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Phil Bolger's Plywood Canoe Yawl


Bolger's Cartoon #24

Dear Phil:

The boat I have in mind is for a person who likes to travel light and explore remote waters and sail big lakes, like the coasts of Isle Royale in Lake Superior, the Leewanaw peninsula in Lake Michigan, or some of the inland waterways.

The boat will have to be light enough to be pulled by small car with a 90-horsepower engine; no more than 19 feet long (my garage is only 21 feet long and the ferry to Isle Royale can only transport boats up to 20 feet in length); simple enough for a novice to build; big enough to accommodate two people overnight with ample room for backpacking equipment and a two-week supply of food and clothing; have an enclosed cabin; have a centerboard trunk that would not take up the whole cabin; have shallow draft; make good speed under sail; be easily rowed; be capable of taking moderate seas; and possess fair lines.

In searching for such a boat, I came across two canoe yawls: Albert Strange's Cherub and William Garden's Eel. Both boats have features I like. Cherub possesses a functional (cruising layout and has an outboard rudder, but Eel's shallow draft and style are more to my liking. Maybe this dream boat would be more of a nightmare than a dream, but if such a boat were possible, it could be a very handy vessel for the person who likes to get away without a lot of investment or hassle.

Tom Haglund Sodus, Michigan



I don't see anything nightmarish about an urge to create a graceful little boat that pays respect to a pleasant tradition. I've often thought that people who pay for boats that please the eyes and stimulate the imaginations of passers-by ought to get some kind of tax break for the public service.

The construction is supposed to be for a patient novice. I think I've avoided features that are really difficult to build, but I believe you feel that good looks are worth taking some time and trouble. She's planked with plywood in easy curves all through. The simplified shape isn't carried to the point of looking crude, unless you have a prejudice against the hard chine. Chines can be ugly, but this one has a fair sweep that's well clear of the water and disappears at each end nothing ugly about it to an objective eye.

The deep-vee section is out of fashion now. Its function has always been to allow inside ballast to be carried low in a hull of minimum displacement for its beam, like the Baltimore Clippers and Chapman's 18th-century Swedish privateers. It doesn't make good sense in an outside ballasted boat; in this case, however, I suggest it for carrying water ballast. Though water is light for its bulk, it can be taken on free anywhere the boat can be used and dumped anywhere outdoors without making a mess. And the boat can be lighter on a trailer than one with ballast that has to be carried along.

I only did a rough estimate of the tank volume here, but it's supposed to be on the order of 1000 pounds. The stripped weight of a reasonably strong boat won't be more than another thousand, leaving about 700 pounds for payload people, gear, and supplies. By current standards, that's heavy displacement for a hull less than 16 feet on the waterline. She would have a fair amount of momentum, won't feel flighty in her motions, and will be positively self-righting. She can't be driven fast (I'd be surprised if she ever touched 6 knots) and will be a wet boat on the wind in a chop. She'll be a good sailer in light airs, fit to row some distance if the sea is smooth and the air still.

She'd be stiffer under sail, and therefore faster and more weatherly, if the ballast was lead. And she'd be stiffer still if the bottom of the vee was cut off and replaced with a fin. The shallower hull could be driven faster, and the flat-sided keel would allow the centerboard to be much smaller with no increase in draft. But she would be heavier on the trailer, noticeably harder to row on account of the surface friction of the fin, and more likely to miss stays in a breeze.

A transom stern would allow a stiffer, faster, roomier boat, with no functional penalty to speak of. But it wouldn't be a canoe yawl, and the hard chine would be harshly prominent.

I tried to design her with an outboard rudder, but no matter what I tried, the steering geometry came out wrong. Cranked and wishbone tillers were too long; yoke and lines or a drag link made the tiller too short. They all made a clutter that spoiled her looks. The 1896 Holmes-designed Eel for which Garden named his design, had an outboard rudder mounted on a stern that no novice should think of trying to build. With a transom stern, the mizzenmast stepped off center, and the cockpit extended further aft, an outboard rudder would work. But, in fact, I don t see much harm in this inboard rudder. It's well protected and braced. The trunk for the stock is no more trouble to build than the gimmickry needed to get an outboard rudder hooked up past the mizzenmast. All of Strange's later canoe yawls had inboard rudders, as did W.P. Stephens' famous canoe yawl Snickersnee.

Canoe yawls as short as this were usually meant for singlehanding. On paper, two people can cruise in this one, with room to lie down in the cuddy and sit there or in the cockpit But the shipmates should be a loving couple, since they'll be touching each other at all times unless they stand watch-and-watch.

Though Strange's Cherub II had a hinged and sliding cabin top with side curtains, a sort of pop top, I've never to this day figured a good way to make a door work in one of these. The only one I ever designed that I liked was fitted as an overgrown hatch, separate from the companionway, and it was replaced by a solid house after two seasons. Also, I wanted this boat to be seaworthy, which I define as "able to keep the sea in a gale with reasonable safety."

The trunk shown is high, to allow sitting up straight on top of the ballast tank and centerboard trunk, but it has a low coaming in keeping with her style. It's a simple shape to build, yet strong and stiff without great weight. Wind resistance is small (it's not that important compared with the wind resistance in her rig), it will shed water well, and the grab rail is ideally placed. To keep the trunk light, and incidentally to make it less obtrusive, no hatch is shown.

The cuddy is entered through a 2-foot-square opening in the bulkhead. You slide your legs in first, then lower your butt to the sole with hands on the lip of the trunk. Hands and knees will work best to get out. The reward of being limber enough to do this is that there's a good chance that the cuddy will stay dry.

The cockpit is self-draining with the hatch closed, but the space below is sealed off watertight from the rest of the hull with bulkheads. Shipping a green sea with the hatch open wouldn't be disastrous. The advantage of a footwell of this type is that it can be made fully self-draining if, for instance, you left her out in the rain or were about to run a breaking inlet. But it allows you to put your feet down most of the time without having to sit clear up on top of the boat. The stowage space at the sides and ends is much handier than with a tight, built-down footwell.

You can stand up to row, as diagrammed. The rowlocks are misplaced on the sailplan; they should be about a foot farther aft. With one foot up against the after bulkhead, an oarsman should be able to pull strongly and see well.

I first tried a jib-headed cat-yawl rig, that being a favorite of mine, but the mainmast came too far forward for a boat with no forefoot, and was too long and too difficult to unstep for a real trailer boat.

Next I looked at a balanced lug like Cherub II. I once designed a canoe yawl, Windfola, with this rig, and her owner likes her, but this rig has some bad habits for a seagoing boat. The long yard slung on a single halyard can be something of a menace in a crisis. I notice that Strange never repeated this rig in his later designs.

Then I sketched a gaff-cat rig, much like the mainsail shown here, with the mast unstayed and jib and mizzen eliminated. This is a good rig for ocean passages if the boat is long enough to have the mast well back from the bow and the boom inboard of the stem. But it's not so good for control in tight places or steady riding to an anchor. The unstayed mast is hard to unstep and, in any case, I doubted that you'd like the look of it.

I settled on the classical yawl, except for a more practical mizzen than used to be customary. The mast is stepped on deck. It's short and light enough to pick up horizontally, slide the heel slit onto its pin, and walk upright even with the boat afloat and the water not smooth. To get an effective spread, the shrouds can't go higher on the mast. This locates the height of the throat. Not wanting to clutter the mast with upper shrouds and spreaders, I put the jibstay not far above the shrouds. This made the jib a handy size to sheet with a single part. To give her a boomed jib would call for a bigger head angle, a longer base to the foretriangle, a longer bowsprit and a bigger mizzen to balance it, and poorer aerodynamics not worth it to save shifting one light line in tacking. Besides, a boomless jib with two sheets is better for heaving to and maneuvering.

I made the gaff just shorter than the boom here, but my afterthought is that she looks oversparred, even with the good reefing properties of this rig. If I went on to working drawings, I think I would take a foot or more off the gaff, which would allow shortening the mast by half that. I've had two embarrassments in the past few years from making rigs too big and tall; consequently, I'm slightly gun-shy.

I take it the bowsprit and boomkin have to be removable to meet the length restriction. I've thought about how to do this quickly, but haven't decided just how to handle it, hence the vagueness of this drawing.

I see plenty of ways to make her faster, roomier, and cheaper, but they all result in a less striking ornament at an anchorage. As a bonus, she looks more expensive than she is, and while she won't be a very fast boat, I'll warrant she'll have good and spirited manners.


from Small Boat Journal May 1986; this never seems to have been developed into a finished set of plans.

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