Early home movies show a young Johnson training for a life at sea, climbing a telephone pole in his backyard, and wrestling to prepare for the inevitable fights he believed would occur due to his reading the novels of Jack London and Joseph Conrad.
Johnson became a professional sailor (joining the Merchant Marine in 1926) working summers as crew and captain of various yachts including the "Charmian" for Newcomb Carlton (President of Western Union.), which led to the opportunity to sail on the Peking. He was an amateur filmmaker and his footage on the barque Peking in 1929 would become the now famous film Around Cape Horn.
While serving as mate on board the Wanderbird, Johnson met (Harriet) Electa "Exy" Search whom he married in 1933. The Johnsons circumnavigated the world seven times on two vessels, both named Yankee, each trip with a new crew and each taking approximately 18 months. The first Yankee, bought in 1933, was a Dutch North Sea pilot schooner.  The second Yankee, bought in 1947, was a retired German North Sea pilot schooner which the Johnsons rerigged as a brigantine.  They then retired from circumnavigation and, in 1958-9, had the last Yankee built at Westhaven in Zaandam, Holland. She was a steel ketch for sailing the inland waterways of Europe, designed by Irving Johnson and Olin Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens. 
Many of the Johnsons' voyages have been documented in their own books and many articles and videos produced by the National Geographic Society and others throughout their sailing career. With an amateur crew, they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to the islands of the South Pacific, ports of call in Southeast Asia, around the Cape of Good Hope and home to Gloucester without incident 18 months later seven times.
World War II
Upon the urging of Bill Donovan, then head of the predecessor to the OSS, Johnson joined the U.S. Navy, and was at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. His intimate knowledge of the South Pacific made him a natural choice to advise the Pacific Fleet on the tides, swells, currents, depths and shoals around the treacherous reefs and atolls of the South Seas. He was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander, and joined the USS Sumner, finishing the war as her commanding officer. On board they created and printed five color charts, scouted out potential harbours for US Navy vessels, and conducted underwater demolition to improve the suitability of some of the harbours. Johnson also dove on recently sunken Japanese vessels, searching for classified Japanese documents. One success was a chart of the minefields surrounding Japanese harbors.
Much as his colleague Alan Villiers, Johnson would continue to educate the public of the majestic age of sail throughout his life, personally narrating showings of Around Cape Horn on board the Peking, now docked at South Street Seaport in New York City and working with Mystic Seaport and the Sea Education Association, serving as a Trustee of both until his death in 1991.
The doyenne of modern sail training, Exy Johnson would personally oversee the christening ceremonies of the vessels in whose construction she was instrumental until her death in 2004.
Former crew members of their voyages include actor Sterling Hayden and Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon. Dr. Sheldon's experience on board the ill-fated brigantine Albatross served as the basis for the movie White Squall (1996). Capt. Johnson also mentored yachtsman Jim Stoll, who became one of the directors of the Flint School.
- Captain and Mrs. Irving Johnson (1936). Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee. W.W.Norton, New York.
- Irving and Electa Johnson (1949). Yankee's Wander World. W.W.Norton, New York.
- Irving and Electa Johnson (1962). Yankee Sails Across Europe. W.W.Norton, New York. p. 12.
- Johnson, Irving (1932). Round the Horn in a square-rigger. M. Bradley. Retrieved October 10, 2010. (reprinted as Johnson, Irving (1995). The Peking Battles Cape Horn. Ingram Pub Services. ISBN 978-0-930248-07-9. Retrieved October 10, 2010.)
- Johnson, Irving (1933). Shamrock V's wild voyage home: and other sea-going adventures. Milton Bradley. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Harriet Electa Search (1936). Westward bound in the schooner Yankee. W. W. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Electa (1939). Sailing to see: picture cruise in the schooner Yankee. W. W. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Electa (1949). Yankee's wander world: circling the globe in the brigantine 'Yankee'. W. W. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Electa; Edes, Lydia (1955). Yankee's people and places. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Harriet Eleca Search (1962). Yankee sails across Europe. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Johnson, Irving; Johnson, Electa (1966). Yankee sails the Nile. Norton. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- Irving Johnson; Across the Atlantic in the "Shamrock V" (Yachting, January 1931)
- Irving Johnson; Discovering Islands (Yachting, February 1935)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; Westward Bound in the Yankee (National Geographic Magazine, January 1942)
- Irving Johnson; Goodbye Pacific, Hello Maine (Yachting, November 1945)
- Irving Johnson; Adventures with the Survey Navy (National Geographic Magazine, January 1947)
- Irving Johnson; England to Gloucester (Yachting, May 1948)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; The Yankee's Wander World (National Geographic Magazine, January 1949)
- Irving and Electa Johnson. Yankee Roams the Orient (National Geographic Magazine, March 1951)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; South Seas Incredible Land Divers (National Geographic Magazine, January 1955)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; The New Yankee (Yachts and Yachting, October 10, 1958)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; Lost World of the Galapagos (National Geographic Magazine, May 1959)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; New Guinea to Bali in Yankee (National Geographic Magazine, December 1959)
- Irving Johnson; The Ketch Yankee (Yachting, August 1960)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; Inside Europe Aboard Yankee (National Geographic Magazine, August 1964)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; Yankee Cruises the Storied Nile (National Geographic Magazine, May 1965)
- Irving Johnson; Getting Unstuck (Yachting, January 1968)
- Irving and Electa Johnson; Yankee Sails Turkey's History-Haunted Coast (National Geographic Magazine, December 1969)
- Electa Johnson; Yankee Cruises Inland Italy: Part I (Yachting, July 1973)
- Electa Johnson; Yankee Cruises Inland Italy: Part II (Yachting, August 1973)
- Yankee Sails Across Europe (National Geographic Society, 1967)
- Voyage of the Brigantine Yankee (National Geographic Society, 1968)
- Irving Johnson: High Seas Adventurer (National Geographic Society, 1985)
- Around Cape Horn (Mystic Seaport, 1985) (from original 16 mm footage shot by Irving Johnson, 1929)
- Irving Johnson (ship)
- Los Angeles Maritime Institute
- Mystic Seaport
- Obituary of Exy Johnson in the Boston Globe