Boat Reviews

Nicholson 35

A real-live, serious ocean cruiser. The hard part will be finding one on the used market in the U.S.

Today’s new boat market has fragmented about as far as it can: cruiser/racers, racer/cruisers, cruiser/cruisers, racer/racers. But not so long ago, there were a few boats built as plain-old cruisers, with decent performance (but no racing aspirations), seaworthy construction (without overkill), and design that allowed you to take an out-of-the-box sailboat on a cruise for a week, or a year.

Maybe you have to go to a real old-time boatbuilder to get that kind of quality. How old-time? Will 200 years of yacht building experience do?

If not the oldest yacht builder around, Camper & Nicholsons has to be in the running. Over the years, Nicholsons built every kind of boat imaginable, including pure racers and boats that came precariously close to being sailing houseboats. Nicholsons have never had the type of exquisite joinerwork you find in Far Eastern boats, nor have the looks of most of their boats fallen into the category of classic. But the boats have always been built with a high level of integrity, and a few of the designs are classic not in looks or detailing, but in overall quality.

Just over 200 Nicholson 35s were built over more than a 10-year period, with production tailing off in the early 1980s. Most boats were sold in England, but a number were built for American owners, and still more found their way to the U.S. during the rampage of the dollar against foreign currencies in the mid 1980s.

The Nicholson 35 is a cruising boat, plain and simple. Its proportions are about as common-sense and moderate as you can get. The boat is clean, almost austere in appearance, with very little exterior wood trim. You’ll find a teak caprail, teak grab rails, teak ply cockpit seats, and that’s about it. It is a true medium-displacement boat: heavy by contemporary racer/cruiser standards, but very reasonable for an offshore cruiser with a waterline almost 27' long.

Sailing Performance

The Nic 35 is no racing boat, but she’s no slug, either. Her PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet) rating of about 156 is some six seconds per mile slower than the Ericson 35-2, but some 20 seconds per mile faster than a “pure” cruiser such as the Tayana 37 or Crealock 37.

A moderate fin keel and skeg-mounted rudder underbody allows reasonable performance in light air, despite a smallish sailplan. The working sail area is just about evenly divided between the foretriangle and mainsail.

The rig is a simple masthead sloop, with double lower shrouds and single, airfoil spreaders. The mast is a tapered, anodized Proctor spar, which is filled with foam to deaden sound. Halyard winches are mounted on the mast.

While the sailplan never changed, there were many minor revisions to the rig over the years. Early boats have roller-reefing booms, while late boats have slab reefing. Winch specifications and options changed over the years.

Most early boats have halyard winches that are large enough for hoisting sail, but too small to allow you to easily get a person to the masthead. We wouldn’t want to hoist a 90-pounder up the mast with the standard Lewmar 8C winches. Larger halyard winches were optional—Lewmar 16 or 25. The 25 is as small a winch as we’d want to use to hoist anyone aloft, and even that would be work for most people.

The mainsheet traveler bisects the cockpit just forward of the wheel, so that you have to step over the traveler and onto the cockpit seats to go forward from the steering position. While the mainsheet’s position just forward of the helmsman is reasonable, the driver cannot easily trim the mainsheet, which secures to a cleat on the front of the teak traveler support. It would be a simple matter to replace this awkward arrangement with a modern traveler, with the sheet ending at a cam cleat on top of the traveler car.

The cockpit seats themselves are short and not very comfortable, with a high, nearly vertical fiberglass cockpit coaming. The deep cockpit does give excellent protection from seas and spray. One of the best features of the cockpit is a moldedin dodger coaming, much like you find in this country on S&S-designed boats such as the Tartan 37. When fitted with a good dodger, the entire forward half of the cockpit will be bone-dry in almost any conditions.

Despite the fact that the aft side of the deckhouse slopes forward, the companionway is built out slightly, making it vertical. This allows you to remove the top dropboard in light rain, even with the dodger down. The companionway hatch slides have Tufnol runners, allowing the hatch to move easily. This is typical of the good structural detailing in boats from C&N.

Cockpit volume is huge. A bridgedeck protects the companionway, but the high coamings could allow the cockpit to fill almost to the top of the hatch in a major pooping. Later boats have large flapper-protected pipe scuppers through the transom in addition to big cockpit scuppers. We’d suggest retrofitting these to any older boat to be used for offshore voyaging.

Shroud chainplates are just inboard of the low bulwarks. They consist of heavy stainless steel “hairpins,” and are bolted through what would be the beam shelf on a wooden boat. We had some reservations about this construction when we first looked at it more than a decade ago, but after finding no chainplate damage on a similarly-fitted Nicholson 40 that had been rolled over and dismasted, we can’t argue with the strength of the installation. Lloyds approves it, and they’re notoriously conservative.

Like most boats of the 1970s, Nicholson 35s tend to be under-winched. Standard jib sheet winches are Lewmar 40s or 43s. Larger Lewmars were optional. We’d go for the biggest self-tailing genoa sheet winches that could fit on the coamings, and we’d make it a high priority for shorthanded cruising.

The low bulwarks give an enormous feeling of security under sail. The side decks are wide, and there is a grab rail atop the cabin trunk on each side, although the rail’s flattened shape takes a little getting used to. The molded-in fiberglass non-skid is soso.

Teak decks were an option, but not a commonly chosen one.

In general, sailing performance is what you would look for in a serious cruising boat. The hull shape is uncompromised by any rating rule. The ballast/displacement ratio of 42%, with the lead concentrated quite low in the molded keel, results in a reasonably stiff boat by any standard.

Sailing performance can be improved on any boat by replacing a main and genoa more than a few years old. You’ll never get racing boat performance out of the Nic 35, but you also won’t have to work yourself to death to get acceptable speed, either. That’s not a bad trade-off.

Engine

A variety of engines have been used in the Nic 35, all diesels. Early boats have the ubiquitous Perkins or Westerbeke 4-107. Later boats have a smaller Westerbeke L-25 or a marinized Volkswagen Rabbit diesel. Given our druthers, we’d take the Perkins engine. But there’s a complication here. Early boats, recognizable by a prop shaft that emerges from the aft end of the keel, utilize a hydraulic drive rather than a conventional transmission. The engine faces aft under the cockpit bridgedeck, with the hydraulic pump mounted on its back end. The hydraulic motor is in the bilge at the aft end of the main cabin.

Hydraulic drives are a mixed blessing. They allow the engine to be mounted anywhere, but most marine mechanics don’t know how to work on them. However, heavy equipment mechanics anywhere in the world can solve most hydraulic problems. On the downside, a major problem requiring replacement of the hydraulic motor or pump in a non-industrial area could be a real headache.

Later boats have a more conventional exposed shaft and strut. The engine is mounted further aft, under the cockpit, and the shaft is driven through a V-drive. Access to the engine in either installation is poor. On V-drive boats with a quarterberth, you can get to the front of the engine through the quarterberth.

With no quarterberth, it’s a crawl through a cockpit locker. The back of the engine is accessed through removable hatches behind the companionway ladder.

Control when backing is better with the V-drive installation, since the prop is much further aft. Likewise, tight maneuvering ahead is better with the same prop configuration, since you get good prop wash over the rudder.

In all boats, the fuel tank is a fiberglass molding. It is not integral to the hull, but is glassed in after the hull is laid up. We have heard no reports of failures of the tank.

Fuel capacity varies from 33 to 40 gallons—adequate for a cruising boat, but a little on the skimpy side for true long-term independence.

Construction

There’s nothing to fault in the construction of these boats. Some hulls—but not all—were built under Lloyds survey. A Lloyds Hull Moulding Note—which covers the basic layup of the hull, installation of bulkheads, and the deck molding—is fairly common, as it added nothing to the cost of the boat other than a survey. A full-blown Lloyds 100 A-1 certificate is rarer, since it added substantially to the price of the boat.

Many changes were made to the interior layout over the years; most were improvements. Pictured here is a standard interior from a mid-’70s model. Many of the boats have custom interiors.

Nicholsons was an early user of isophthalic polyester resin, although it was only used for gelcoat. This made Nicholson 35s more blister-resistant when new, but it probably doesn’t substantially reduce a boat’s tendency to blister if it is left in the water constantly for years. Structural work in these boats is first-class. We’ve never understood why good-quality European boats in the late 70s and early 80s seemed to have much neater glass work than most production American boats of the same period, but they do.

The lead ballast casting is dropped into a molded keel cavity, then heavily glassed over. The outside of the keel molding of any boat with internal ballasting should be carefully examined for grounding damage.

There is a deep bilge sump under the cabin sole just aft of the fiberglass water tank. This will keep bilge water where it belongs until it can be pumped overboard.

Two 90 amp-hour batteries were standard on early boats. They were increased to 128 amp-hours each on later boats, and the alternator size was increased to 60 amps. If you want to go to bigger batteries on an older boat—a must for serious cruising—you’ll need to install a bigger alternator if you don’t want to run your engine all the time.

Interior

Many small changes were made to the interior design and decor over the years. In addition, the Nicholson 35 was built to order—you didn’t buy one off some dealer’s lot—so there is a lot of minor interior customizing. This was encouraged by the builder, and the prices for modifications were reasonable. It makes buying a used boat more complicated, however, because the combination of features you’re looking for may be hard to find.

The forward cabin on all boats is pretty much the same. There are the usual V-berths, but unlike a lot of boats, they don’t come to a point at the bow; there’s plenty of foot room. The berths could be converted to a big double, but you won’t find that on most boats.

A chain pipe runs vertically between the berths to the chain locker on many boats, rendering moot any modification to a double berth. The chain locker under the berths does keep the weight of chain low and fairly far aft, if you’re willing to make the tradeoff.

Padded vinyl liners are used on the hull sides, rather than wood ceiling. This looks good when new, but gets tired after a few years. We’d prefer wood. Wood ceilings can be refinished; vinyl can only be cleaned.

The earliest boats have white melamine-finished bulkheads, which lend to the general austerity of older models. Later boats have teak-veneered bulkheads, but the teak used is generally fairly light, so it doesn’t dramatically darken the interior.

Ventilation in the forward cabin is poor. A low profile Tannoy ventilator installed in the aluminum-framed deck hatch was standard, but these don’t move nearly as much air as big cowl vents. Original specs called for cowl vents over the forward cabin, but we’ve never seen them.

Aft of the forward cabin is a full-width head. Camper & Nicholsons used this same basic design on several boats, and it works well. You may not like the idea of walking through the head to get to the forward cabin, but it allows a much larger head than you’ll find on the typical boat of this length built in the 1970s.

There are good touches in the head, such as a stainless steel grab rail in front of the sink, and a mirror that angles upward so you don’t have to bend over to shave. Using the full width of the boat for the head allows its use as a dressing room without undue contortions.

Early boats do not have pressure water, nor do they have hot water for a shower. These creature comforts came later in the production run, but they can be added to older boats without much trouble.

There is very little wood in the head—just trim around locker doors—which makes it easy to keep clean and dry. A single Tannoy vent provides limited ventilation, but there’s plenty of room on deck over the head to add two cowl vents in Dorade boxes.

This would help ventilate the entire boat, and would be high on our priority list.

You’ll find a lot of variations in the main cabin, and which ones are most desirable is really a matter of choice.

All boats have a U-shaped dinette to starboard, with a permanently mounted dropleaf table. On the later boats we’ve looked at, the table is mounted on a heavy tubular aluminum base, securely bolted to the cabin sole. It is one of the sturdiest tables we’ve ever seen. The design allows the table to be reached from both the dinette and the starboard settee, giving lots of elbow room for five for dinner, with elbow-to-elbow seating for seven close friends if a lot of passing of food isn’t required.

There is storage space under the dinette, with lockers and bookshelves behind the seat back.

Starboard side layout varies. As originally designed, there is a straight extension settee, with a pilot berth outboard. The pilot berth was deleted on many boats, increasing storage space but visually narrowing the cabin. On a serious cruising boat, the extra storage would be a plus, since both the dinette and settee can serve as good sea berths. All berths, incidentally, are fitted with lee cloths—something you don’t find as standard on most American boats, even boats sold as serious cruisers.

Ventilation is provided by an aluminum-framed hatch over the middle of the cabin, plus two small water-trap cowl vents at the aft end of the main cabin. For use in the tropics, you really need to add more cowl vents, at the very least.

Minor changes were made in the galley over the years, but they were not earth-shaking. The earliest boats have good locker space, but no cutlery drawer. This was added under the counter on later boats. It would be a simple retrofit.

Nice molded teak counter fiddles on early boats were replaced by functional but tacky aluminum fiddles on later boats. Galley counters are covered with plastic laminate, and some of it is hideous: Godawful speckly-tweedy stuff, sort of in keeping with the interior decor we’ve experienced in unnamed cheap bed and breakfast joints in the UK.

There’s good storage space in the galley, with lockers outboard, a big pantry locker under one counter, a pot locker under the stove well, and another locker under the sink. The sink itself is quite small.

The icebox is outboard of the sink, next to the stove. It’s a good-sixed box—five cubic feet—and insulation is adequate for northern climates. In the tropics, we don’t think it would make the grade.

A gimbaled two-burner Flavel propane stove with oven and broiler is standard equipment. It is painted steel—as are most European galley stoves—and will be a ripe candidate for replacement on older boats. The stove well is narrow, so it may take some searching to find a stove that fits. Force 10 makes a stove that is narrow enough to fit most European stove wells, but you’ll probably have to special-order it, as most American boats take a wider model.

The propane supply is a paltry 10 pounds, so you may well end up looking for ways to expand that. A Marine Energy Systems two-tank molded gas locker should fit in the starboard cockpit locker if you don’t mind giving up some storage space.

All in all, the galley is very good for a 35' cruising boat; exceptional when you compare it to most American boats of the early 1970s.

Although all boats have a nav station at the port after quarter, the layout varies tremendously.

There are two basic configurations: an aft-facing nav station, which uses the dinette for a seat; and a forward-facing station, using the quarterberth head as a seat.

With the aft-facing station, there is no quarterberth; you get an extra cockpit locker. You also get a real curiosity: a belowdecks watch seat next to the companionway, elevated high enough so you can see out both the companionway and the cabin trunk windows.

This is a real seagoing feature, but will be wasted space on boats that are only used for coastal cruising. Offshore, with the boat running under autopilot or steering vane, the watch seat allows you to sit below, out of the weather, while still keeping a reasonable watch unless you’re in crowded shipping lanes.

On some boats, the watch seat was deleted, and replaced with a big hanging locker. This would be a feasible and desirable modification on boats not used for serious cruising.

Both nav station layouts have a big chart table, good bulkhead space for mounting electronics, and space for navigation books and tools. It’s a tough call as to which arrangement is better.

The quarterberth would make an excellent sea berth. We’d rather sleep in a quarterberth than a pilot berth, particularly in a warm climate. At the same time, a wave down the companionway can douse you in big-time fashion in the quarterberth. We’d take our chances, opting for the quarterberth and forward-facing nav station.

Headroom is over 6' throughout. The long windows of the main cabin make for a well-lighted interior.

A molded fiberglass water tank holding about 70 gallons fits under the sole in the main cabin, smack on top of the boat’s longitudinal center of flotation, where it belongs. This is marginal water capacity for long-distance cruising—we’d like to see at least 100 gallons, even for a couple—but it would be simple enough to install auxiliary tanks under both the dinette and settee. A second tank is a good idea on any boat, in case of a leaky tank or a contaminated water supply.

On early boats, the tank is filled from inside the boat—no deck fill. This avoids any chance of salt water contamination from a leaking filler cap, but it complicates tanking up: you have to drag hoses or jerry cans belowdecks.

The tank vents properly, inside the boat rather than outside. Most American boats have water tank vents on deck, many of them in the side of the hull. To put it bluntly, this is really dumb. If a boat spends a lot of time on one tack with the vent submerged, salt water will siphon back into the tank. Heavy water on deck can even get into vents mounted on the side of the cabin.

With the exception of the aluminum galley fiddles, most of the interior changes over the years are a distinct improvement. Storage is excellent for long-term cruising.

Conclusions

This is a real-live, serious ocean cruiser. It’s not pointy at both ends, doesn’t have a full-length keel, isn’t shippy looking, and doesn’t have oodles of nicely-fitted exterior teak to drive you wild with pleasure at the boat show, delirious from endless maintenance when you have to live with it.

The cockpit is uncomfortable, but can be improved with seat cushions and back cushions. It’s a shame the cockpit seats aren’t long enough to lie down on.

The interior is roomy and comfortable for cruising, lacking only a permanent double berth—a shortcoming that can be remedied, albeit with some work. The interior lacks the space and privacy of current 35-footers best suited for marina living or coastal cruising, but is functional for offshore sailing, particularly for a couple.

We wouldn’t hesitate to sail this boat anywhere, with virtually no changes. It demonstrates commonsense design and high-grade construction, even though it’s not fancy, and there’s not a gimmick to be found: no microwave, no stall shower, no recessed lights, none of the things that some people think they need for comfortable cruising.

The hard part, of course, is finding one. English boating magazines have a lot of Nicholson 35s for sale, but there are not too many on this side of the pond. Actually, that might be an advantage.

Buying a boat overseas is relatively painless, and you save yourself the trouble of sailing across the ocean before you can cruise Europe. Buy a boat in England, cruise there for a couple of summers, laying the boat up over the winters. Then, when you retire or get that long-awaited sabbatical, you can do some “real” cruising. You could do a lot worse.

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