Desmond V. Nicholson

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For the love of sailing and his island home

Desmond Nicholson, whose British family settled in Antigua and founded its charter industry, dies at 81

For the love of sailing and his island home

Desmond Nicholson, whose British family settled in Antigua and founded its charter industry, dies at 81

Desmond V. Nicholson, whose family helped birth Caribbean chartering, has died at the age of 81 in Antigua, his home of 57 years.

Nicholson sailed into Antigua with his father, Cmdr. V.E.B. Nicholson; mother Emmy; and brother Rodney on the 70-foot schooner Mollihawk in 1949, after his dad’s retirement from Britain’s wartime navy.

As Nicholson told the story, the family docked Mollihawk, a 1903 Linton Hope design, at the inner wharf at Nelson’s Dockyard, a then- neglected and abandoned yard in English Harbour where British colonial ships used to put in for repair. They liked Antigua so much they stayed and squatted at the yard, and fixed up the paymaster’s office as their shoreside home.

They started a charter business almost by accident when a wealthy American asked for a cruise down-island on their schooner. The Nicholsons put the family yacht in charter with Rodney or Desmond as captain, interested other owners in chartering out their yachts with crew — with the Nicholsons managing them — and Antigua’s lucrative crewed charter yacht business was born.

The Nicholson family businesses, Nicholson Yacht Charters, V.E.B. Nicholson & Sons and Nicholson Yachts Worldwide, became the engines that helped power the growth of the crewed yacht charter business in Antigua. Today the island hosts the Classic Yacht Regatta, Antigua Sailing Week, the Antigua Charter Boat Show — the biggest of its kind in the world with over 130 yachts — and is a charter base for dozens of charter yachts and megayachts, says Karen Kelly, owner and president of Newport, R.I.-based Nicholson Yachts, a charter management company once affiliated with the Nicholson family.

Nicholson had a hand in making all that happen, Kelly says. He was also a founder of Carib Marine and the Admiral’s Inn in Antigua.

“He was very animated and charming, and loved to tell stories,” she says. “He loved to take people on hikes through the trails of Antigua.”

Nicholson became a distinguished amateur historian and archaeologist specializing in things Antiguan. He was a founder of the Nelson’s Dockyard Museum in English Harbour and the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St. Johns, and helped spearhead the restoration of the dockyard into a historical and tourist center. His interest in local history blossomed after he found some pottery shards and a stone ax — relics of Arawak Indian culture — while swimming with charter guests in English Harbour. He would go on to become a president of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology.

He was an enthusiastic believer in educating Antiguans about their history. Archaeologist Reginald Murphy, director of the dockyard museum, says Nicholson interested him in archaeology while he was a student in high school. “He was the first one to bring archaeology to regular people, to the schools,” Murphy says. “He got the kids interested. He got everyone interested.”

Nicholson wrote dozens of books and tracts on local history and archaeology, Murphy says, but he wrote so the layperson could read and understand them.

Nicholson also was very active in efforts to preserve the island’s beauty and resources, and to create a sustainable tourism-based economy — one that doesn’t destroy its charms, Murphy says.

“He touched just about everything here,” he says.

Nicholson is survived by his wife, Lisa, three daughters, Sarah, Nancy and Celia, and his brother Rodney.