Son of a Son of a Sailor

Captain spawns a family of seafaring men

Give a man a colorful ancestor who sailed square-riggers around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, kept records of voyages in journals and on charts, and what do you end up with?

Either someone so daunted by those records that he heads inland, or a modern sailor who is fascinated by it all and keeps the old records with loving care while he builds his own boats and sails them.

That’s how it worked with Charles Ball, a Sarasota attorney whose great-grandfather Charles A. Johnson spent his life at sea, captain of at least three trading barks in the 19th century.

A bark is a sailing vessel with its two forward masts square-rigged and its after- mast rigged fore-and-aft. Ball doesn’t have any great desire to build one or own one or sail in one, but he gives ample evidence of his great-grandfather’s contribution to his genetic structure.

He has built several small sailing craft, with the help of friends and using brother Pat’s construction company headquarters, a renovated church on Central Avenue. Most of his productions have been sharpies, and he sails a 31-footer. Named the Mallie Marie, it took him three years to build. Now he’s working on a powerboat, a shallow- draft 44-foot trawler that brother Pat’s wife is coveting

That’s a far cry from his great- grandfather’s barks, the Martha Davies, the Edward May, the Amy Turner. Charles A. Johnson was captain and evidently part owner of all three. He called New York home, sailing out of there and Boston. He traveled the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, doing “a lot of trading in the Chinese rice ports,” Ball said.

He started early, running away from home in Sweden at age 13 and working his way to Boston aboard a ship. He had an uncle in shipping there who sent young Johnson to sea in his ships to rise in due course to the rank of captain and eventually part owner of his commands.

His logs and journals record voyages acrioss the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, concerned mainly with courses and weather and cargoes. Surviving manifests, Ball said, tell what the ship picked up, what it paid, where it discharged the cargo.

Capt. Johnson had agents in many ports, and his records detail trade at San Francisco, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, as well as Chinese ports.

A good part of Capt. Johnson’s trade was in this hemisphere. He often took a load of Jumber from Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo through the furies and terrors of Cape Horn to Chile on the west coast of South America, and brought cargoes of food from Chile to Brazil by the same treacherous route.

One chart traces the route of the Martha Davies around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern end of Africa, in 1874. Another records the Edward May on a similar route in 1879. with the cryptic notation: Icebergs.

“It was hard, hard work,” Ball said in the downtown Sarasota office where he runs his law practice. “The conditions for the seamen were just terrible.”

Even so, when the captain married his ship-owner uncle’s daughter he took her to sea with him on some voyages. And when their son Charles H. was born, they took him along too. The lad stayed with it until he had to go ashore to schooL

The boy grew up into an itinerant career, a civil engineer who met his bride-to-be while on a project on Egmont Key. He was with the U.S. Navy in Cuba during World War I at the birth of their daughter, now “Billy” Ball, widowed and living in Indiana.

Ms. Ball recalls the old captain, for he lived with his son and family in Sarasota in his later years. He was an imposing figure, she recalls, majestically bearded and always wearing a coat.

And strong to the end: He died at 94 of gangrene that started in a toe he cut while chopping wood.

His son, Charles H., the civil engineer, settled at Red Rock, on Sarasota Bay between Bay Road and Hansen Street. Daughter Billy remembers grubbing out palmettos there as a girl. Charles H. donat- ed the land for Red Rock Park in the area.

Billy married Steve Ball, a Virginian whose family lived for awhile in a house they rented from Billy’s father. Ball worked for years for the local post office, but got into a wrangle with Postmaster Gordon Higel and quit. He bought a print- ing shop on Central Avenue and ran it until retirement.

Their son Charles Ball was reared on the bay and became a sailor in his own right, sailing his self-built trimaran to enroll in the University of South Florida at its St. Petersburg campus. Brother Pat runs Ball Construction Inc. and is a sailor too.

Attorney Ball’s office has some of his great-grandfather’s old charts framed and on the walls, and half a hundred others at his home, along with log books and journals. All, of course, lovingly preserved.

Pellican Press
November 15, 2001

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