Campion Sail and Design

Canoe Yawls?


  A pen and ink drawing by George Holmes




     Canoe yawls are neither strictly canoes nor yawls, but the name - as it so often does - gives an indication of the origin of these craft.  They were developed in the 1880’s from the sailing and paddling canoe of the late 1860’s, a sport which began, it is generally agreed, with the publication of Captain John MacGregor’s book ‘A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe’ which gave an account of his exploits in what resembled a decked, sheer-less, Canadian canoe driven by a double-bladed paddle and - when the wind served - by a small sail, steering being done by the paddle held over the side.  The Canoe Club was founded in 1866, followed by branches in various parts of the country, including one in Hull in 1872, and became the Royal Canoe Club in 1873.  Many of the canoes were developed more for sailing than paddling, but were still narrow enough to be effectively paddled, and were both raced and cruised.  The rigs were split usually into at least two masts with the smaller sail set behind the main; as the mizzen was in front of the stern post, the canoes were technically ketches rather than yawls, but perhaps because the boats were too small to be called ketches or because one old meaning of yawl or ‘yol’ was a small boat, the larger, beamier canoes tended to be called yawls.  This latter interpretation is given weight by the  fact that the rigs were invariably referred to as ‘main-and-mizzen’ rather than yawl, and the term yawl or yawl rigged does not seem to have been applied to the  narrower sailing/paddling canoes.


     On the Humber, however, the enthusiasm for canoe sailing waned by the end of the decade, the demise at least partly, no doubt, due to the boisterous conditions often to be met in the estuary.  Four members of the original Canoe Club became the founding members of the Humber Yawl Club in 1883, and their interest was in more substantial craft derived from the original sailing canoes.  George Holmes, one of the founding members, designed ‘Cassy’ in 1883, which the Humber Yawl Club later described as the prototype Humber Yawl.  It was a full-bodied canoe with the breadth carried towards the ends, too wide at 40” to be paddled and so fitted with outriggers for rowing, with an iron centre plate and a balanced lug main and small mizzen.  Holmes not only raced her in this country, but took her by steamer to Sweden and enjoyed a cruise rowing and sailing her across the country, transporting her when necessary by rail or steamer.  Holmes eventually sold the ‘Cassy’ and designed and had built the ‘Ethel’ in 1888-89, shorter than the ‘Cassy’  at only 13 feet, but with an extra 1’ 4” of beam.  It is from the lines of this canoe yawl that the canoe yawl below is built.

A pen and ink drawing by George Holmes


Racing Lillie against Scorpions and GPs

Sitting on a  Scorpion’s tail!  



Racing at Haversham Sailing Club in the mid to late 90's in the Selway Fisher 'Lillie' - a modified Holmes' 'Ethel' - and sailing off a Portsmouth Yardstick of 1100.


We’ve just turned the windward mark and are set for a long run down the lake.



Below is one of my interpretations of the type, but with more freeboard and beam , a finer bow, and a much flatter floor than the earlier 'Ethels', all with the aim of producing a roomier, drier, more stable craft without the tendency to throw solid lumps of water into the helm's face or over his head and straight into the mizzen when sailing hard on the wind in a short chop - but equally without losing the seductive charm of these double-enders. The rigs are similar to the balanced lug main and fully battened mizzen I developed for the 'Lillie' as well as the single balanced lug main for the Iota, with effective controls to maintain and adjust the shape of the main and which proved so successful in both boats for racing against a variety of modern conventionally rigged class dinghies - upwind and down - for more than a decade. The deck layout with the sweeping side decks and wide cockpit again follows the pattern developed when building the Lillie and makes in my opinion for a more aesthetically pleasing as well as roomier, more usable cockpit than the usual canoe-style cockpit ending in a point. Construction is either stitched seam multi-chine as in the main and mizzen jpeg below, or glued clinker, as in the single sail balanced lug below that, with the planking already lined off. Care has been taken with the lining off of both the somewhat carvel-like-in-appearance stitched hull and the glued clinker one so that the result is aesthetically pleasing without being wasteful of either material or man hours. 'Electra', with her firm sections, moderate beam and long waterline, is easily driven, yet powerful and will plane well if there is the desire to drive her hard. She is the result of many hundreds of hours racing and cruising her predecessor in a wide variety of winds and conditions on both open and protected waters and incorporates more specific first hand extended experience in her design than many can claim - to accentuate the strengths and minimise the compromises of small double-enders, whether concerning construction, day sailing or indeed even competitive racing.


Electra 16 simple lug yawl plan
Electra 16 simple lug plan

George Holmes' Original Small Canoe Yawls

Holmes' first Ethel

These are the lines of the original ‘Ethel’ - the ones which were digitised to produce the Lillie.  A couple of years later, Holmes drew up a stretched and widened version of this design which he called the ‘Daisy’, 18’ x 5’3”.   Holmes experimented with the ‘Ethel 11’which had very sharp floors and a softer bilge, and later, in 1893, with the 15’ ‘Ethel 111’ which had very flat floors, quite similar, indeed, to the lines of an Albert Strange designed canoe yawl - a modern version of which appeared in the pages of WoodenBoat some years ago. He certainly was not afraid to experiment.  And in 1896, he had built the ‘Eel’, a decked canoe yawl with both cabin and keel, at 21’ a sizeable yacht but one which could still be lifted easily onto the decks of a steamer for shipping abroad to Holland, Denmark or Germany.  Although considerably deeper and with far greater displacement, the half sections and waterlines in the plan view show the unmistakeable influence of the original ‘Ethel’ - in 1888, a truly inspired design.

Below are the lines of  a version of the ‘Ethel’ which - in date and in hull form - seem to fall in between the ‘Ethel 1’ and ‘Ethel 11’, and to which I have not as yet seen a published reference.  The turn to the bilge is softer, the hollow in the sections forward removed - though the hollow forward waterlines are retained - and the quarters are eased, too.  There are numerous detailed changes, too, from the reduced deck camber, increased width of the side decks to slight changes to sail plan and tiller - which still seems to be as unworkable as first drawn!   The date given for building - missing below - is the same as for the original ‘Ethel’ and would seem to be unlikely: a building date of 1889-90 would seem to be more probable - if , indeed, this version of the ‘Ethel’ was actually built.



Holmes' Ethel

Note how here, in this 1891 version of the ‘Ethel’, Holmes has softened the sections to such an extent that it is quite difficult to put your finger on the exact turn of the bilge.  Hollow in both fore and aft sections has disappeared, as it practically has in the waterlines.  This design was no doubt faster off the wind in a breeze and to windward in certain conditions, but lacks the power ot the earlier versions.  On the other hand, it would be drier to windward and would pound less, the sharp sections allowing it to knife easily through waves in a steep chop without being stopped, whilst the reduced wetted area would be advantageous in light conditions.  Initial stability would not be as good, but it was probably quite forgiving once heeled.


With the 15’ ‘Ethel’ of 1893, Holmes has back-tracked completely and produced a very flat-floored design with a very firm turn to the bilge.  Owing to its length and flat floors, this version would be more stable and faster off the wind than the others, but it would pound as badly and be as wet as many of today’s ‘u’-sectioned racing and dayboat dinghies if driven hard to windward in a short, hollow chop.


Ethel of 1893

And these are the lines of Holmes’ first canoe yawl, the ‘Cassy’, all clearly now 'copy free'.

And these are the lines from where it all began

Fully lofted offsets for the original 13' Ethel were published in Classic Boat, issue 31, January 1991, page 107 for the reader's use, and were taken from the published lines in Dixon Kemp's 'Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing. Buy a back copy and you have the offsets. If it's unavailable, CB will probably photocopy the whole article for you - pp104 - 108. The whole series went through to November 1991 with one break, I think. The last one is worth getting for the rather lovely photos by professional photographer Peter Chesworth of her being sailed (and rowed), if for no other reason. To my knowledge, there was at least one other clinker version built to the lines as well as the strip-planked version featured in the articles. The original idea was for any like-minded reader to build at home in parallel with the Falmouth School of Boat Building, but I didn't hear of anyone doing so.