Readers might wonder whether this nautical publisher has any sailing experience himself; well, yes, though I seem to spend far more time messing about with boats then messing about in them. Here and in later posts I record my dubious credentials.Read More
I wrote in 2003: The mid-life crisis is a luxury peculiar to the western male with too much time on his hands or, perhaps, one who is oblivious to the demands upon it. In my case, after too many years aspiring to be a sailor and doing nothing about it, I finally acted with some RYA training courses and occasional crewing on a yacht, and the acquisition of a 15’6″ David Moss Sea Otter canoe yawl, now named Bunny (my grandmother’s nickname), in 2001.
My attraction to the canoe yawl was based solely on written accounts rather than experience, of which I had none, but it has been well rewarded by the adventures, and contact with like-minded people, into which Bunny has led us. Here’s how I got started.
I contacted David Moss in early 2001 to learn about the 3/4-decked canoe yawls he has been creating at his yard near Fleetwood in Lancashire over the last 15 years or so. David was booked up as regards new building, but he soon tipped me off that a used 15-footer, in fact the only one then in existence (his other open examples being 13 feet) was just coming onto the market locally to him, and he assured me that on seeing her I would buy her. He was right. Canoe yawls from any stable don’t come on the market every day, and this one was superbly well-built and in a pristine condition which belied her 12 years. Behind her gleaming recent paint job lay strip-planked douglas fir and a diagonal hardwood outer skin to a total thickness of around 5/8″. Her fit-out had cockpit coaming, side-benches, removable thwarts, and the rowing seat on the centreboard case all in varnished iroko, surmounting a flat floor of removal panels painted with the same businesslike non-slip as the deck. The sitting-out perches added to the side decks by her owner were a nice touch. Her rig was gunter main and mizzen, with a furling jib, and tan sails bearing the unusual label ‘The Fleetwood Trawlers Supply Company’ – a connection with David’s earlier years building or repairing the local working craft which fished from Morecambe Bay to the Arctic, and from Newfoundland to Russia. Hardwood cleats, tufnol blocks and galvanised metalwork completed her unpretentious appearance.
I had called in on David on my way to see Bunny for the first time, when he showed me the half-model from which he took her lines, and the temporary mould on which he built her in 1989, now re-erected as he was to construct a second of this size, to be lug-rigged and with a bit more sheer to her. David’s yawls are inspired by the Victorian craft of Holmes and Strange but, quoting him from Water Craft, May/June 1998: ‘With this design I started to develop my own version of the canoe stern which is very buoyant in the quarters but hollow on the waterline. The bow has ample fullness to balance the hull and the beam is carried aft of centre. Although this stern is difficult to build, even using strip planking, it proves its worth when sailing, making a very fast and able boat even in a choppy sea, almost planing in the right conditions.’ A visit to David’s yard is always a great pleasure, but be sure to allow an hour, preferably two, to gain full benefit from his passion for his craft and enthusiasm for communicating it. On my second trip, with my son Mike, to collect the boat I dropped by again, and received an excellent impromptu lecture on the marinization of a Yanmar truck refrigerator motor, illustrated in pencil on the primed hull of the 25-foot yawl then building.
Mike and I trailed the boat home and for the remainder of that year kept her at a local flooded gravel pit, the attractions of which we soon exhausted. It was here that an embarassing launching accident occurred involving a steep ramp, an unwittingly cocked jockey wheel, and a nearby pontoon, splitting the beautiful laminated tiller which encircled Bunny‘s mizzen mast; the situation was not improved by my attempt at repair. Over the following winter David created a substantial and even more beautiful replacement in iroko and ash, complete with his trademark otter’s head hand grip. These days I am cautious about exactly when in the launching process I hang the rudder.
For a couple of years my work took me to Paris, returning home to the UK each weekend. In early 2002 I had what seemed the adventurous idea of keeping Bunny somewhere in France, and settled on the Gulf of Morbihan, a large, sheltered natural harbour, full of islands, in southern Brittany. So in the February I trailed her there, and ‘moored’ her ashore at the tiny port of Arradon. As things turned out Mike and I only managed to get in a couple of long weekends, travelling down from Paris on the TGV, once as early as March, yet in T-shirt weather. Fearful of the notorious local tides, with a range of up to 16 feet and running at up to 9 knots, we kept well away from the narrow mouth of the gulf, but did manage to circumnavigate the large Isle aux Moines (Monks’ Island), not a bad effort for a couple of beginners fresh off the local gravel pit, we thought. Halfway round, the clew outhaul on the mizzen broke; we picked up a nearby vacant mooring and while Mike balanced the boat I was able to stand on the aft deck and reach up to repair it. Until we gained confidence with Bunny‘s ample sail area we would frequently reef the main or drop it altogether, sailing
perfectly balanced under jib and mizzen in anything like a breeze. At this early stage in our careers we found the ‘air rudder’ capability of the mizzen very handy, particularly when getting under way in a crowded anchorage; however you don’t get much purchase trying to shift the boom by its inboard end against the wind. I have a pet theory that a sliding or hinged ’tiller’ on the boom would increase leverage and make the technique more effective.
Towards the end of one afternoon, after a rainy day spent ashore, the sky brightened up. We stirred ourselves from watching the world go by at the head of the harbour creek in Vannes and dashed down to Arradon in our hire car to get in a couple of hours or so on the water. Dropping our mooring we ran in blissful ignorance down the gulf to return, and repent, upwind at some leisure, with darkness rapidly falling. We novices were too easily seduced by the marked reduction in apparent wind when running. Reading the chart by moonlight proved quite difficult (since many of its colours appeared the same uniform grey) as we beat through the confusing rocks and islets on the approach to Arradon, until at one point Mike said ‘Sshh – what’s that noise?’ Recognising it instinctively as water lapping gently over rocks a few yards ahead, I went about very sharply, having mistaken a small headland for an island in the darkness, and gone ‘inside’ it. A few gybes later (some of them intentional) this new intelligence quickly got us our correct bearings and we returned to port undeservedly unscathed, wiser, and resolving to carry a torch.
On another occasion, under jib and mizzen only, we were beating back to Arradon from the south-east in a stiff breeze made flukey by the wooded islands around us. Lacking the confidence to hoist the main we battled on, taking an hour and a half to cover the last mile. The final hundred yards through a crowded anchorage to find a vacant buoy were a desperate struggle under this reduced rig and oars; finally dropping back onto our buoy we ran it down sideways, its rusty top ring ploughing a furrow through our paintwork. With the addition of reefed main and a confidence we lacked at the time, I think we could have got Bunny back much quicker, under better control, and without recourse to the oars.
Bunny is a canoe yawl – there’s lots about them in TheCanoeYawl and Holmes of the Humber