Life After Swallowing the Anchor
by Julie Lea
Morris Nicholson, a charterboat skipper in the West Indies in the half-century after World War II, died on June 24th 2020. The following article about him appeared in the August 2009 issue of Caribbean Compass. Morris was also the subject of a series of articles by Richard Dey, “Adventures in the Trade Wind,” that ran in 2003 and 2004.
Is there life after swallowing the anchor? Ask Morris Nicholson, age 81, of Hill House, Bequia, and he’ll tell you “yes.”
Morris spent most of the last half of the 20th century on water, under sail. Seventy-two years ago, he and his dad launched a rowboat with a curtain-rod mast, a pink bedsheet sail, and a broken-oar rudder into the icy waters of the North Sea. The aptly named Sieve was his first experience of “messing around in boats,” he says. She was quickly replaced by a ten-foot gunter-rigged sailing dinghy, and later, a 28-foot gaff-rigged Dragon Class sailboat. What began as childhood play, sailing these boats with his father, brother, and two sisters on the Deben River, near their home in Woodbridge, England, led to 35 years of adventures in Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean waters, calling on scores of ports along the way, long before “travel” became “tourism.”
Born on a farm in Suffolk in 1927, Morris was fascinated at an early age by motors, carpentry, vehicles, electricity, and “the way things worked.” His early interests and the guidance of his inventive, resourceful father, Leslie, led to enduring skills. At 23, he answered a tiny ad in Yachting Monthly magazine and abruptly left a promising career in electrical engineering to join a crew of neophyte bluewater sailors who became shareholders in an 1895 wooden West Country trading ketch, the Enid. The six “Enidites” helped restore the lumbering vessel and believed they were headed around the world. Instead, the scheming, colorful captain and his bohemian wife coerced them into smuggling in Tangiers, grudgingly agreed to a 37-day Atlantic crossing entirely under sail, then sold the boat out from under them in Martinique, leaving the six partners on the beach, each with $200 in US traveler’s checks. While the other crewmembers intended to return to England, Morris became enchanted by the people, sights, sounds, and smells of the Caribbean.
“It was damn exciting,” he recalls, “I could see no end to it.”
His boyhood interests, skills, and training put him in high demand. Within two weeks Morris met Bert Ganter, who offered him a job working on yacht engines and running his tugboat, the Nanin, which brought supplies and equipment from Trinidad to St. Lucia for the construction of his Privateer Marine Services, in those days the only marina between St. Thomas and Trinidad. Morris’s expertise soon caught the attention of Gustav Koven, an American industrialist and yachting enthusiast. He invited Morris to skipper his new John Alden-designed, 60-foot auxiliary ketch Eleuthera II, and sent him to the Abeking and Rasmussen shipyard in Germany to oversee her completion.
For 30 years, Morris was the sole skipper of the elegant yacht, which became his home. He sailed with the Koven family throughout the Mediterranean and Caribbean. In addition to performing his duties aboard, he learned Spanish and French, explored dozens of ports, pursued his hobby of photography, developed a passion for opera and poetry, became a proficient chef, and read voluminously. In 1956, Eleuthera II arrived in the Caribbean and was a part of the burgeoning yacht charter business for 29 years.
Described in a 1963 Sports Illustrated article as “a superb seaman and congenial host,” Morris delighted in sharing his passion for sailing in the Caribbean with his charter guests, some of whom wrote stories about their experiences with Morris and his favorite first mate, Jaime Tur Mari, an affable Majorcan.
In 1965, Gus and Jane Koven bought a large parcel of land at Hope Estate, Bequia, and, three years later, completed their comfortable vacation home, Hope House. Bequia became the homeport for Eleuthera II. Morris began to explore Bequia and meet the community of local people and ex-pats living ashore. In 1981, he bought a one-acre lot from the Kovens, just off a cement two-track road and high on a hill near a section called Paradise, with views of both the Atlantic and Admiralty Bay. He designed a “super-solar” dwelling he named Hill House. Still living on the boat, he supervised the construction of a simple, but elegant, two-level house. He fashioned solar panels engineered to run all the pumps, lighting, ventilating fans, and electricity in the house. Solar energy also powered the automatic workshop/garage door and his power tools. He experimented with a wind generator, chose a gas-powered refrigerator, and later bought a diesel generator to operate a washing machine. By 1984, Hill House was livable. His younger brother, Peter, brought Morris’s beloved boyhood lathe from England. At last, Morris had the workshop of his dreams for the projects that filled his head.
In 1985, Gus Koven retired and donated Eleuthera II to a maritime academy in Maine. The once-graceful ketch was 30 years old and needed constant repairs. Bareboats and super-yachts, along with cruise ships, were populating island waters.
“I’d had my run of it, too,” says Morris. “The fun had gone out of it.” He stepped off Eleuthera II and never looked back. The same year, the widow Suzanne Walker, whose late husband had started a business in Bequia, joined Morris at Hill House. They enjoyed working on projects about the house. They completed a guest room on the ground level and surrounded the grounds with flower gardens and fruit trees, walkways and walls. Morris built a fishpond with a solar fountain and a mirrored solar reflector that boiled kettles of water for tea. Suzanne, Belgian-born, spoke mostly French and brought a touch of European elegance to Hill House. They entertained friends with memorable meals on the flower-filled veranda. They traveled yearly, mostly to Europe. In 1994, after nine years together, Suzanne, attended by Morris, suffered a four-month illness and died of throat cancer at Hill House.
His friends in the Bequia community, along with a dozen cats he and Suzanne had adopted, offered solace to Morris, then 67. He focused on beekeeping, an early hobby he had shared with this father. Gradually, he began to entertain friends, old and new. His only niece, Julia Ibbotson, came to live with him for a year. Now, she comes out from England for a month every winter, bringing him news of his extended family there. His sailing friend, writer Richard Dey, arrived to interview him for the soon-to-be-published book Adventures in the Trade Wind. Morris joined the Bequia beekeepers. Now he has two new hives and a colony he can observe through a glass wall in his workshop. Using a solar-powered honey extractor he invented, Morris processes honey and sells it under the label Miel du Paradis. He continues to pursue his photography, now using a deluxe digital camera, making prints with the aid of his two computers. He stays in touch with friends all over the world by e-mail and Skype and keeps up with news via BBC online.
For years, he has been turning wooden bowls and vases from local wood on his lathe. A few years ago friends asked him to create wooden candleholders that could be fitted with common oil lamp globes. He now sells them through L’Auberge des Grenadines. A young friend challenged him to make a vase in the shape of a woman. At first, Morris tried it using his lathe. This led to attempts at carving small wooden female figures, using a set of carving tools presented to him by Richard Dey.
Soon he was engaged in the discovery of himself as an artist. Morris Nicholson is a quick study, blessed with what Zen masters call “Beginner’s Mind.” Always open and eager to learn, Morris began drawing pencil portraits in spare, confident lines evocative of the renderings of Matisse. Often, he says, he wakes in the night to make drawings inspired by his photos of friends or by pictures in art books. A friend showed him the correct proportions for drawing the human figure and this encouraged him to continue sculpting.
His wooden carvings improved with each new attempt. He rapidly graduated to larger and larger pieces, copying well-known early 20th century sculptures. Bequians began to deliver logs from felled island trees. A visiting sculptor recently encouraged Morris to use his chain saw to rough out his figures before carving them. His wood carvings have grown, with each endeavor, from eight inches to four feet tall. He is presently accepting commissions and planning new work.
Now, he divides his time between wood carving on his veranda, with its view of the sea, and his workshop, where he is currently involved in a plan for converting solar energy into cooking gas. He continues to maintain contact with the Koven children and their families when they stay at Hope House. He contributes to the welfare of a “goodly number” of Bequians whom he’s known for years. Many fondly refer to him as “Mr. Morris”. Charming, caring, modest, and always a gentleman, he is a popular dinner guest, adored by women of all ages. Men seek his company, too, for he is well read and knowledgeable in many subjects.
He hosted a gala dinner on his 80th birthday in 2007 for a full house of friends at the Porthole Restaurant on the shore of Admiralty Bay, not far from where he first anchored in 1954. He read a Dylan Thomas poem that he altered for the occasion: “…the True Joy of the long-dead child sang, burning in the sun. T’was my 80th year to heaven…” Then he played his favorite aria, Pavarotti’s stirring version of “Nessun Dorma,” with its victorious ending phrase, “Vincero! Vincero!” During a short speech, Morris said, “Ten years ago, when I was 70, I was living here quite peacefully. I had no idea then, that my happiest years were still ahead of me.”
Postscript: Since 2009, Morris continued his sculptural explorations. He created his meticulous work, mainly inspired by the female forms of the early 20th century artists Brancusi and Modigliani. He sold his work, through LD Lucy’s Oasis Gallery. During each of the last four years, Morris submitted a single work to the Action Bequia auction, which resulted in active bidding and brought support to his favorite Bequia causes.
Talented, inventive, and enthusiastic, Morris Nicholson was a loving. giving, and valued member of the Bequia Community for over 55 years. Memorial contributions may be made to The Bequia Heritage Museum. Contact BHF treasurer Nicola Redway at [email protected]
— Julie Lea
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