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Missing Brainerd native’s boat washes ashore across the ocean

Joseph Matthew Johnson, a Brainerd native who has been missing for seven months, had his boat wash ashore in the Azores Islands June 21.

Man holding a fish on a boat.
Joseph Matthew Johnson, a Brainerd native, poses with a fish on his boat in the Atlantic Ocean in this undated photo. Johnson's boat washed ashore seven months in the Azores islands June 21, 2022, after he went missing in November 2021.
Contributed / Mary Kay Anderson
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BRAINERD — A boat washed ashore June 21 on the small island of São Jorge, some 2,700 miles across the ocean from its launch in North Carolina seven months earlier.

That boat belonged to 44-year-old Joseph Matthew Johnson, who grew up in the Brainerd lakes area and was reported missing Nov. 27, 2021. That day, Johnson did not show up for a previously arranged fishing trip with a friend, said Mary Kay Anderson, Johnson’s mother.

“I got a text from his ex-wife saying that the police had come to her house and were asking her if she knew where Joe was,” Anderson said during a phone interview Thursday, June 30. “This text from her said that Joe had gone off fishing five days ago and hadn't come back. When I saw that text, on Thanksgiving weekend, I just fell to the floor, because I just knew something happened.”

With Johnson’s boat being found, Anderson said she received an outpouring of support as she continues to search for her son, the second of four boys and the father of a 15-year-old. She is confident he will be found alive as he has the will and training to do just that.

“All we're doing right now is waiting, waiting for Joe's return,” Anderson said. “We've been saying all along that we're believing a miraculous rescue. And we're Christians, we're believers and so we've got people all around the world praying for Joe.”

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Google Maps screenshot of the Federal Point Yacht Club marina in North Carolina.
Google Maps screenshot of the Federal Point Yacht Club marina in North Carolina.
Screenshot / Tim Speier

Johnson left the Federal Point Yacht Club marina in North Carolina Nov. 22, 2021, for a day of fishing on the open water, as he often did, but unlike all his previous trips, he has yet to return, Anderson said.

Four brothers on the couch.
Joseph Matthew Johnson, left, and his brothers Paul, Jeremiah and Aaron.
Contributed / Mary Kay Anderson

“The Coast Guard called me every four hours to update me on what was going on,” Anderson said. “Then, three days later, I knew it was coming, because I'm an RN (registered nurse), and I worked in the intensive critical care unit at the hospital for 17 years. Before we take somebody off a ventilator, we kind of walk them through what we've done, and where the patient is with the diagnosis and prognosis. And let them kind of see it in their mind and arrive at the answer themselves without saying, ‘Hey, we need to pull the plug. You know that we've done everything we can and now just say your goodbyes.’ We ease the family in as gently as we can.

“And so I knew exactly what (the Coast Guard lieutenant) was doing.”

JosephMatthewJohnson.png
Joseph Matthew Johnson.
Contributed / National Missing and Unidentified Persons System

The Associated Press reported the U.S. Coast Guard searched nearly 7,500 square miles in November of 2021 for Johnson, but the search was called off when no new information was found. Video surveillance confirms the boat leaving the marina Nov. 22 and the last ping from his cellphone came from off the coast of Bald Head Island at 5:17 p.m. that same day.

No more information about Johnson’s disappearance emerged, until the discovery of his boat last month. São Jorge is one of nine volcanic islands in the Azores, located about 870 miles off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System listing on Johnson , the Carolina Beach Police Department received information June 21 from authorities in São Jorge about the 19-foot 2006 Marine Clearwater boat.

Google screenshot of São Jorge Island
Google Maps screenshot of São Jorge Island in relation to Portugal.
Screenshot / Tim Speier

“The condition of the vessel showed heavy barnacle and algae buildup indicative of the vessel having been capsized and/or on shore for an unknown extended period of time,” according to the case information. “The Portuguese authorities conducted an examination of the vessel and a search of the area and was unable to locate Mr. Johnson or obtain information on his whereabouts.”

Anderson’s belief in her son finding a way to survive all these months goes back to how he spent much of his adult life. Johnson is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who served for 24 years with tours in Afghanistan and South America.

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When Johnson was 18 years old, a recruiter came to his house to talk to his older brother. Instead, he began talking to Johnson.

Four men pose with rifles.
Joseph Matthew Johnson, second from left, posing with three men.
Contributed / Mary Kay Anderson

“Joe was just really drawn in by everything the recruiter said, and he said, ‘Mom, I think this is what I need to do,’” Anderson said.

Anderson said after earning his GED certificate in 1996, Johnson left Brainerd at 19 to join the Army and within a few years, he was one of the youngest to go through the training for special forces. And then in 2001, right after 9/11, he was sent to Afghanistan. She said he always made it back from his tours, even though some of his fellow soldiers did not.

“When he lived here in Minnesota, he did all the fishing things and was also a hunter,” Anderson said. “So he really just took advantage of living in central Minnesota and everything that it had to offer. When he went into the military, you know, that took up a lot of his time, but in his spare time, he developed a love for ocean fishing.”

He was an adventurous kid who did really well in school. Anderson said he had a core group of friends in school but wasn't into sports like basketball or football, but enjoyed outdoor sports like fishing and hunting.

Anderson asked her son after his 2020 retirement if he would ever come back to live in Minnesota. “And he says, ‘No, Mommy, I'm really established down here in North Carolina, the weather's wonderful, I love the ocean.’ And I said you've got Minnesota blood in you. And he said, ‘Yeah, but it's a lot thinner now.’”

Soldiers posing
Joseph Matthew Johnson poses with his team in Afghanistan in 2007. Out of caution over the assignments other soldiers in the photo might have, the Dispatch obscured their identities.
Contributed / Mary Kay Anderson

A group of Johnson's fellow soldiers from special forces, hearing of his boat washing up in the Azores, reached out to Anderson. They told her they were forming their own search party to begin searching for her son, she said.

“I'm glad that, you know, they're taking the initiative,” Anderson said. “It’s quite a brotherhood, special forces have for one another. They band together. It's a lifelong friendship that many of them have.”

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The camaraderie, the friendship, knowing every detail of each other’s lives and depending on each other — it brings people super close, she said. So close, Johnson’s military brothers are willing to search for him on deserted islands that dot the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which hardly anyone knows about.

“He loves fishing, he really does,” Anderson said. “He said that there was just a serenity, about the ocean. Sometimes he'd go out at night, and he sends me pictures of the sun going down. And then the next morning, he's still out in this boat fishing.

“The sun would come up and he’d send me the pictures and I'd always say, ‘Joseph, please tell me you didn't spend the night out in your boat.’ ‘Oh, yes mama. It's so different here at night, the ocean, no other boats. It's just real quiet. All you hear is the waves.’”

TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email tim.speier@brainerddispatch.com .

Related Topics: EVERYDAY PEOPLEBRAINERD
Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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