TIGER LILLY- LISA NICHOLSON
17 March 2012 | Pigeon Point, Antigua, West Indies
Tom & Lilly
I had just finished hiking the marked trail which overlooks the shimmering Caribbean Sea and climbs over the emerald hills of Antigua's south shore from English Harbour's Berkeley Point to Falmouth Harbour's Windward Bay. As I came down out of the hills and approached Pigeon Beach I passed a tall, trim, elderly lady coming off the beach in a swimsuit. She carried herself in a stately manner, and as we passed she returned my "Good afternoon madam" with a warm smile and a friendly "Hello." She was quite attractive, had the stature of an athlete, and I thought to myself "I'll bet that is what Lilly will look like when she gets old." The next time I saw this lady was the following Sunday morning as Lilly and I were walking up a steep hill to Baxter Memorial Methodist Church. A typical Caribbean morning rain shower, complete with sparkling sunshine and a rainbow, was cooling us down as we climbed the hill in our Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. This kind soul stopped her car and offered us a ride to church. After the service she introduced herself as Lisa Nicholson, and invited us to her home up on Pigeon Point for a visit. As we walked to her car I told Lilly who this lady was - the Grand Dame of West Indian Yachting. We had a delightful afternoon in the open air home she and her late husband Desmond built overlooking the entrance to Falmouth Harbour; she freely answered our many questions about her life and recounted the history of yachting in Antigua from her first person perspective. She gave us a copy of the brief memoir Desmond had written, which I had already read while visiting the Dockyard Museum, which Desmond had established. We told her we were really interested in how SHE came to Antigua, and what it was like living there and raising a family. One of the many things we learned was that the trails around English Harbour, which Lilly and I were enjoying so much, had been established by Lisa and Desmond in the early years of their marriage. This is her story:
Born Louise Dodd in 1934 on another small island - as Lisa says with a twinkle in her eye, "You might have heard of it, Manhattan, New York!" Her given name Louise was replaced with Lisa while still in her childhood. Her father, Edward Dodd, was the owner of a maritime publishing company, and her mother was the daughter of the founders of the esteemed Hampton Institute of Virginia - one of America's first black colleges. A daughter of privilege herself; education, travel, and service to mankind were stressed in her upbringing and education. Her parents were strict; radio (TV had not yet been invented) and comic books were simply not allowed to be part of her childhood experience - but classic literature, the outdoors, and physical activity certainly were. Lisa's father Edward was an interesting chap. As a young man, he and 5 other fellows bought the schooner "Chance" and sailed her off to the South Pacific in the 1930's; he then authored the book "Great Dipper to the Southern Cross." As a member of the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) in World War II, he saw service in Europe and worked with Winston Churchill. After building his publishing company into a very successful business, he took early retirement and went off to French Polynesia to study the culture and write five more books.
As a result of growing up during WWII and of her parents' divorce, Lisa attended a variety of public and private schools, ending up at the Putney School in Vermont. In the early 1950's she was off to Cambridge, Massachusetts and Radcliffe College where she lived on the Radcliffe women's campus, but attended many of her classes with the men at the adjacent Harvard University. Lisa studied science, literature, philosophy, and art history, and after graduation had a job waiting for her in Manhattan at New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
During the summer of 1956 with her newly earned Liberal Arts degree in hand, Lisa's life took quite a turn on the way to a career at MOMA, and what would have been a sophisticated life in New York City. It seems her mother remarried while she was at Radcliffe; her new stepdad was quite a clever fellow who made music with electricity, perhaps you have heard of him, Lauren Hammond, the founder of The Hammond Organ Company! During the summer of 1956 Mr. Hammond chartered one of the Nicholson yachts in Antigua to treat his new family to a Caribbean sailing cruise, and Commander Nicholson's son Desmond was the skipper. Well, young Lisa fell for her dashing yacht captain, and the rest is history - over 50 years worth. (Lilly sez: You have got to watch out for those dashing yacht captains - even the old ones can change your whole life!) Lisa never did find her way back to a career in art at MOMA!
At an early station of life she had developed a character trait which many of us seek in a lifetime of pursuit - she knew who she was, and what she wanted. With a liberal urging from her heart, Lisa saw a window of opportunity and courageously jumped aboard her ship of opportunity. She traded a lucrative career in art and the bright lights of the Big Apple, for a family life in quaint colonial Antigua along-side the sparkling Caribbean Sea. After all, she is her father's daughter. Practical folks of necessity, Lisa and Desmond combined their honeymoon with some much needed maintenance on the Nicholson family schooner Mollihawk; with worms in her rudderpost the yacht urgently needed to be hauled for repairs, and the nearest facility that could handle her tonnage was the steam screw dock in Barbados. So south to Bridgetown our gallant young couple sailed, beam reaching on the Trades without a rudder, and steering the big schooner by trimming her sheets and dragging a bucket over the side - nothing one would expect to read about in "MODERN BRIDE" magazine.
One day early in their new marriage Desmond and Lisa climbed the hill at Pigeon Point and sat on a huge rock overlooking the entrance to Falmouth Harbour and the southern approaches to Antigua. They envisioned a home built on that hill, and a house full of children. As Lisa is so fond of saying, "Everything starts with an idea." and today that rock sits right in front of her home. Their first purchase to make their idea a reality was a diesel generator; the lot atop Pigeon Point was off the grid, as was most of colonial Antigua in the 1950's. In those early days of their marriage teams of oxen tilled the sugar cane fields, local fisherman and island trading vessels worked the waters under sail alone, and windmills crushed the cane for the local rum. It was a Spartan life with few of the comforts enjoyed today; they were the pioneers of the modern West Indies. Lisa and Desmond bought a set of chairs made by shipwrights in Barbados as their first furniture, and two local masons named Reuben and Rafael were employed to lay a foundation for the house and set corner posts for the walls - these fellows had fitting names for craftsmen working on a home for a Radcliffe graduate with a degree in Art History! Desmond paid the equivalent of about $40 in pounds sterling to purchase a huge piece of surplus plate glass which they set into the wall overlooking the anchorage in Falmouth Harbour. That picture window has withstood several West Indian hurricanes, and is the only window in Lisa's open-air home which is glazed. Their four children, Sarah, Chris, Nancy, and Celia, were raised in that home and it saw a lot of joyous celebrations throughout the years. Lisa had quite a grin on her face when she recounted the New Years Eve Party (but of course our English cousins would call it an Old Years Night Party) when the dancing in the front room was so robust that the floor joist gave way and the planking sagged. But of course, as with all families, there were difficult times also - at age 24 their son Chris was killed while climbing Mount Cook in New Zealand. At the time he was the foredeck captain aboard a large Swan racing yacht; and their mountaineer, sailor, world traveler son was taken from them. While we were visiting Lisa she was wearing Chris' well worn chambray sailing shirt - a mother never forgets.
As we sat in her modestly furnished front room and looked out over a forest of masts and rigging stepped on the keels of many millions of dollars worth of the world's most POSH sailing mega-yachts, we asked Lisa what was it like to put together a business and to support their family in the early days of Antigua's yacht charter business. Lisa stressed to us that their first and foremost obligation was to raise up and educate their children the very best way that they could. Early on in their marriage Desmond decided to swallow the anchor, retire from yacht skippering, and stay home and run their businesses out of the Dockyard at English Harbour. The economy of colonial Antigua was sparse, and they had to work very hard to make ends meet. They did their part in operating the Nicholson family yacht chartering business, and they founded the Carib Marine yacht chandlery. With the backing of an investment team, Desmond and Rodney rebuilt the wrecked Engineer's Workshop in the Dockyard at English Harbour and developed the famous Admiral's Inn hotel, pub and restaurant. Lisa kept the books and helped to manage the business. Today, the Admiral's Inn garden and the adjacent sail loft pillars have become the icon for Antigua, and it is featured in virtually every marketing pamphlet describing Antigua's tourism and yachting industry. Forty five years ago, as a pleasurable way to wrap up the yacht charter season and have some fun, they founded a regatta in late April / early May to sail down to Guadeloupe and back, followed by a rousing West Indian Jump-up (party) and prizes for the fastest boats. Today that annual regatta is known as Antigua Sailing Week, and it is the premier sailing event in the world. Everything starts with an idea, but ideas must be carefully nurtured and worked to fruition; Desmond and Lisa were a busy and hard working couple indeed!
In 1984 Desmond retired from the yacht charter business, but he certainly did not retire from the vigorous activity and creativity which had marked his professional career. He called retirement, "Putting on a new set of tires." Desmond had quite an intellect; he loved knowledge, and his passions were science and history. Desmond spent countless unpaid hours researching the history of Antigua and the Dockyard at English Harbour, and then teaching others what he had found. He was fond of saying that knowledge to be of any value must be communicated - and Desmond dedicated his retirement years to doing just that. He studied the ancient people who first inhabited the area, and he developed a keen sense of awareness of the importance of the islanders, black and white, who lived and worked with him. He loved Antigua, her history, and her people. After the former colony was established as an independent nation he took Antiguan citizenship and proudly carried an Antiguan passport. He was a modern West Indian, and a pioneer in every sense of the word. In early 2006, after a long debilitating illness, Desmond left this world. Lisa lovingly described his passing: Desmond was in the hospital, the nurse came in and took his vitals at 8:00 AM, and told her that he was going; He heard the nurse say that - opened his eyes for the first time in a couple of days, looked at Lisa with radiant blue eyes (he had brown / hazel eyes all his life), and smiled at his wife of 50 years; A typical West Indian morning rain was rattling the shutters, and as it passed by his spirit was gone from her sight on the wings of that squall.
These days, Lisa Nicholson is a busy lady enjoying a very active retirement: A fit and flexible woman, she attends Yoga classes every Monday; She swims at Pigeon Beach almost daily; She makes delightful music with her friends in an a-cappella singing group; She takes an interest and supports her church, Baxter Memorial Methodist; She walks most places she goes, traipsing Antigua's rough roads and hilly countryside in flip-flops; she volunteers with Hospice; She picks up trash everywhere she goes, which is why the locals call her the "Trash Lady"; She works with the local school board, and gives freely of her advanced education; She enjoys her three daughters and nine grandchildren. A breast cancer survivor - she knows full well just how precious life is, and she lives it to the fullest. She is still an American citizen, and for many years her United States passport was quaintly stamped by Antiguan Immigration as a "BELONGER," but with changing times she now holds an Antigua passport as well. Lisa is at one with her environment. As we visited in her open air home, her friend the gecko patrolled the living room for insects, and a dainty banana keet flew in and out of the kitchen. Her garden (us yanks would call it her yard) was colorful and fragrant with many of the islands tropical shrubs and flowers in bloom. This Grand Dame of West Indian Yachting told us that her life has been a wonderful journey, and she hopes to find some time and record it all in a memoir. If you get down to Antigua, hike up the hill to Pigeon Point and say hello to Lisa Nicholson, a charming lady with a jump in her step, a fascinating spirit, and a story to tell.
It matters not how straight the gate,
how charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
from "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley