Book Review – The Canoe Yawl

by John Nystrom - Peru, Indiana - USA

The Canoe Yawl: From the Birth of Leisure Sailing to the 21st Century

By Richard Powell

Lodestar Books, London: 2016

Funny how one day you are barely aware, or unaware, of a term or idea, and the next you can’t stop running into references and examples of it.  “Canoe Yawl” has become that for me.  None of my nautical encyclopedias or general boating reference books seem to have an entry for canoe yawl, but I had come across the term from time to time.  Back in the Victorian and Edwardian beginnings of pleasure sailing, the canoe yawl as a type figured heavily in the development of small pleasure sailing craft, both dayboats and small, economical cruisers.




My latest box of goodies from Lodestar Books included the just published The Canoe Yawl.  (Lodestar Books self-describes as a publisher of “New and Neglected Nautical Writing”, and so they are.  A hefty percentage of my reading in recent months has been from their collection of reissued classics and soon to be classics.)  And, yes, I now ‘see’, or at least see references to canoe yawls everywhere.  The heyday of canoe yawls ended with WWI, but examples and new interpretations of the idea have persisted to this day.  The Canoe Yawl Association (CYA) website, www.canoeyawl.org, uses a broad definition for the boat, centered on 1) a slim, easily-driven decked hull with a stem at each end, and 2) yawl rig.  Even those minimal requirements can get pushed a bit.  Three foot, 6 inch beam seems to be the consensus cutoff between ‘sailing canoe’ and ‘canoe yawl’, and too much keel (most boats seem to favor centerboards of some sort) moves the boat into a ‘canoe yacht’ category.

That said, Small Craft Advisor magazine recently reviewed a canoe yawl designed by William Garden, with a modest production run by an Oregon builder.  Other modern designers have put their own spin on the canoe yawl, including Phil Bolger and Iain Oughtred.  Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC) has a set of plans for a canoe yawl, but not a kit like their other designs.  The Wooden Boat Store offers plans for both classic and contemporary canoe yawls, and Wooden Boat magazine has featured several canoe yawls over the years.

Author Richard Powell does a very much better and more detailed job of tracing the history of canoe yawls than is usually done in books of this type.  This is due to the fact that the history of the type is much better documented than that of other boats, and that the author is technical director of the Albert Strange Association.  Ian Oughtred wrote the forward to the book, and asks the question, “Now what is so good about the Canoe Yawls?”  His long answer opens with “a welcome and necessary relief from modern production boats” (though there have been recent production fiberglass boats like the Ted Brewer designed Rob Roy 23), and after noting the advantages of these craft, closes with, “These boats have a comfortable and reassuring quality, which we – those of us who find the style appealing – find pleasant to live with, eminently able, safe, and practical in use, and good to look at.”

To trace the history of the canoe yawl, the author first covers some of the pioneers of Victorian pleasure sailing and cruising, and the subject of work boat conversions in the late-19th century.  Both personalities and their craft are detailed, and though the author’s text and great contemporary quotes make for a well told story, I found the illustrations to be incredible.  Throughout the text at least forty different boats are represented in lines drawings, two and three view plans, and sail plans.   Most of those by the author are colored in chalk in a way that enhances understanding, rather than being a distraction, like it can sometimes be.  (This might just be my own peculiarity, but I had training in drafting and cartography back in the days when we did it by hand, with pencil and paper rather than a computer screen.  I still consider this to be an advantage instead of a handicap.)  The author traces the rise, golden age, and decline of the canoe yawl in the next three chapters, before devoting two chapters in just 16 pages to what I would call some boating evangelism on behalf of the canoe yawl.  The chapter entitled Some Design Basics opens with, “I hope to convey here something of the art and science of yacht design which underpins my belief that the canoe yawl is the ideal small cruising boat.”  This doesn’t mean Powell turns into the annoying, uninvited ‘guest’ on the doorstep.

“The first part of this book is a narrative of the origins and development of the canoe yawl in all its variants, reflected against the background of other types of recreational craft.  The last few chapters are more difficult to write as any appreciation of the type will inevitably include my opinions, personal prejudices and, on some occasions, intense dislike.  Be reassured, however, that any dislike of mine is only directed at conformity, uniformity, restriction of choice, and spurious regulation.” (p. 106)

After the brief, but well-argued sermon of sorts, the book closes with a review of classic canoe yawls that have survived and been restored, and discussion of where the canoe yawl stands today and in the future as a viable recreational craft.  The author is modestly optimistic as to the possibilities opened up by modern wood composite construction techniques and CNC kit production.

This book will go on my shelf right beside Ruell Parker’s The Sharpie Book; I hope that, like Parker’s book and Phil Bolger’s writing and design work on sharpies, it leads to a renewal of interest in the canoe yawl.  The down side of my enjoyment of this book is that I’m now compelled to get hold of Lodestar’s reissue of John Leather’s book on designer and artist Albert Strange.  What a fate.

Available on Amazon

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