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Ian Nicolson (1)

Author of Surveying Small Craft

For other authors named Ian Nicolson, see the disambiguation page.

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Works by Ian Nicolson

Associated Works

The dinghy year book 1963 (1963) — Contributor — 2 copies


Common Knowledge

Places of residence
Glasgow, Scotland, UK
yacht designer
naval architect
Ian Nicolson & Partners
Mylne Yachts



This is a recent reprint of an omnibus edition of three of Nicolson's early, autobiographical books. It looks as though he must have revised the text slightly when they were put together in 1986, as there are little comments of a "that was then..." nature here and there, but for the most part they remain as originally written, reflecting the attitudes and practice of sixty years ago, very much before the age of the mass-produced white fibreglass bathtub.

Obviously the three books were never intended to be read together like this, as they all rather clumsily open with exactly the same literary trope, a short account of an exciting experience that has nothing to do with sailing, or with the rest of the book. Once is OK, twice is actually quite funny, but by the third time you're just thinking "this guy needs a competent editor!"

It is interesting to get Nicolson's viewpoint as a professional designer as well as an amateur sailor — he confesses at one point that he doesn't like the sea all that much, but he's fascinated by boats and how they behave and how to make them better. Of course, the downside of this is that he knows the people reading these books are potential clients: unlike most sailors he can't go around blaming the designer when something doesn't work as it should. Since sailing books run on accidents and emergencies, whenever something does go wrong he has to rely on weather, operator error, or undue haste to get the thing in the water at last.

The log of the Maken (published 1961), which opens with a dangerous high-speed drive to Dover in a pre-war Morgan three-wheeler, is an account of Nicolson's first long ocean cruise, in 1953-4, when he joined a couple of other young men to sail a 45-foot Norwegian ketch from Weymouth to Vancouver via the Panama Canal. As well as the sailing detail, it's interesting because of what it says about the world as it was then, still very much in the aftermath of World War II — when they call at the Canary Islands they get a string of requests from islanders and from German refugees who want to be smuggled to South America, for instance. By coincidence, it turns out that they arrive in the Caribbean at about the same time as Ann Davison on her solo Atlantic crossing (My ship is so small) — Nicolson mentions her, but they don't actually seem to have met.

Sea-Saint (1957) opens with the author skiing down a hill near Vancouver. He's been working in the design office of a Canadian shipyard for a while, and he's now ready to return to England. He hitch-hikes to the East coast in the space of a page and a half (calling on some friends in California on the way), and proceeds to look for a ship to take him home as crew from Nova Scotia. Nothing suitable seems to be on offer, but instead he finds a part-completed 30-foot wooden hull at a shipyard in Chester, south of Halifax, and works out that he's just about got enough money to have it finished and fitted out if he works on the job himself. The remainder of the book describes the process of construction of the St Elizabeth, the design decisions he made along the way, and his trip across the North Atlantic (solo, after a series of potential companions let him down at the last minute). Interesting to see how much his budget-driven minimalism overlaps with purists like Bernard Moitessier: for ocean cruising there's no point in burdening yourself with an engine or an anchor which you can't use anyway; electrics, fresh-water tanks and plumbed-in toilets are just extra things to go wrong, so they might as well be left out. Nova Scotia has canneries: he gets one of them to can a batch of tap-water for him! But there's also a lot about the pleasures of working with the Nova Scotia craftsmen at the yard, and the book gets a rather Arthur Ransome flavour when various local children start helping him on the job: they all get to ride along on the first day of his voyage, along the Nova Scotia coast.

Building the St Mary (1963) opens with a dangerous high-speed drive to Helensburgh in a Triumph sports car. The author clearly hasn't grown up much in the intervening years, he's still counting on speed (and strategically-placed mud) to prevent policemen from being able to make a note of his registration number. But it turns out that he's now married, a partner in a design practice in Glasgow with a charter business on the side, and he's in the process of building a successor to the St Elizabeth, which will be a 35-foot wooden ketch for use as a family cruiser. There's a similar blow-by-blow description of the design and construction process, again with a focus on practicality, low cost, and elimination of "gadgets". There's also a lot of very sixties whingeing about the reluctance of British suppliers actually to sell anything to anyone they haven't been dealing with for generations — or to deliver things once they have accepted an order. And some very colourful description of the complications of moving heavy objects around in small boatyards before the days when everyone had access to portable cranes and fork-lifts. The book ends with a description of the ship's maiden voyage, taking part in a Clyde Cruising Club race to Tobermory.
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