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Michelle Hurley Johnson: A Family Affair

Over the course of 60 years, three generations have sought sanctuary at the lake house, home port for countless boating memories.

The Johnson family, Ryann, George, Michelle, and Rachel

The Johnson family in South Carolina shares a passion for boating. From left, Ryann, George, Michelle, and Rachel.

"The last time we were out, I looked over at my daughter, Rachel. She was leaning back with her eyes closed. The wind was in her hair and she had a slight smile on her face. It was the look of perfect contentment," Johnson says. "I think it's in their genes, passed down from my parents."

Johnson's parents bought property on the lake with an open-plan ranch house as a summer home in 1962. The family lived about 40 miles southeast in Columbia, but spent as many summer days as possible at the lake house. "Back then, we were the only Black kids out there skiing and sailing and got a lot of bewildered stares from folks," she recalls with a laugh. The family boats included a 22-foot Sabre with a Chrysler outboard, a 12-foot Kingfisher sailboat, and an aluminum canoe. Her father kept them maintained.

"Dad was a larger-than-life figure who seemingly knew something about everything. He taught my brother, sister, me, and all our friends how to sail, ski, and tie nautical knots," she says. "Sometimes he would hook two or three ropes to the back of the boat so that we could ski together — and, boy, were we little daredevils! We pushed our wooden Cypress Gardens skis to their limits."

As a child, one of her favorite places to ride was on the bow. "It was absolutely exhilarating — wind in my face, holding on tight, and bouncing up and down as the boat raced across the water," she says. "That sense of peace and freedom is a feeling I crave all year round."

Of course, there are quiet times on the lake, too. Growing up, Johnson was an early morning riser, just like her mother, Alice. "Some mornings we would take the canoe out right after sunrise to ‘watch and listen to the silence,' as she would say. Those moments were my special time with her, and really helped to cultivate my love and appreciation for nature."

The generational cycle continues today. Her father may be gone, but her 87-year-old mother still delights in being the "spotter" when Johnson's children (Rachel, 17, and Ryann, 15) are smiling and waving on the other end of a tow line.

An old family photo from 1972 at the lake house

An old family photo from 1972 at the lake house. Michelle is wearing a yellow dress.

One summer, the outboard on the Sabre finally gave out, and Johnson, then 24, stepped up and bought a replacement boat, "a 1991 Sunbird cuddy that I bought from a guy whose wife was scared of water and refused to ride on it. He'd bought it shortly before they started dating, so the boat was in pristine condition with very few hours." It was a great deal but underpowered, a problem solved by installing hydrofoil stabilizers to the lower unit. "That Sunbird turned out to be a great boat that I kept for 14 years!"

Johnson and her husband, George, went on to purchase a Regal 2200 bow rider, which provided more great days on the water, but then the couple was introduced by a friend to wakesurfing. "While our kids were away at camp, we learned to surf," she says, and the kids immediately took to the sport. After researching and sea trialing several boats, they purchased a Cobalt R3 Surf, which they named Blew Bayou. They also have a Sea-Doo personal watercraft that everyone, including their Labradoodle, Hazel, enjoys riding.

Things have come full circle now for Johnson, and that circle shows no sign of breaking. "Boating and watersports have always been an integral part of my life, so when we had children, it was really important to me to continue the tradition. We put each of them on the boat as soon as they were born, and now it's an integral part of their lives as well," she says.

The kids are now teenagers but still want to invite their friends to the lake. "Thus, we have a house full of family and friends nearly every weekend we're there," Johnson says. "Like my Dad, I now spend hours teaching and pulling kids on tubes, skis, wakeboards, and surfboards. I teasingly complain about it, but really it's my absolute joy!"

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.