Imray, Laurie & Wilson

Cruising World profiles this well known company that celebrates a centenary this year

or Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson, the Second World War brought an end to two hundred years of chart publication for commercial shipping, and their future looked bleak. At first they turned to fishing boats. Alan Wilkinson, their senior cartographer, recalls: “We got into association with a skipper from Grimsby who used to give us information and we started producing a series of our own charts called Kingfisher. We went right out to Barents Sea and White Sea.” But the Cod Wars eventually killed off that market and they turned to yachting, and adapted their tradition of “packaging” charts to cover popular yachting areas, using numerous large-scale in- sets for the most popular ports. But the big change happened just thirty years ago.

Ian Rippington, the company’s commercial director, ex- plains: “Rod Heikell came to us with the Greek Waters pilot and said: “Do you want to publish this?” We’re now in the 9th edition.” Since then they have become established as world leaders in pilot books and are continuing to expand their range, with around 30% sold overseas. Their sales now divide almost evenly between pilot books and charts, and they are enjoying a steady growth that seems once again to assure the company’s future.

Imray, Laurie & WilsonImray’s is an extraordinary story of survival, and the twist and turns of their history are charted by one of their own publications, The History of the Bluebacked Charts, by Susanna Fisher. From the latter part of the seventeenth century, the original business traded for nearly two hundred years from various addresses in the City of London: Imray’s in the Minories by Tower Hill, Laurie’s on Fleet Street and J. W. Norie & Co at 157, Leadenhall Street. This last address was familiar to many because of the Little Wooden Midshipman that stood outside. An engraving of the shop in 1825 shows it standing over the doorway and it remained a shop sign for the amalgamated firm until they left London for their present premises in St Ives, near Huntingdon, at the outbreak of the Second World War.

“We’re about as far from the sea as you can possibly get,” says commer- cial director Ian Rippington cheerfully. Ian’s mother was an Imray, while the company’s Chairman, Willie Wilson, is the great, great grandson of Charles Wilson (1807-1882) who inherited the shares in a partnership with John Norie back in 1838. John Norie’s Epitome and Nautical Tables was first published in 1803, and remained, not merely in print, but a best seller for nearly two hundred years. Since then it has largely been the Wilson family who have been responsible for the company’s surviving its many setbacks.
“There were times when it was very close to going under,” says Ian. “Willie’s grandfather said that we would be if it wasn’t for Norie’s nautical tables. That book alone kept us going through the Second World War.”

Imray, Laurie & WilsonBut it has always been for their charts that the company and its predeces- sors were best known, although ironically they have never carried out a single survey. In the eighteenth century, charts were generally produced by ships’ captains and pilots – or even copied from other map-makers. By the end of the century, however, navigation was becoming considerably more exact, and in 1795 the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was established to provide the Navy with accurate charts. This also involved the almost universal adoption of the Mercator projection, allowing a course to be plotted directly on to the chart. Previous charts had been too inaccurate to make this worthwhile. This, in turn, created a demand for very small-scale charts of popular ocean passages, such as those used by tea clippers, or even gold rush ships. These charts were produced by a number of private publish- es, John Hamilton Moore, James Imray’s predecessor, J. W. Norie & Co, and Robert Laurie.

The charts produced by these companies were characterised by their blue manilla backing paper, making them durable and relatively inexpensive to produce. But essentially they were an exercise in pure marketing, offering a design tailor-made for the rapidly growing shipping routes. The product remains essentially the same today. Although more expensive than individual Admiralty charts, they covered a much wider area and by providing inset chartlets of local ports a ship’s captain needed fewer charts and could make a significant saving by using just blue-backs. Susanna Fisher records that a voyage from the Thames to the west coast of South America, for example, could be covered in just seven of James Imray’s blue-backs, while it would have needed 30 Admiralty charts.

Imray, Laurie & WilsonAs the nineteenth century wore on, however, pressure upon the Blue- back producers intensified. Steam ships that could make passages closer to land meant that accuracy became more important and the Admiralty charts became increasingly necessary. In meeting these challenges, the various businesses tried new markets, including chandlery, navigation instruction and even at one time, yacht deliveries. But it was William Wilson of Laurie & Wilson who finally suggested to his competitors that they should merge. After several years of negotiation, Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson was incorporated on 13th October 1904, and the final documents signed on 2nd January 1905, making this year the company’s centenary.

Imray, Laurie & WilsonAfter a hundred and fifty years of trading the end of the business seemed inevitable when, in 1929, the Admiralty finally started charging a royalty on all their charts, but amazingly, even after absorbing this cost, the blue backs were still competitive. Although they finally disappeared in the 1970s, the apparently perverse situation, whereby Imray charts compete with the Admiralty charts on which they are based, lasts to this day. To have so much information on just one chart still makes them the yachtsman’s favourite, and most cruising boats prefer them.

“We have effectively three sets of charts,” Ian Rippington explains.
“We have north-west Europe, the Mediterranean and Aegean, and then the Caribbean. The ones that are really affected by global economic events is probably the Caribbean. More than anywhere else it’s quite reliant on the American market. We are busy right through until early September and then it starts to drift away.” Alan Wilkinson adds: “We were kept going during this time with the Caribbean charts, but the Americans since 9/11 don’t like going abroad
any more and don’t buy as many.”

Imray, Laurie & WilsonAlan is Imray’s longest-serving employee. “I left school, looking for a job and came here in 1959. I started off at the bottom correcting charts. When I started there were only about three or four of us, but now there’s about eight or nine. The printing was done by a firm called Enderby’s but they packed up when Clive Sinclair moved in with his calculators and black watches. We bought an offset printing press and had it downstairs for about thirty years until it couldn’t keep up with the amount we wanted printed.” They now have their own old Sovereign press which operates from separate premises a mile or so away.

Except for Alan, who still draws his charts by hand, everything is now digital. I asked him if this had made many changes. “Digitisation hasn’t really changed the chart, it’s just being drawn in a different way. The biggest change is metrication, changing feet and fathoms to metres. There was no way you could alter the existingcharts and when each chart came up for reprinting we’d draw another one. Our charts now are very much better, cleaner and sharper.”

Ian explains that there are three options for new charts: print- ing from existing plates without corrections; issuing as a new printing, including all the corrections since first publication, or drawing an entirely new edition. “Most charts are now reproduced as new editions within a three-year time span. Once a new edition is published you can’t correct an old chart. Some yachtsmen expect their charts to last them a lifetime, which it simply can’t do. They have a sell-by date although we do try to make them last as long as is reasonable practical.

“There are areas which are subject to a lot of change and others which are not – rock and sand for instance. Rocks don’t move, whereas sand does. From experience we know which charts are going to be subject to a lot of corrections and which are not and we can build that into a printing programme over a year to eighteen months.” Each week the Notice to Mariners sent from the Admiralty are marked up on a master chart and when the correction list is long enough they know a new edition is needed. A typical print run is anything from 300 to 3,000 – a popular chart like the Isle of Wight will be 3,000.

Ian says that the company’s latest project is to produce digital charts on a CD, and they’re launching a series at the Southampton Boat Show. “They’re raster, not vector. We’ve started with the East Coast, and by Southampton we’re hoping we’ll have had the Channel done as well. For us it’s dipping the toe in the water and we’ll see how it goes.”

Imray, Laurie & WilsonRaster charts are effectively digitally scanned paper charts – although the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred since paper charts themselves are now drawn digitally. In view of these changes I asked if he thought that computers would soon take over all navigation. “I don’t think you’ll ever see the complete wiping out of paper charts anywhere. I think that even on the bridges of supertankers they will still have a folio of paper charts because electronics have a nasty habit of going wrong. In this country electronic charts haven’t had a significant impact on our sales. It’s probably having some affect on our Caribbean market but not asmuch as other events. Undoubtedly they are going to have some affect on paper charts eventually, but our main market is the weekend boater and he’s going to continue to buy paper charts far into the future.”

Digitisation has also had a major effect on Imray’s pilot books. Some people imagine that the hundreds of chartlets in each guide had been produced by the authors themselves, but this is not the case They are redrawn on computer by Imray staff using a number of different copyright sources, and the authors can then add any explanatory notes they think are appropriate. Apart from the charts, however, the rest of the pilots are entirely the authors’ own work.

“Writing a good pilot book is a real skill,” and it’s obviously one that Ian Rippington himself is impressed by. “Not a lot of people have the ability or patience to be able to do it. I think you’ve got to have a knack of getting the information across in a readable way and I don’t think that’s an easy skill at all. The first thing people going into a harbour want to know is: ‘How do I get in there, and how do I do it safely? And once I’m there, what’s there?’ You also want to be telling people where not to go because they’re also places that the authors wouldn’t want to recommend someone to visit.”

Imray, Laurie & WilsonUpdating pilot books is becoming as onerous as updating charts, and Imrays now aim at a three-year lifespan for a book, when previously it used to be five years. For someone with as many books to his name as Rod Heikell, it becomes impossible to revisit each port by boat, and “he will often hire a car and drive through a region to see what has changed”. Even so it’s a daunting task. Ian isn’t too sympathetic. “We’re relying on Rod to turn them around. It is quite a pressure, but it’s his job.” Ian adds,
after a short pause, “Rod Heikell is an exception.”

After Rod Heikell their next biggest ‘author’ is the RCC Pilotage Foundation who in turn have a number of authors writing for them. The Foundation acts like a corporate author and produces the manuscript, which Imray then turn into books. But one problem that all the authors suffer from is copying. In one of his books Rod Heikell invokes a local curse against anyone copying it illegally. Ian laughs. “I don’t think his curse is going to stop it. Copying does happen, and at the end of the day it’s his income that’s being affected by it, as it is ours. When somebody has put so much effort and money into doing something, it’s not right that somebody comes along and photocopies it for a few pounds. I did have one couple who said they couldn’t get hold of a Red Sea Pilot and had bought a photocopy. They felt so bad about it that they sent us the full amount of the book, which I thought was exceedingly honest. For every one of those how many are just buying a photo- copied edition of the book?”

Imray’s, as well as the authors themselves, welcome feedback from readers. “We keep an office copy of all the guides and there’s a wad of letters in the front of it which have come in saying: “This bit’s wrong.” Some people sit down and write us six or eight page letters. We can’t be right 100% of the time. It’s three months from the time you put the last bit of information in, to actually producing the book, and I’m sure in those three months something’s probably changed. Then by the time you put it on the shelves and then onto somebody’s boat whose actually sailed there, you could be looking at a year from when the last bit of technical information was inputted, even though it’s a new edi- tion.”

Imray’s now appears to have virtually cornered the market in pilot books “The growth is because we do new ones,” Ian says, “not because any particular pilot book is going to grow substantial- ly. Overseas sales are growing; they’re about 30% of the total. The Mediterranean is definitely becoming bigger every year. We’re selling an increasing number of Mediterranean books while the UK is fairly static. If anywhere that’s where the growth is – especially Croatia. To me, one of the points of sailing is adventure, and sailing to the Caribbean used to be an adventure, but perhaps not so much now. That’s why I thought Thailand and the Far East was going to be the next big growth area. We’ll see; time will tell.”

Imray, Laurie & WilsonFor many cruising people, the idea of making a living from something they do for pleasure appears irresistibly attractive. On-board computers, digital cameras, mobile phones and Inter- net have now removed a lot of laborious procedures endured by the early pilot writes such as Dinah and Trevor Thompson [see next article]. The result is that many people see it as a way of enhancing their cruising income.

Ian agrees. “We do get a lot of people offering their services but we need to know that they’ve actually done some writing before. We very rarely publish a dud.

“But the income is not big. You have to be a Rod Heikell to be able to live off it. He’s got ten or twelve in print and they’re big-selling books. Some of our books sell three or four hundred copies a year; Greek Waters Pilot sells two and a half thousand copies a year. So to make a decent living you can’t just have one book and think you’re going to live off that because you couldn’t
– they’re not Harry Potters.”