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The yard that launched two centuries of trust
Tristan Rutherford
2nd August 2018

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The yard that launched two centuries of trust

Gosport’s influence belies its diminutive size. That’s because the dockyard town on England’s south coast had a head start. The Normans built a castle to protect Isle of Wight shipping a millennium ago. The settlement’s port access to the Solent was mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086. During the 17th century, King Charles II (a man who was gifted Tangier and Bombay as a wedding present) added naval munitions to further project British sea power.

Thanks to Camper and Nicholsons, the modern port is a warren of dockyards encircled by a fractal of marinas, enmeshed within a sea of sail. The story begins in 1782, when Francis Amos set up shop as a Gosport boat builder. The successful business was inherited by his great nephew, William Camper, who traded under his own name. Camper cultivated upwardly mobile members of the Royal Yacht Squadron across the quay in Portsmouth. His inaugural launch, Breeze, won the King’s Cup and cemented his reputation within the ranks. By 1842 a young apprentice had joined the firm. The 14-year-old Ben Nicholson soon learnt the Camper way – working in tandem with purchasers to create the world’s finest bespoke yachts. Each new launch won plaudits. The schooner Nancy Dawson circumnavigated the globe, then searched the Bering Straits for the lost Franklin Expedition, which had set out to navigate the Northwest Passage. Nicholson’s last Gosport vessel in 1887, the Amphritrite, belonged to two British dukes followed by a Swedish industrialist. She is still sailing today as a German cadet-training vessel. On such longevity was the brand born.

It was raw speed that brought custom to Nicholson’s second son, Charles Nicholson. In 1892 his first racing yacht, Dacia, competed 14 times. She placed first 14 times. By pairing unbridled vigour with elegant lines, Nicholson embarked on perhaps the greatest era of yacht design the world has ever witnessed. A case in point was Charles Nicholson’s creations for Royal Yacht Squadron member Sir Tom Sopwith.

Thanks to Camper and Nicholsons, the modern port is a warren of dockyards encircled by a fractal of marinas, enmeshed within a sea of sail.


Sopwith was a typical Camper and Nicholsons client – a captain of industry who combined hard work with unusual pleasures. These included, but were not limited to, hot air ballooning, champion level motorcycling, national level ice hockey and prize-winning aviation. Sopwith needed a charge with enough power and prowess – a fist of steel within a velvet glove – to win the greatest of races, the America’s Cup. The result was Endeavour. This J-Class yacht matched Sopwith’s aviation dynamics with Nicholson’s quadrilateral genoa. She lost the race on a newly introduced technicality, prompting one wit to declare: “Britannia rules the waves but America waives the rules.” It’s a testament to designer-client collaboration that three out of the four Camper and Nicholsons J-Class yachts (including Sir Thomas Lipton’s America’s Cup challenger Shamrock V) are still racing today.

Sir Tom Sopwith wanted more: this time a motoryacht to be used as a base for big ocean races. Charles Nicholson returned to his Gosport drawing board. The ensuing Philante was an 80m-long leviathan of 1,600 tons that could cross the Atlantic in the bat of an eye – escorting Sopwith and crew to yet another America’s Cup. With a bright yellow funnel and muscular prow she rivals the most beautiful of classic motor yachts alongside Talitha and Christina O. As clouds of conflict descended, all three motor vessels performed trans-oceanic duties of a more desperate kind. During WWII, Philante was painted with camouflage dazzle and fitted with an anti-aircraft gun. Yachting magazine declared that she was: “One of the most luxurious warships afloat. The officers’ cabins have private bathrooms, divan beds and the fittings of a West End hotel suite.” That she survived as a convoy escort tasked with the surrender of 33 Nazi U-boats is a demonstration of her dexterity. That she remains one of the finest superyachts afloat (as the Norwegian royal yacht K/S Norge) is a miracle.

As war spread, the British Admiralty requisitioned any vessel they could lay their hands on. Needless to say, Camper and Nicholsons boats were at a premium. A little-known example was the Motor Gun Boats ordered by the Turkish Navy in the 1930s. As they were larger and swifter than anything on the Royal Navy books, five vessels were nabbed by Arctic explorer and old Etonian buccaneer Sir George Binney. Britain was fast running out of the ball bearings that were vital to everything from arms manufacture to vehicle construction. The world’s largest manufacturer, SKF in occupied Sweden, could secretly supply ball bearings if Binney could collect. The Gosport-made motorboats featured triple Paxman 1,000bhp engines, rendering them perfect for a rapid raid on the Gothenburg factory. At flat-out speeds of 30 knots, through night fog and heavily mined seas, they collected nearly 350 tons of essential material.

Only Camper and Nicholsons yachts like these suffice the robust needs of royalty, military and ocean race durability. From King Edward VII’s schooner Aline to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Olympic medalwinning Bluebottle, from the Woolworth owner’s J-Class Velsheda to Isaac Bell’s Fastnet winning Bloodhound, illustrious history precedes every purchase. The company’s latest launches may boast spas, submersibles and living reef aquariums. And onboard crew may contain freedive tutors, ice pilots and celestial astronomers. But over 230 years, the same standards of speed, seaworthiness and utter reliability have sailed their boats through the swiftest seas.

A final point to ponder is the wonderful story of Sir Francis Chichester. In 1929 Chichester took delivery of a de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane. He then decided, as one does in the arrogance of youth, to circumnavigate the globe. Decades later, at the tender age of 57, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, he took up long-distance yachting. Two years later he won the inaugural transatlantic single-handed race. His yacht, Gipsy Moth III, completed the ‘wrong-way’ crossing from Plymouth to New York in 40 days. So when Chichester planned to circumnavigate the globe solo, aged 64, there could be only one dockyard for the commission. On the home leg near Cape Horn the Gosport-built Gipsy Moth IV rolled in a 140° capsize, then self-righted as Chichester knew she would. After 226 days at sea, the yacht sailed back to England’s south coast and smashed five world records, including the fastest voyage around the world by any small vessel. In 2004 Camper and Nicholsons renovated Gipsy Moth IV at cost price. She later took part in The Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, and all new British passports include an illustration of the record-breaking vessel. As companies thrive and dive by their reputation, any chink in the yacht’s design could have sunk Chichester – and the company with it. Fortunately, at the Gosport yard there were none.