harbor. Yet his appetite for the fight paradoxically cost him participation in some of the defining battles of the Pacific, and could have cost the war. But anything he did, he did wholeheartedly—and there was never any question of stopping him.

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Triptych: Three Admirals

By Johna Till Johnson

Sailors preparing for the funeral

Sailors preparing for the funeral, May 2014 (photo provided by Steve Hannifin)

Medicine, the ministry, and the military. Those were the “three Ms” that—according to my mother—defined the callings of our family, dating back to before the American Revolution. Each is characterized by a commitment to a greater good than self, or even family: Healing, God, country.

That sense of commitment is likely one reason my mother came to marry my father, a naval officer, and it permeated my life growing up.

When we uprooted ourselves to move across the country or around the world for the fifth (or the seventeenth) time, it wasn’t for personal gain. It was because the Navy needed us there to protect our country. That’s what my parents said, and that’s what we believed. When our country called, we came—particularly my father, who spent years underwater in a nuclear submarine.

Some day I’ll write about my father. But meantime, this is enough to explain how I came to spend a recent Friday in Annapolis, at the Naval Academy cemetery, where the ashes of my father’s former commanding officer, Vice Admiral Patrick J. Hannifin, were laid to rest.

It was an uncharacteristically gray, cold, and drizzly day in late spring. I’d gotten up at 3:30 AM to make the four-hour drive to Annapolis. I arrived an hour and a half early, giving me plenty of time to think, and to remember.

As I sat in the white marble open-air “columbarium” overlooking the gray-green water of College Creek, the memories came flooding back. I’d spent three years living on the Naval Academy grounds from ages 8 to 11, while my father was head of the division of Math and Science.

Like many children, I was oblivious to the weight of history. To me, the Academy was a delightful, safe, and well-tended park. I never thought about the fact that the green torpedoes I loved to play on (just the size for an 8-year-old to ride!) were taken from Japan during World War II. Or that I practiced gymnastics, fencing, and swimming in MacDonough Hall (named after a remote ancestor on my mother’s side, Admiral Thomas MacDonough). Though from time to time I passed by Nimitz Library, the Halsey Field House, and the King Hall dining facility, these were all just names to me.

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Nimitz Library from the air (photo by United States Naval Academy)

Even this May, as I looked out at the flowing water and the campus beyond, I didn’t think about history. I thought about my father, who died in 2008. I thought about Admiral Hannifin. I thought about all the men I’d known who shared my father’s commitment—and what they had exemplified as leaders, and as human beings.

The AdmiralsMaybe that’s why, walking through an airport on a business trip a few days later, I was inspired to pick up a book called “The Admirals”, by Walter R. Borneman.

It’s subtitled, “The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea”, which pretty much says it all. It’s about Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II (and who were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history).

The book is fantastic. It’s about more than just the people, or the events. It’s about leadership. And it’s about character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Of the four men profiled by Borneman, three really resonated with me: Nimitz, Halsey, and King.

Nimitz was even-tempered and genial, a consummate engineer who threw himself into every project that was handed to him, and whose supreme satisfaction was a job well done. Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). And King was a brilliant careerist, convinced (usually correctly) that he was smarter than anyone else, and determined to win the accolades to which he felt entitled.

Their individual responses to learning of the war’s end sum each up perfectly. In each case, an aide burst into the Admiral’s office with the news that the goal of four years’ uncompromising and exhausting effort had been achieved: the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally.

Halsey’s response was to leap to his feet and begin pounding the aide’s shoulders in joy.

King reportedly looked stricken, and said, “But what am I going to do now?”

And Nimitz? He said nothing, just allowed himself a small, perfectly satisfied smile.

In three following posts, I will post a short sketch of each of these unique leaders, drawn largely from Borneman’s book (which again, I highly recommend) with some additional research:

Halsey: The Unstoppable
Nimitz: The Unflappable
King: The Impossible

So There I Was… In Maine

By Johna Till Johnson

Freshly Pressed on the WordPress.com home page!

Every good kayaking story starts with “So there I was,” according to Carl Ladd (of Osprey Sea Kayak fame). In keeping with that adage, here goes:

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Setting off along the Maine coast

So there I was, bobbing up and down on the frigid waves crashing into the rocky coastline of Maine’s Sheepscot Bay.  The swells were substantial—four to six feet, big enough to rip someone from her kayak and deposit her and the boat on separate rocks.

That exact thing had recently happened, in fact, to another paddler.

Fortunately neither she nor her boat sustained damage, but it was a strikingly close call. One moment she was riding the surf, high over our heads, after a larger-than-usual wave broke suddenly. The next moment she was struggling in the water, and we all winced as we heard the hollow sound of her fiberglass boat crunch into the rocky shore.

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