Man in a Pickle

Mal Nicholson is in Portugal and up to his eyes in the job of repairing HMS Pickle, the traditionally build schooner named after the similar fast-sailing Royal Navy schooner commanded by Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotière that famously carried the news of victory and of Nelson’s death to England following the Battle of Trafalgar.

It seems fair to say that Mal has had what for anyone else would be a torrid time – the ship may be relatively small, but it has suffered badly from rot and neglect – but Mal is not a  man to be stopped by such problems, and even seems to be enjoying himself, describing it as ‘the adventure of a lifetime’ and ‘stuff that dreams are made of’.
‘Buying HMS Pickle was the right thing to do on so many levels, she needed saving or she was going to die where she lay in Gibraltar, I do not regret it.

‘People have shocked me with their support and enthusiasm for this project.’ (An example of this is sponsor Riskex’s support – here’s a piece about the Pickle project from the company’s newsletter)

Mal’s hoping to set off for England in mid-June if possible, depending on how the work goes. His plan will be a series of day-sails from Vilamoura to Lagos, Lagos to Sines, Sines to Cascais etc. If you’d like to help him along the way to getting Pickle seaworthyand earning her keep, click here.

Here’s a piece by Phil Warren, of the Warren family that had the shipyard that built Mal’s earleir project Humber sloop Spider T. Phil is a retired university and an expert in woodwork.

Man in a Pickle

At the moment in Portugal there is a man in a Pickle.

The man is Mal Nicholson from North Lincolnshire, the reason he’s in a pickle? Well it starts with EBay…

Almost a year ago Mal was surfing Ebay, as people do, when he saw something that he just knew he had to have, it was a boat. Not just any old boat however, this was the schooner Pickle, named after one of the most famous sailing ships of all time. The original saw action when Britain ruled the waves, that was at the Battle of Trafalgar and that was so exceptionally fast that she was chosen to bring home to Britain the news that the battle was won but Lord Nelson was lost. The boat was made from wood though and that’s when it got interesting.

The current Pickle was launched in 1995. She was used in the 2005 Bi-centennial Trafalgar celebrations were she sailed around the UK visiting many ports and maritime festivals.

She even moored alongside the Victory as part of the International Festival of the sea.

Pickle was famous for capturing a host of vessels and was referred to by Nelson himself as “ubiquitous”, her phenomenal speed allowed her to seem to be everywhere at once. In a time of square rigged ships her then  revolutionary Bermudan sloop rig made her the fastest ship in the navy. Due to this speed and reputation she was chosen by Vice Admiral Collingwood at the end of the Battle of Trafalgar to carry home the news of the death of Lord Nelson and the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets. Pickle set off with the Trafalgar dispatch on the 26th October and nine days later after besting a gale off Finisterre arrived in Falmouth on November 4th. This achievement is still celebrated today by warrant officers in the Royal Navy on Pickle Night.

Unfortunately the present Pickle found herself in a ‘pickle’ when she was taken to Gibralter and left for two years in the Mediterranean heat. Mal Nicholson heard of her plight and purchased her with the intention of bringing this famous vessel back to the UK. She was in a bad state. A lot of decking had rotted, allowing ingress of water which in turn had damaged beams, planks and many other parts but undaunted he set to with a group of friends in order to make her seaworthy.

They left Gibralter with a Royal Navy escort and laid a wreath at Trafalgar for sailors of all nations, then another at Cadiz where the original Pickle foundered. The seas off Trafalgar nearly ended the trip there however as the top main mast cracked and broke, and brought several tons of woodwork and rigging down on deck, narrowly missing the crew members.

Pickle was partly repaired at Puerto Sherry, and undaunted motored onto Mazagon, where on coming into the marina in a storm she lost drive. Mal was beginning to question just what he had bought, however it didn’t reduce his absolute determination to get the boat restored to its former prime and with the help of a local diver the issue was resolved. This was becoming a real adventure.

With further repairs in place the next leg in the voyage was a short hop to Tavira however on exiting the marina directions were given to sail 180 degrees for twenty miles to avoid Spanish naval exercises and oil fields. At that point it seemed sensible to continue to Villamoura after the extended detour:  Pickle’s engines did well, though, and never missed a beat on the hundred mile trip.

Reaching Portugal and with winter seas approaching Mal decided to spend a few months in Villamoura while repairs were made.

Lets return to the man in a Pickle.

The masts were the first item on the ‘to do’ list, a list that has grown and grown. Mal, a group of friends and a local boat builder have done the work and have made a superb job.

Repaired masts, new spars, jib-boom – the jib is the spar that extends from the bowsprit on the bow and allows more sails to be carried and effectively makes the vessel longer. On Pickle the jib-boom and bowsprit together  are more than half as long again as the hull itself.

The next issue was the hull. Ironically, while ‘pickle’ means to preserve in brine or vinegar, however in Pickle’s case the wood had been soaked with rain water and this had led to rot – lots of it. As one section was repaired then further digging led to more being uncovered. It seemed insurmountable at times but Mal does not give up. He has tackled similar or worse jobs before including his Humber sloop Spider T and a Grand Prix Ferrari – however, he is an engineer by trade and not a woodworker, so has had a very steep learning curve.

Finally, the hull is being completed to a standard surpassing its original form and is a stunningly beautiful creation. The masts are re-stepped, spars are aloft, the varnish and paint is drying and soon she will be coming back to the UK.

The plan is to set sail in mid June. She will make a rather more leisurely return than that made by Lieutenant Lapenotière, and will take in stops in Spain, France, the Channel Islands and the South and East coasts of England before sailing up the Humber Estuary to her new berth.

If any holidaymakers are in the area of Vilamoura, do go down to the marina and give them a wave. You cannot miss Pickle, as she’s the only warship in the marina!

Phil Warren


Topsail schooner Pickle to have a new life thanks to Mal Nicholson


HMS Pickle“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The fabulous replica of Nelson’s topsail schooner HMS Pickle that featured in Tom Cunliffe’s TV series Boats that Built Britain has been bought by Mal Nicholson, owner of the magnificent Humber sloop Spider T.

After Trafalgar, HMS Pickle famously carried the news of Nelson’s great victory back to Britain – along with the news of Nelson’s own death.

The schooner is currently moored in Ocean Village in Gibraltar and is undergoing repairs. After many years of owning and running Spider T, I’m quite certain Mal knows what he’s in for – but great good luck to him and his helpers.

Previous owner Robin James’s family has owned Pickle for the past nine years. He said that the decision to sell the ship had been extremely difficult : ‘I have poured my soul into her over the past nine years, and in return she has carried me and many new friends safely through storms and adventures.

‘But after a difficult voyage to Gibraltar followed by a failure to get the much needed support to make her a success, this is the best decision to secure her future. The decision to sell Pickle has been made far easier by finding Mal, who I trust to continue to care for her and get her sailing again, while continuing to share her with everybody from her past, present and future.’

Mal said that during her time with Robin, Pickle had won many friends and supporters, and achieved amazing things.

For information see the Pickle facebook page  where he will post information future plans for the vessel, and will be re-developing the website

Mr James added that that an unknown author once wrote the following lines, which summarised his feelings on Pickle’s sale:

‘I’d rather be the ship that sails And rides the billows wild and free; Than to be the ship that always fails To leave its port and go to sea.
I’d rather feel the sting of strife, Where gales are born and tempests roar;
Than to settle down to useless life And rot in dry dock on the shore. I’d rather fight some mighty wave With honour in supreme command; And fill at last a well-earned grave, Than die in ease upon the sand.
I’d rather drive where sea storms blow, And be the ship that always failed
To make the ports where it would go, Than be the ship that never sailed.’

 Meanwhile, I will be casually dropping these words into the conversation at social gatherings: ‘I know a bloke who has a topsail schooner. Oh yes… ‘


Spider T draws crowds at the West Stockwith rally

10 Sun Spider T in full sail

The photo above taken by Humber Keel and Sloop Preservation Society luminary Dave Everatt shows Humber sloop Spider T visiting Stockwith for the West Stockwith rally, which is jointly organised by the West Stockwith Yacht Club, the Canal River Trust and the Chesterfield Canal Trust.

After all the troubles the weather and flooding has brought along the banks of the Trent in North Lincolnshire, it’s good to hear that the Spider and her crew led by skipper Mal Nicholson have been able to get out and enjoy themselves – Mal, who makes his living refurbishing and maintaining classic cars is still working getting his workshops back in order following floods caused by the big East Coast storm surge of a few weeks ago.

So it must have been especially gratifying to sail to West Stockwith, where the Spider and received as many as 2000 visitors over the weekend.

I gather that a nice came when 82-year old Frank Major was steering the Spider along the river as a guest crew member. At the age of 10, Frank was mate to his barge skipper dad, and was later a skipper himself running barges around the estuary and all her tributaries.

Someone asked Frank if he was ok, to which he replied with a big grin: ‘Aye lad I’m ‘ome again.’