Sentimental Sailor

John Wagoner enjoys life on the water

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Longtime sailor John Wagoner hopes to inspire local youth to enjoy boating. "This really is a paradise," he said, regarding the Columbia River. Wagoner credits the Sea Scouts organization and its leaders for inspiring him and teaching boating skills and teamwork.

Sea Scouts is a coed program offered by the Boy Scouts of America to individuals ages 14-21 .

For more information, contact Todd McDonald, program director, at or (503) 225-5711 or visit

John Wagoner remembers his 17th birthday — spent aboard a 622-foot long Navy ship, with 3,000 Army GIs on their way to Korea.

There were also Army officers and their families on the vessel, that Wagoner was taking to travel to Taiwan and Japan.

He was there as a member of the Sea Scouts, an organization that teaches boating skills and teamwork.

Sea Scouts is a coed program offered by the Boy Scouts of America to individuals ages 14-21 .

For more information, contact Todd McDonald, program director, at or (503) 225-5711 or visit

Wagoner, who grew up in the Fern Prairie area, recalls seeing profound poverty in Taiwan.

“When I got back to America, I had a very keen appreciation of the freedoms we have and the standard of living and the lives we get to live,” he said. “After you see the hard core poverty, you were glad to have a room to clean up.”

Wagoner, 64, credits the Sea Scouts and former leaders Pat Sheaffer and Ridell Barnes, with inspiring him to enjoy a lifetime of sailing.

“It teaches you self-confidence and self-reliance,” Wagoner said, regarding boating. “You learn by doing.”

He achieved the rank of quartermaster after being interviewed by the Sea Scouts Portland area council. Wagoner’s parents, Joe and Lorraine, were also interviewed.

After graduating from Camas High School in 1964, he attended Clark College for one year while working in the paper mill in downtown Camas.

“I had to make a living,” Wagoner said. “I did not have the money. I had to give up college.”

He was in the Army reserves from 1966 through 1972.

Wagoner worked at the paper mill for 35 years, before he retired in 2001. His two brothers, father and grandfather had also worked at the mill.

Wagoner, of Mount Norway, has two sailboats moored at the Port of Camas-Washougal marina.

One of his most memorable sailing trips involved traveling with his wife, Penny, and his friend Steve Sonneson, from Newport, Ore., to Honolulu, in 1984.

It took a month, one way, on Sonneson’s 32-foot sailboat.

“You are definitely on your own in the ocean,” Wagoner said. “Three days out, we got into a big storm. A wave washed over our boat. That was pretty spectacular.”

Sonneson had served in submarines and on riverboats in Vietnam.

“He was a very competent captain,” Wagoner said. “I had experience in the ocean.”

One night, the boat’s spinnaker pole was damaged, and Wagoner broke one of his toes on a deck cleat.

“That was an eventful night,” he said.

The boat was going to be moored in Hawaii, so the Wagoners flew back to the Northwest after their once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

John also remembers a boating trip near Vancouver Island and Barkley Sound. He saw more than 50 whales.

Wagoner said every trip is memorable, including traveling up the Washington coast when he was much younger, without fancy boating equipment.

The adventures enrich and have a profound impact on a person’s life, he said.

Wagoner recalls one of his coastal trips where he watched the sun go down over the Pacific. Then he rested before his next shift, which involved watching a full moon over the ocean.

“That’s the quality of life I feel so lucky to experience,” Wagoner said. “It’s so relaxing. You’re on heightened alert. You’re overcoming challenges, dealing with a storm, slicing through the waves. All of these experiences were done with friends.”

While sailing can be fun, Wagoner warns against becoming complacent.

“Even in the Columbia River, the water temperature is so cold, the river can kill you,” he said. “In the ocean, if things go bad, there is no one to call for help. Any time you are on a boat, it’s a good thing to be alert.

“Don’t take being on the water for granted,” Wagoner added. “Calm water seems real gentle, but stuff can happen. It’s just like driving a car.”

He said boaters should greet each other with a wave and offer to render assistance when needed.

Next year, Wagoner plans to spend four months in the San Juan Islands. That will involve friends joining him for shorter stays during their vacations.

Wagoner attended his 50th class reunion Saturday.

“I’m living a life that I could never have made up in ’64,” he said. “Material things could be gone tomorrow. Friends I’ve known for decades — close personal friends– are far more important. I’m lucky.”