Built entirely out of GRP, the Nicholson 32’s ocean-going pedigree remains desirable to this day, says Duncan Kent
The primary design considerations for the Nicholson 32 were to produce an easily handled yacht of moderate dimensions, capable of a sea-kindly sailing performance in all conditions.
She was to have the classic looks of a traditional wooden yacht but was in fact one of the first offshore cruisers to be built entirely out of GRP, to a high specification and enviable build quality.
A little history of the Nicholson 32
The Nicholson 32 was a development of the successful South Coast One Design (SCOD) and other proven Charles Nicholson designs like the nine-tonner, Jolina.
Charles’ son, Peter, believed demand for custom yachts was dwindling and glass-fibre production yachts were the future.
The Nicholson 32 had to meet three criteria.
It had to be about 32ft (9.7m) long, easy to build and cost less than £5,000 at the time.
The hulls were moulded by Halmatic in Portsmouth and mainly fitted out by Camper & Nicholson.
For maximum strength and integrity, the hull, deck, ballast, bulkheads and furniture were all bonded together.
Most have suffered from osmosis over the years and many will have been peeled, dried and re-gelled.
Make sure the cost of any osmosis remedial work is reflected in the price.
The marque went through 11 model upgrades, including some quite major redesigns.
The 1963 Mk I models (1-6) had mahogany joinery and individually built furniture.
A few changes were made for the Mk II (7-10), most importantly aluminium spars.
A good many more additions were made to the Mk III (11-40) and the Mk IV yachts (41-87), including a cockpit sole engine hatch, U-bolt chainplates, aluminium framed windows and a teak interior.
By 1966, the Mk V boat (88-111) was in production with numerous enhancements to the engine compartment and a stainless-steel fuel tank.
Further refurbishments to the interior, including replacing the pilot berth with a pull-out double, denoted the Mk VI (112-147) and Mk VII (148-190) yachts, while the Mk VIII (191-236) models had new windows and hatches.
There was no Mk IX but the Mk X (237-329) underwent major modernisation and restyling.
The freeboard was raised 3in/75mm, enabling the coachroof to be lowered and the windows redesigned.
Her cockpit was enlarged by removing the afterdeck, increasing her length to 10m/33ft, and the offset companionway was moved to the centreline.
Myriad other modifications were incorporated, including new scuppers, bow roller, locker drains and handrails, a better 12-volt electrical system and the interior was again updated.
In 1977, Halmatic built another 40 Mk XI models, after modifications to make it cheaper to build.
They introduced GRP furniture modules, a restyled galley, a quarterberth behind a forward-facing chart table and optional wheel steering.
Down below on the Nicholson 32
Early models had a basic layout.
The positioning of the water and fuel tanks above the keel left plenty of stowage beneath the bunks.
She had comfortable twin berths in the forepeak and two 1.93m/6ft 4in straight settees in the saloon, plus a pilot berth above the port settee.
From the Mk IV the latter was removed and replaced by a double, formed by sliding a board out from under the settee.
It wasn’t until the Mk X model that she gained a quarterberth.
The heads were forward of the saloon, with a sink opposite.
Sliding both forecabin and saloon doors closed gave privacy and plenty of room for washing.
The original galley was pretty rudimentary, with a non-gimballing Primus stove and a single sink with hand-pumped cold water.
Stowage was reasonable, though, and most will have been upgraded by owners.
Headroom is 1.83m/6ft throughout the saloon/galley area.
The chart table was originally a longitudinal, stand-at affair, but was later (Mk X+) moved to port, turned sideways and used the settee as a seat.
That allowed the galley to be enlarged to take a gimballed cooker. On deck Her cockpit is roomy and high coamings keep the spray out and crew in.
Stepping out onto the side decks is safe as they are wide and uncluttered.
The coachroof-mounted handrails are well within reach as far as the shrouds and her raised, teak-capped gunwales provide good foot bracing.
There were originally difficulties with moulded-in stanchion sockets, causing the decks to craze if any substantial sideways pressure was put on them.
Separate metal bases were used in later models.
The foredeck is roomy thanks to her broad shoulders and pre-1972 models have a moulded recess to accommodate a Danforth anchor.
This intruded into the forecabin quite noticeably, along with the chain pipe taking the rode down to a chain locker beneath the bunk.
The recess was finally removed in the Mk XI and replaced with a self-stowing, stemhead anchor roller for a CQR.
Her running rigging is simple, with long genoa tracks atop the bulwarks leading to large primary winches aside the helm.
Pre-Mk X models had the mainsheet track along the afterdeck, which was later moved to just abaft the rudder stock.
Rig & sails
All models were masthead rigged with a relatively short mast and a full set of stout shrouds.
Silver anodised masts from Proctors were installed from the Mk II model onwards and had a single set of straight spreaders.
She came with several hanked-on headsails at first, but a furling genoa was later provided as standard instead.
Some had an optional inner forestay (often removeable) for rigging a storm jib.
Her well-balanced seakeeping qualities and comfortable motion were accomplished by giving her a heavy displacement, long overhangs, a full keel and a 50% ballast ratio.
A 24ft waterline, broad shoulders and high wetted surface area means she isn’t particularly quick in modern terms, especially in light airs, but that said she is stiff, stands up well to full sail, is relatively light on the helm and exhibits very little leeway.
Her bluff bows and relatively broad shoulders can make her baulk sailing close-hauled in heavy seas, but usually freeing her off a few degrees cures the problem.
Her buoyant bow sections can produce a tendency to yaw downwind, so many advise adding some ballast up forward.
The combination of her short mast, hefty lead ballast, full keel and buoyant hull means she rarely heels beyond a comfortable ‘lean’.
Her barn door-style rudder can induce a little weather helm when pushed, but in mitigation the rudder never loses its bite, meaning she’s unlikely to broach in big seas.
Originally a 29hp diesel Watermota Sea Panther provided the power.
Like all long-keelers the Nicholson 32 was awful going astern under power.
The trick was to build up a little speed some way off where you wanted to end up and then knock it out of gear using the speed through the water to steer.
Too much speed, though, and the tiller would be ripped out of your hands!
S/Y Fals Cappa (Mk VII, HN 171, LD 1969)
Alan Thorne, 63, has owned the five berth Mk VII model for 10 years and says she’s a delight to sail.
Under his ownership he has carried out numerous improvements, including upgrading the headsail winches to self-tailing, adding spinnaker winches and Aries wind vane steering, plus many of the usual upgrades to modernise the electronics.
He has also removed the furling headsail in favour of hank-on sails.
Fals Cappa had already had her engine replaced when he purchased her.
‘I have found no faults in the design or construction,’ he notes.
Now widowed, he sails singlehanded along the East and South Coast, as well as to France, Belgium and Holland.
Asked how she sails, Alan says: ‘Wonderful! She sails like a dinghy, beautifully balanced, secure and reassuring in all sea conditions that I’ve encountered. Cuts through waves while other yachts are slamming or rounding up.
‘With an autopilot and wind vane a Nicholson 32 is a delight to sail single-handed. During the past couple of years, I have raced her single-handed too and thoroughly enjoyed it, although changing hank-on headsails mid-race is a tad exciting on short legs!’
S/Y Ballyhoo (Mk VIII, HN 203, LD 1970)
Sandy, 76 and Josephine, 72 Tyndale-Biscoe have owned Ballyhoo since 1999, and now keep her in Falmouth.
The couple both learned to sail dinghies as children.
Sandy also sailed the RNE Manadon college’s Morgan Giles 43 yachts when he was in the Royal Navy.
‘We were given an Albacore after we married, but found that small children and large, high-performance dinghies do not really mix. So, after some years canalling in a narrowboat, we bought Vin Rosé, a British Folkboat with a doghouse,’ says Sandy.
The couple have also owned a Fisher 25 Freeward before buying Ballyhoo at the Lymington Used Boat Show.
‘She is, I think, unique in having a deck-stepped mast. We replaced her engine with a 24hp Beta Marine in 2014. Otherwise,’ Sandy says, ‘she is original. We have found no faults beyond the usual wear and tear common in any boat of her age.
‘Ballyhoo has plenty of sail for the conditions where we sail. I generally use the Nº1 jib and take a reef above 12kts true wind. Once, during a Channel crossing in a westerly Force 6, the jib furler jammed, so we dropped the main and proceeded under genoa alone.
‘Unable to cross the Chichester Bar for three hours forced us to beat up the Solent for shelter. Discovering that Ballyhoo would sail to windward under genoa alone in such conditions gave us enormous confidence. I like the security of knowing that she is able to stand up to practically anything the weather can throw at her.’
S/Y Hy-Brasail (Mk IV, HN 85, LD 1965)
Simon Braunholtz, 62, has owned Hy-Brasail for eight years, in which time he has fitted a removable inner forestay and a diesel heater.
Before crossing the Atlantic, her previous owner led all lines into the cockpit to simplify reefing.
‘When I bought her there were leaky deck fittings and windows, which we fixed. Hy-Brasail has the pilot berth behind the port settee, which Simon says, ‘is an excellent berth for off-watch crew and extremely useful for stowing bags on passage.’
A flexible water tank in the forepeak feeds a foot-pump at the galley and the previous owner fitted a fridge.
She has a wind generator to keep the batteries topped up.’
For several years Simon kept Hy-Brasail in Scotland before moving her to Falmouth and finally Devon.
‘The Nicholson 32 is a lovely boat to sail. Her deep long hull with over three tonnes of lead ballast takes her through seas without bouncing around or slapping the water, although
her low freeboard means the toe-rails sometimes get wet. She is comfortable for two, although comfort is a relative term. She was built at a time when people wanted adventure on the water, rather than a chilled Chardonnay tied to a pontoon.
‘The Bukh 24 engine has proven reliable, with regular maintenance. Motoring backwards is “interesting”, but I’ve become accustomed to it.’
Simon also owns a 1970 Mk VIII model, Splashdown (HN 212), moored on the west coast of Scotland.
‘The main difference is she has no pilot berth so the settee is set further back. The additional space makes her more comfortable than Hy-Brasail and the cabin table is larger.
‘She is equipped with radar, AIS, a chartplotter, wind generator and an Aries wind vane, which I have rebuilt. Being previously kept in the Mediterranean, she also has a hatch in the main cabin to improve airflow.’
What the experts say about the Nicholson 32
Nick Vass, Marine Surveyor B,Sc B,Ed HND FRINA MCMS DipMarSur YS
A proper-looking yacht with more freeboard (and therefore dryer) than other Folkboat-inspired yachts such as the Contessa 32 and Twister.
A handsome boat with grown up gunwales and a proper long keel.
Joinery was made to a very high standard and these up-market yachts were equipped with good quality seacocks and deck furniture.
The Nicholson 32 enjoyed a very long production run and evolved through many models and updates.
The defect that I discover most frequently on them is osmosis.
Full-blown, proper inter-laminate osmosis and not the ‘almost osmosis’ that you find between the laminate and layers of gelcoat on a Westerly, for instance. I commonly find osmosis with other Halmatic boats, such as Nelson motor cruisers and pilot boats.
It could be that Halmatic used the same resins as Westerly at the time, which also suffer.
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Another theory is that, whilst obsessed with attaining and keeping Lloyds A1 Scantling Certification, Halmatic tended to over-consolidate the resins into the chopped strand glass-fibre matting and cloth, leaving them a little dry.
Saying that, just about all Nicholsons and Halmatic yachts that have suffered from blistering will have been treated by now.
If buying one, look out for blistering as epoxy treatment only tends to last around 10 years.
The last Nicholson 32 I surveyed still had its original Watermota Sea Panther 30hp engine.
It wouldn’t start so the broker called a young marine engineer to get it going.
He looked at me in disbelief when I told him it was a Ford Consul/Cortina petrol engine with a diesel cylinder head!
He thought that I was messing with him when I further explained that the starter motor was not powerful enough to get a diesel going so there was a special switch to join the batteries in series so they whacked out 24 volts.
Although Watermota engines are actually very good (the company is still making engines in Devon), most of these will have been replaced by now.
Deck joints and stem head fittings have been known to part on some models, but most are likely to have been rectified already.
Ben Sutcliffe-Davies, Marine Surveyor and full member of the Yacht Brokers Designers & Surveyors Association (YDSA)
I’ve had the pleasure of surveying many of these well-built yachts.
The issues of moisture are common in all of them although the ones I’ve dealt with haven’t been particularly deep, as most of the boats built by Halmatic had clear resins that generally don’t absorb moisture in the same way as pigmented resin.
As they are predominantly laminated from chop strand, any moisture will be held longer due to the short glass filament strands.
I’ve had no issues with the encapsulated fin keel and ballast incorporated within its lower forward production.
The GRP rudder was hung from the end of her keel moulding and suitably supported.
But I have had a few loose bronze cast shoes, and fastenings should be checked for moisture ingress.
Lastly, be aware that some older boats I’ve surveyed have had a gas locker that drains below the waterline, which will need a rethink.
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