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Nostalgia and Renewal: Antigua’s Yachting Legacy

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  • As Antigua’s south coast harbours once again bustle with yachting activity, Jol Byerley reflects on the legacy of Commander Nicholson and his role in launching the booming yacht chartering trade in the Caribbean during the mid-1950s.
  • Join Byerley as he recounts the highlights of his chartering adventures aboard the 70ft schooner Mollihawk and the 73ft schooner Lord Jim, and how these experiences paved the way for the growth of the chartering industry.
  • Embark on a journey through time as Byerley shares the enchanting story of Eilean, the 72ft yacht designed by William Fife, from her days under various owners, including Duran Duran, to her recent acquisition and restoration plans in Italy.

With the harbours on Antigua’s south coast such as English Harbour (where chartering in the islands really began) and the much larger Falmouth Harbour and its three large marinas once again full, I had to remember my early days in the Caribbean. Of course we owe it all to Commander Nicholson and his sons.

Under the Commander’s firm hand, the booming trade of yacht chartering was up and running in the mid 1950s. With the passing of Desmond Nicholson, the Commander’s eldest son, there is only now Rodney left. But I will always remember when I took over the 70ft schooner Mollihawk and ran her through the islands on charter as one of the highlights of my life. By the mid sixties I somehow found myself owning two fine yachts–the first one having been Ron of Argyll (now still being a charter boat in and around the Whit Sunday Islands in Australia) and the second being the 73ft schooner Lord Jim.

They were fabulous days with the charter parties being mostly from the USA and the islands being practically untouched from a sailing point of view. With Lord Jim I was very lucky to have Richard Cuckson as part of the crew. He soon became mate and I suppose it was inevitable that after a period of years, he was to go back to the UK and buy the beautiful 72ft Eilean designed and built by William Fife on the Clyde. There were many times that we would meet up either in the channels between the islands or in some empty harbour where the two of us would quietly slip away to a friendly bar and talk about old times. Richard was soon lured away from his own vessel to become a professional skipper on mega yachts which worked the summers in the Mediterranean and the winters in the Caribbean.

Then a good few years later the gorgeous Eilean was bought by Frenchman John Shearer and once again I was delighted to see this fine vessel chartering in the West Indies. As the years went by the yachts based in Antigua grew in size. More and more massive motor yachts became regular and to this day I am very proud to say that many of them were operated by Lord Jim’s ex crew who had become first class skippers.

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Then in 1982 with John Shearer still running Eilean, the British pop group Duran Duran, led by Simon Le Bon, chartered Eilean to make  a video. I was employed to pick the locations and be the local gopher. What a blast that was! For Simon and the band became good friends and the whole thing took much longer than expected, much to everyone’s delight.

But Captain John, like many before him, found long term chartering and the demands of a family hard to keep up. Eilean was laid up in English Harbour and slowly, very slowly sailed less and less. And just the other day we heard that she had been bought by a discerning company with a view to total restoration in Italy. We wondered how she would every get there. Anyway, she was towed down to Cul de Sac Le Marin by John Bentley’s Antiguan-based tug Sea Pony by Tony Maidement and an experienced delivery crew to be put on a freighter and delivered to the yard where she will be rebuilt. What an absolutely wonderful finale for this beautiful yacht. Hopefully we will see her again back in all her glory.

The other exciting news is that some of you may just remember that in 1966, David Boyd, a well known Clyde based designer who specialized in metre type boats including the 12 Metres Sovereign and Scepter, put the lines together for a little ‘ mini” 12 which became known as the Piper One Design. So lovely is this little boat that several of us here in Antigua have asked Oliver Greensmith of Antigua Boat Builders to consider building her for Class racing in the Caribbean. Now I am so excited with this project that I can hardly sleep at night. We will keep you very informed about this in the future.

Jol Byerley arrived in Antigua in 1957 to captain Commander Vernon Nicholson’s schooner Mollihawk. In 2004 he was awarded a G.O.M. by the Governor General of Antigua and Barbuda for long service to yachting.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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