Eight Bells: Julie Nicholson

The world of crewed yacht charter lost one of its key industry pioneers in 2019: With family and loved ones at her side, Julie P. Nicholson died on February 27 at her home in Blue Hill, Maine. She was 90.

That no mold could define her life and career is an understatement. Lifelong sailor, Smith College graduate, and a certified Able-Bodied Seaman, she hailed from a wealthy, strict Yankee family, and was endowed with the hands-on, practical nature of a mariner. She married into the Nicholson family and became deeply involved in the business of crewed sailboat charter, a newfangled concept in the mid twentieth century that the Nicholsons are widely credited with creating.

While she started out as crew aboard the Nicholson fleet, she excelled at the details of arranging charters, matching client with boat. In so doing, Julie succeeded in making her own love of sailing contagious for people in search of a different kind of vacation experience, concocting the role of the crewed charter vacation broker. Today the superyacht sail and power charter industry, along with thousands of worldwide brokers, builders, crew, and owners who thrive from it, are the direct result of what the Nicholson clan, Julie chief among them, began.

Her name was Julie Pyle when she made landfall in Antigua in the early 1950s. The island was a scheduled stop during her 18-month circumnavigation aboard Irving and Exy Johnson’s Brig Yankee. By this time, Commander Vernon Edward Barling Nicholson, his wife, Emma, and sons Rodney and Desmond, had taken up residence in the decrepit British naval dockyard at English Harbour. Their charter business began with the 70-foot wooden schooner Mollihawk, which they’d brought to Antigua in 1949 to refit after crossing the Atlantic aboard her.

It all started informally, via word of mouth, with the Commander and his sons taking guests of the Mill Reef Hotel out for daysails. One thing led to another, and by the time Julie came ashore, met and married Rodney in 1954, the Nicholsons were busy managing a fledgling fleet of about a half dozen handsome monohulls for private owners, which included their own schooner, as well as ketches and yawl rigs. Charters ran from daysails to several weeks throughout the Leeward-Windward chains.

The fleet eventually grew to 22; the Nicholsons were nothing if not enterprising, helping raise the island economy to a new level. After they began a travel agency and opened the Admiral’s Inn, they decided to invite travel agents to Antigua to step aboard the boats and experience firsthand crewed yacht charter. So started The Nicholson Charter Yacht Show, today known as the Antigua Charter Yacht Show and in its 58th year.

The family also wove itself into the community fabric of Antigua; locals, globe-girdling sailors, and seasonal residents held them dear. Desmond was a founder of the Antigua Yacht Club and Antigua Sailing Week and became involved with efforts to restore the dockyard.

Meanwhile, under the Commander’s, Rodney’s and Desmond’s tutelage, Julie spent her days absorbed with logistics. “There’s the proper yacht for each guest,” she said in a 1984 profile in Chartering, an industry magazine. “You have the beamy boats with everything from bathtubs to air conditioning, and you have guests who love to hear the wood creaking, love to sun on the lovely teak decks, and appreciate the diamond-leaded glass of the salon cupboards.”

In 1972, after she and Rodney separated, Julie Nicholson returned to New England. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and continued the charter brokerage business there with Sylvia Weston and Karen Kelly Shea. In 2008, she moved her part of the business back to her childhood home of Blue Hill, Maine.

Today, the business and the reputation of the successful Nicholson brand carry on. From Antigua to the U.S. East Coast, family members and original employees run the constellation of offices. They include Nicholson Yacht Charters in Cambridge and in Blue Hill; Nicholson Yacht Charters & Services in Antigua; and Nicholson Yachts charter brokerage, fleet management and sales in Newport, Rhode Island.