Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cruising Classics: The Designs of Aage Nielsen

“A friend and, in a technical sense, an employee, but more truly as a partner.” That’s how Olin Stephens described his relationship with Aage Nielsen. As to their working relationship during Nielsen’s tenure as head of the Sparkman & Stephens Boston office, he had this to say: “Theoretically I was the chief designer, but I was well aware that Aage’s knowledge and experience were far greater than my own.”

As far as endorsements from your boss, on a scale of one to ringing, that one knocks the bell right off the top. And this is from a man who has himself been described as the most successful and influential yacht designer of the last century. Mr. Stephens wrote these words for all posterity in the forward to Maynard Bray and Tom Jackson’s book Worthy Of The Sea. The book is a fine effort filled with biographies of Nielsen and his boats and is an excellent introduction to his life and work.

If quotes like this say anything, they say that K. Aage Nielsen’s work is worth another look. When I first came to work here at Rockport Marine I knew of Aage Nielsen as the designer of the 35’5” cruising cutter NORTHERN CROWN. 

As a kid who eagerly awaited the arrival of Wooden Boat Magazine and then poured through each issue, I had learned somewhere in the pages of one issue or another that a man named Joel White had admired and then purchased NORTHERN CROWN as a pleasure cruising boat for his family. Over time I came to learn of Mr. White’s own genius as a yacht designer. Here was a man capable of achieving a level of elegance and simplicity in his own designs, and who knew better than most about the association between annual yard bills and maintenance due to unnecessary complexity. In the jargon of old salts along this patch of coastline, here was a man who “knew a thing or two about boats” that had seen something in Mr. Nielsen’s work that resonated. I was very young but also very eager to learn about this world of yacht design, cruising yacht design in particular, and so I took note, and filed it away for another day.

Fast forward a bunch of years and by a peculiar series of events that even now, looking back, have no discernable linear sequence. I found myself on the banks of a modest river in Tasmania, Australia, studying the approach of a smart looking, double ended cruising ketch. I remember admiring the way she went about her business without fuss. Upon inquiry from the owner I learned that here was another of Aage Nielsen’s designs. To my untrained-but-getting-better eye there wasn’t a thing to find fault with. If Mr. Nielsen was toeing a line where “elegant” gives way to “rugged”, at least he was on the right side of the line, with balanced stance, arms crossed, pipe between his teeth and two feet on the ground. As far as elegant versus rugged goes, I would soon learn that cruising at 43° S, 147° E was a different experience from Cape Cod in summer for both boat and crew. I thanked the owner for the tour. I was just beginning to take yacht design seriously and made a mental note of what I had seen. Great boat. Take pictures. File that one away for later.

Fast forward another bunch of years and I had just started working here at Rockport Marine. Here was NORTHERN CROWN again, still in Joel’s family as my new employer had become Mr. White’s son-in-law in the years since I first read about the design. It was no surprise this time that Taylor Allen had taken an interest in Mr. Nielsen’s design as here was another fellow who knew a thing or two about boats. The surprise came when I discovered that NORTHERN CROWN was not alone here at Rockport Marine. Not by a long shot. In fact I discovered no fewer than eight of Mr. Nielsen’s designs at my new place of employment. This was far too many to be a coincidence and yet there had been no coordinated effort to become a custodian of Nielsen boats. I came to the conclusion that the collection of Nielsen designs here at Rockport Marine was the natural result of yachtsmen and women serious about cruising selecting designs from the drawing board of a man renowned for designing serious cruising sailboats and gravitating toward a place full of men and women that take building cruising boats seriously. Maybe with a few thousand pristine islands and secluded harbors all serious cruising boats will gravitate up here and these Nielsen boats are just quicker than some of the others…

Until very recently Nielsen plans have been unavailable for construction because of the designer’s conviction in his later years that it would no longer be possible to obtain the kind of high-quality, aesthetically pleasing construction that he had carefully specified for his designs during his career. The continuing track record of Rockport Marine and Walsted’s of Denmark has convinced the Nielsen heirs that in fact such quality is available today, and they have decided to grant these two yards exclusive access to the plans. If you are interested in building or restoring a serious cruising boat as sensible as it is elegant there is no better place to start than the drawing board of K Aage Nielsen. And you’ll get a warm welcome from the family.

-Brendan Riordan

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At August 16, 2012 at 6:19 PM , Blogger DT said...

When 'Worthy of the Sea' came out I was thrilled. I grew up sailing with the Kiley family and their cousins, who have owned Snow Star, Star Song, Kypris and Primrose. Temptation sailed out of a nearby harbor. A Nielsen Crosby 21 moored right off our yacht club and I'd swim out to peek over the coaming but rarely saw her under sail and never did find out who the owner was.

My first job building in wood was the Nielson designed lobster boat Caelano and a few years ago I found Tivoli lying dormant in the side yard of a boat shop. She went to new owner somewhere before I could get my hands on her. I hope she'll be restored.

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