N32 - The Classics

The Classics

© Yachting World – April 1983 (p.58-62), and reproduced with permission

The Nicholson 32 heralded the advent of series boat production in glassfibre and began a revolution in building techniques, most of which are common practice today. We visited Halmatic and Camper and Nicholsons and we also spoke to Peter Nicholson while tracing the boat’s history. M.D. Duff, surveyor, Eric Adams and Yachting World deputy editor, David Glenn, inspected a Mk VIII and sailed one of the latest Mk XIs built by Halmatic.

There can be few greater or more extraordinary milestones in the evolution of small yacht building than the introduction of the Nicholson 32. Twenty years ago, her revolutionary glassfibre modular construction was completed in the unlikely surroundings of an aircraft hangar in Wymeswold in the heart of England. The design came from the fertile minds of Peter Nicholson and his father Charles, the former concentrating on accommodation and hull profile from a marketing point of view and the latter converting these ideas into practical material for the drawing board.

The 32 was a development of boats like the highly successful South Coast One-Design and other proven winners designed by Charles Nicholson, such as the 9-tonner Jolina and the 12-tonner Lothian, both built by Clare Lallow. It may seem incongruous that a company famous for building some of the largest wooden sailing boats of past and present, including the mighty J Class yachts, should plan the series production of a tiny 32-footer in glassflbre. Peter Nicholson, however, was convinced that the way ahead in small yacht construction lay in this material. The demand for one-off building was dwindling and he recognised the need for a range of standard boats. But he knew that Camper and Nicholsons didn’t have the means or the inclination to start production boatbuilding, so in 1960 he went to Halmatic Ltd, the moulders, a company then based in Portsmouth which had just been taken over by the giant Hunting Group.

Halmatic had already been approached by John G. Alden, the American designer, to build the Alden 34, 36 and 38. These boats, with glassflbre hulls and superbly finished, hardwood interiors, could be built far more cheaply in England.
Their first joint project was the Nicholson 36 and, although only about 20 were built, they are still sought after today. The idea was to produce a glassfibre-hulled boat which was so well finished in wood that it would be difficult to tell that it was based on a moulding. About the only other glassfibre production boat then on the market was the Van de Stadt-designed Pioneer built by Southern Ocean Shipyards. This boat was all glassfibre, with no attempt made to disguise the mouldings. Nicholson thought his wood finish technique might be more attractive to those used to traditional boats and he was right.

The 36 was moulded by Halmatic and finished at Gosport, where operations were slow and unsuited to relatively mass production. Peter Nicholson felt that the logical progression from here was to what he termed the ‘people’s boat’. The design had to meet three criteria. It had to be about 32ft (9.7m) long, easy to build and cost less than £5,000. The Nicholson 32 was about to be born.

Since 1963, when the first 32, called Forerunner, was launched, 369 examples of the class have been built and the price has risen from £4,500 to about £30,000 depending on specification. There have been 11 Marks, each one including modifications and improvements. Mark X saw a major change, with a new deck and coachroof moulding and a 3in (70mm) addition to the freeboard of the hull moulding.

Apart from being a ‘first’ in new building techniques (always exemplified by the separate toilet moulding) the Nicholson 32 was the first British production boat to have thorough sales literature in the form of a glossy brochure, written by Peter Nicholson.

The relationship between Camper and Nicholsons and Halmatic was cemented with the 32 project. Dennis Porter completed the tooling work at Portsmouth in 1961 and, in the summer of 1962, the prototype mouldings were delivered to the fitting out yard in Wymeswold. This was the home of Field Aircraft Services, Marine Division, a company owned by the Hunting Group, which specialised in wooden aircraft building and fitting out the interiors of executive jets.

Modular glassfibre inner mouldings, an encapsulated lead keel and bonded-in bulkheads, made for the fast, strong construction of the 32. Norman ‘Nobby’ Hall was in charge of the Wymeswold operation and with Jerry Lines at Camper and Nicholsons in Gosport, they ironed out the bugs in the first six pre-production boats. The highly skilled fabric and woodworking specialists at Field Aircraft not only ensured a high standard of finish within the boats , but also tried their hand at spar and sailmaking. These efforts were shortlived and Campers soon used established manufacturers like Proctor and Ratsey.

Considering the number of production breakthroughs the 32 was making, there were surprisingly few problems as the first boats were put through their paces, possibly because optional extras and interior design changes were kept to a minimum.

Perhaps the worst fault was a leak which emanated from the chain plate fixing and transferred water right round the boat in the cavity formed by the deck to hull joint. As can be seen in the diagram, the deck and hull upstands formed the joint. Flat strap-type chain plates passed through the joint and were then simply bonded to the topsides. All was well while the rig was in tension, but when sailing upwind, the leeward shrouds would loosen off and allow water in through the joint. The water then flowed through the cavity formed by the additional interior bonding. To locate the leaks, Halmatic had to dye the water. The problem was eventually solved by injecting a mixture of resin and sawdust into the joint, which not only stopped the leaking, but also formed a solid base for the mahogany toe-rail.
This leaking occurred in several of the early boats, but in 1966 (from boat number 41 onwards) the chain plate was completely changed. Instead, a U-bolt type was fitted, which went through the deck and picked up a massive (about 1in [25mm] diameter) stainless steel bar, which then passed through a strong web bonded to the inside of the topsides. This system still exists today, the beauty of it being that if the shrouds (or even the chain plates) have to be removed, the fixing can be dismantled with ease. The only other structural problem, which surveyor Eric Adams reported was a slight flexing and crazing of the hull mouldings 200 to 210. A thinner but stronger laminate was used for a few boats, the flexing caused some superficial damage around the main bulkhead areas. These boats were then taken back to the yard, stiffened and made good.

The emotive subject of osmotic blistering is one which has certainly not escaped the Nicholson 32, but Eric Adams said that almost all boats with this problem had been treated successfully. He had found that there were more osmotic problems with younger boats, which might support Nobby Hall’s contention that it is not the building process which is at fault, but the application of new primers which react with gel coat surfaces. Mr Hall now believes that gel coats over five years old are incapable of accepting self- etching primers without letting the solvent right through into the glass laminate. Paint manufacturers nowadays discourage the use of primers like this, but in the past there has been an understandable temptation to apply primer once the antifouling has been removed.

In a brief chronicle of the history of all 11 marks of the Nicholson 32, it is worth looking at some of the major alterations made, beginning with standard engine changes. The installation until 1971 was the Watermota Sea Wolf engine, which developed 27hp (20kW) and drove a two-bladed 16in x 12in (460mm x 340mm) propeller on a 1in (25mm) bronze shaft. The 10hp (7.4kW) Sabb diesel was chosen as the standard engine installation from 1971 to 1973, although some people felt that this wasn’t powerful enough for the boat’s 6 ton displacement. In 1974, the standard was changed to the Watermota Sea Panther diesel, which developed 29hp (21.6kW) and swung the same prop as the Sea Wolf. There were options during the series production and these were the 16hp (12kW) Sabb diesel, 29hp Watermota Sea Panther (until 1973) and the 15hp (11.1kW) Volvo Penta MD2 diesel. The Sea Panther is still standard.

The Mark I version covered the preproduction batch of six boats, all launched in 1963, several going to owners of South Coast One-Designs. The unit-moulded furniture proved to be a success and other features met with immediate public approval. For instance, it was the first time a builder had moulded in stainless steel backing plates to take fixing bolts for deck fittings. Peter Nicholson was intent on selling a boat that was almost ready to sail away, so for the initial price £4,900 (the very first were sold for £4,500) the 32 was fully equipped.
Only £10 was added to the prlce of the Mark II version, which covered boats seven to ten. Silver anodised masts from Proctors were stepped instead of the Field Aircraft and non-anodised Proctor versions. Problems with the moulded-in stanchion sockets caused concern. When sideways pressure was put on the stanchion, the gel coat would craze where it came into contact with the upright.
Boats 11 to 40 were built mainly in 1965 with their deck joinery in teak instead of mahogany. It is interesting to note that the cost of teak was a mere 33 shillings/cu.ft. and that the equivalent amount today would be about £35. The recess in the foredeck to accommodate a Danforth anchor was also introduced at this stage and although it was another first in terms of stowage design, it intruded into the forecabin quite severely. However the idea survived until the new deck moulding was made in 1972. In fact, there were no less than 230 modifications made for the Mark III version, includlng the addition of white window trim to hide the rubber seals they were set in.

In 1966. Clare Francis bought the Nicholson 32 Gulliver G and her famous single-handed crossing of the Atlantlc, in 1973, did a great deal for the class. Gulliver G was one of the Mark IVs which covered boats number 41 to 87. The new Halmatic factories at Havant were finished in 1973 and the completion work on the 32 was transferred from Wymeswold to this new site in the same year. Oiled teak furniture was introduced on this Mark. The price at this stage was still just £5,475. In 1965, the number of scuppers was reduced from three to one each side which was insufficient, so the Mark V compromised at two, but increased their bore. Other modifications for this Mark included re-designed engine beds, which could take the Sea Wolf Sabb or Volvo. The beds consisted of stainless steel plates bonded into a girder-type glassfibre moulding, which also incorporated a great engine oil drip tray. The propeller aperture was increased to take the larger propeller of the Sabb.
The major change in the Mark VI version, built during 1967/1968. was the removal of the pilot berth from the port side and the inclusion of a double, formed by pulling a section of the settee out towards the centreline. This made the main saloon much less cramped and gave the boat a simple, practical double berth.
Mark VII was produced in 1969 and saw the prlce reach £6,260. but it was the Mark VIII in 1970/71 which underwent major refurbishment before the decision was made to re-mould the deck and completely re-design the interior. The VIII spanned boat numbers 191 to 236, with re-styled windows. CQR anchor stowage, the addition of the Canpa forehatch instead of the original solid moulding and a new anti-slip moulding amongst the changes. By 1971, the price had risen to £7,150 and although the 32 was still selling well, it was beginning to look old-fashioned alongside newer designs.

Improvements before the re-moulding included the fitting of Lewmar 40 sheet winches instead of the inefficient Canpa Es and changing the standard engine to the diesel Sea Panther, an economical unit, but complicated by a 24V starter motor which was incompatible with the boat’s main wiring. Eventually, a 12V system was designed for the starter, but not before many buyers took the Sabb option.

In 1972, the 32 underwent such fundamental re-design that the entire appearance of the boat changed. The main hull mouldings were retained (the hull is made in two halves) but the freeboard was increased by 3in (76mm) and alterations made to the stern gave her a ‘new’ overall length of 33ft (10m). The deck moulding was scrapped and the new version with re-styled and cleverly re-positioned windows was introduced. The offset (to starboard) companionway was replaced with one on the centreline. Cockpit coamings were made a lot deeper and without an after deck, and much more space was introduced forward of the steering position. Although tiller steering was standard and the wheel an extra, the latter became the most popular option when it was first offered in 1977, the launch date of Mark XI.

Changes down below saw an athwartships chart table moved to the port side . but the quarterberth just abaft this was not included until 1977. The galley was positioned on the starboard side and improvements were also made to the stemhead roller, cockpit drains, battery box, deck scuppers, sail locker drains and hatchboards.

Changes in the market place were happening so quickly that Camper and Nicholsons had already drawn up plans for a new boat, the 31, which first appeared in 1976. Camper and Nicholsons were sure that a new boat was needed to meet public demand, but with this move came Halmatic’s decision to withdraw the Nicholson 32 selling rights, so that they could market the boat themselves.
There are 31 Mark Xl boats afloat at present and, despite changes aimed at cost reduction, the boat is still relatively highly priced at around £30,000, depending on specification. One interesting aspect which has kept the price high is the cost of lead. Unless a new hull moulding is designed, there is no alternative to the encapsulated lead keel. The same volume of iron would require the centre of gravity to be raised and would therefore ruin the balance of the boat, and if more metal was poured in, the sole would have to be raised and headroom would be lost. When the boat was first produced, lead cost about £30 a metric ton. A Nich 32’s keel would therefore work out at about £100. Today the cost has soared to a prohibitive £350 a ton …

The Mark XI saw the arrival of a glassfibre accommodation module which did much to improve the look of the boat, keep lockers dry and clean and allow further modification of the galley area. Other major changes were the introduction of the port side quarterberth and the removal of the intrusive anchor locker. This was replaced by a stemhead roller, which could carry a CQR anchor properly.
Stock production of the 32 has now ceased. They can be built to order by Halmatic and are available in part assembly. According to Nobby Hall, many enquiries are still received, particularly from owners of existing boats.

An extremely active owners’ association is run by the secretary, Mrs Isobel Porter (note: in 1983) and there are many annual events which attract members. There are great advantages in joining such an association, not the least being a ten per cent discount on insurance premiums under a scheme run by Bowring Camper and Nicholsons Ltd.

Boats inspected
Looking through the classified advertisements of yachting magazines and talking to the staff on the yacht broking side of Camper and Nicholsons, it is fair to say that a well equipped Mark XI boat in good condition should fetch from about £21,000 to £23,000. However, there was some evidence to show that prices had recently been lowered.

We inspected the Nicholson 32 Murmur, a Mark VIII built in 1970, which was laid up on hard standing at the Camper and Nicholsons site at Gosport. Eric noted that there was slight blistering just forward of the propeller aperture, noted the strongly attached rudder (he’s never found a troublesome one) and pointed out the neatly recessed cathodic protection anode fitting. This boat was fitted with a Sabb diesel and swung a two-bladed propeller on a shaft which showed almost no sign of any wear in its taiI bearing.

Some of the teak sheathing was coming away from the bulwark on the starboard side, but this could be repaired easiIy. The main problem up forward on this boat was the heavily crazed Canpa hatch, which Eric thought would need replacing. He also commented on the U-bolt chain plate fastenings which were made of a rounded section length of stainless steeI. He pointed out that where the clevis pin of a bottle screw bore against the U-bolt, the latter tended to groove and harden and he recommended that this should be regularly inspected. A neat point in this area was the provision of indelible labels screwed to the inside of the bulwark indicating forward, mid and after slinging positions.

The deck was equipped with well-sized guardrails at the right height, set in stanchions using the Lewmar-style sockets instead or the unsatisractory moulded-in sockets. We noted that the streamlined dorade vents on deck had survived throughout the development of the 32. The advantage or them is that their shape prevents ropes snagging. Although the old cockpit is relatively small, it still offers good protection, and has an attractive teak coaming. The laminated wooden tiller is well positioned and the mainsheet is out of the way on the small after deck. Good points include the moulded-in drains in the forward corners or the cockpit, the wooden sheet cleats and the moulded pedestals for the Canpa E winches. These winches would probably have to be repIaced with more efficient, modern equivalents.

Being a Mark VIII version, this boat could sleep five with two in the forecabin and three in the main saloon, using the port side pull-out double which replaced the pilot berth of the earlier versions. It was easy to get at the chain plate fixings in the lockers either side of the head compartment module and Eric Adams noticed a sIight leak on the by way of the starboard U-bolt fixing.

The conventional layout in the saloon made for easy movement fore and aft , and good points included the excellent centreline table, good locker space over the port hand berth and solid fiddles on the work surfaces. The classic U-shaped galley on the port side left little to be desired in terms of work space and seamanlike stowages for crockery, although there seemed to be a lack of locker space for food. The big problem with the cooker is the gas bottle stowage which is just to port of the engine compartment with no provison for overboard draining. Eric Adams strongly recommended that this be re-located in the cockpit.

This boat has an outboard facing chart table on the starboard side and just abaft, a spacious cool box. Although there are drip catches-cum-finger- grabs running the whole length or the saloon, beneath the windows there was a need for a more solid deckhead grabrail. Both the fuel and water tanks are shaped to fit into the deep bilge of the boat, sitting on top of the expensive but characteristic lead keel. Some of the electrical wiring looked in need of attention and battery stowage in one of the cockpit lockers could have been improved, although some effort had been made to secure the battery in the event of a knockdown. Eric Adams thought the boat was sound.

The boat we sailed was Emmbrook, a four-year-old Mark XI owned by Graham Bailey. Graham uses the boat for Channel cruising and even in the winter he drives to Gosport every week and sails if the weather is reasonable. The first owner of Emmbrook only kept her for six months. Graham said that this was his first boat and the Nicholson 32’s long, deep keel was one of the features which helped him to buy.

We sailed her on a bright, breezy day out of Gosport in a 15 to 25 knot east-south-easterly which allowed us to carry full main and a working jib. Fitted with Whitlock chain and cable wheel steering, she was a pleasing boat to sail upwind, although by modern standards she was not able to sail very close to the wind. Hard on the wind, we just managed to put the rail under, which was the limit of heel for maximum efficiency. She remained light on the helm, had an easy motion with no slamming and appeared to be stiff in the gusty conditions. We felt that a more powerful mainsheet arrangement would facilitate trimming. We were slightly undercanvassed for off wind work and the boat tended to yaw quite violently in the Solent chop. Indeed the 32s are renowned for being particularly buoyant right forward. She was equipped with a well worn suit of Butler Verner sails which set well on the simple rig. It is interesting to note that the rig has remained unchanged since the boat was designed.

There were major differences in the accommodation compared with Murmur and we thought Halmatic had done an excellent job finishing the interior. Points which were noticeable were the heavy deep fiddles on all work surfaces and the clever use of space, particularly in the chart table area. The forecabin had been greatly improved by the removal of the deck anchor locker. The trusty head compartment module has remained the same, although a mirrored glass locker door spoils the wash basin area. This boat had a complete inner moulding which made lockers clean and dry, helped to insulate the boat and assisted in the design of the galley. One thing we did notice while sailing was how quiet it was down below while the boat was sailing to windward.

The new deck moulding for the Mark X and XI has the slightly raised dog house section of the coachroof pushed further forward so that there is more standing headroom in the saloon. Also, forward facing windows in the doghouse and at the forward end of the coachroof let plenty of light into the cabin. There are only two coachroof windows each side. The port side settee in the main saloon converts easily into a double and the seat backs on both settees can be lifted up and secured to make useful stowage surfaces while sailing. The main table has remained largely unchanged, but the navigation area is to port with a spacious quarterberth running aft and the galley is to starboard. The gas bottle for the stove has been moved into a draining compartment in the cockpit as have the batteries, but we wondered whether these might be prone to salt water dousing as there was no seal on the wooden lid.

This boat was fitted with the 25hp (18.6kW) Watermota Sea Panther diesel and, although access had been somewhat restricted by the addition of the quarterberth, there was still just about enough room to reach most parts of the engine. Graham Bailey said that he gets 6 knots when cruising at about 1,700 rpm and 16 gallons (73 lit) of diesel give him adequate range.

Although big changes have been made in the cockpit design, there are still snags. For instance, when the excellent cockpit dodger is in position it is difficult to step over it and onto the side deck. However, when the dodger is down, there is a neat, moulded-in step to make the operation slightly easier . There are four cockpit drain outlets, which should be adequate for most eventualities, and a large sole opening which gives further access to the engine. There is a small hatch just forward of the steering pedestal which allows access to the shaft bearing.

With her extra freeboard, we don’t think the Mark X and XI look as good as the original boats, but other improvements have been well worthwhile and Halmatic certainly finish the boats beautifully. Although he’s selling Emmbrook, Graham Bailey is still ecstatic about the boat, a feeling which seems almost universally shared by all owners of Nicholson 32s.

Yachting World – April 1983