I’ve begun a series of posts on Antonio Dias Design titled “Boats I’d Like to Design” with this entry on the Canoe Yawl. I think it also belongs here as it explores the meaning boats hold for us and how our engagement with boats can help us going forward….
Boats I’d Like to Design: Canoe Yawl
One of the first designs I fell in love with was L. Francis Herresshoff’s Rozinante. There was one being built at the “Boat School” in Lubec when I arrived there in 1973. Reading L. Francis’ Compleat Cruiser fleshed out the story behind this wonderful craft. It’s fitting that when I want to focus on writing stories about designs as I am in this series, that I return to this design and to this type.
Over the years other canoe yawls have held a special place in my heart. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to design WoodWind, a design I’ve called the Beach Point 18 after the place where I grew up on Cape Cod. This boat is a bit compressed, a tendency for shorter hulls than ideal that’s been an outgrowth of cost-cutting and been exacerbated by trailer-sailing. In this particular circumstance, it came about due to her owner’s need to fit WoodWind in his garage while he undertook finishing construction after I’d built her major structures in my old shop.
Most recently I’ve been brought back to my love of Canoe Yawls by Thomas Armstrong’s series featuring Constance on his blog, 70.8%. This Albert Strange Wenda design, recently built by Fabian Bush, is also featured on the relatively new site, Canoe Yawl.org. This second view of Constance sailing, combined with the other of her resting in a tidal estuary fills out the picture of why these boats have such a powerful appeal.
Canoe Yawls embody the double nature of many of us coastal sailors. We are drawn to the shore and spend whatever time we can afloat, but we are not sea creatures, more amphibians. These boats are so well suited to estuarine sailing as to be a wonderful expression of that dual nature. They are equally at home afloat in choppy tidal waters as snug amongst the reeds high up a winding marsh.
I grew up between a bay-side beach and a brackish marsh. Beach Point lies between Cape Cod Bay and Pilgrim Lake, the old East Harbor – before the railroad, and then a highway, closed off the lagoon and made it an isthmus. The smell of marsh mud at low tide is among my most cherished olfactory memories. Some might say the same of the smell of a stable…. It is the aroma of supreme fecundity. It’s from marshes and estuaries that so much of the sea’s life gets its start. These lobed structures with winding passages branching down from brachia to alveoli are the ocean’s lungs, just as the Amazon is the atmosphere’s. The tides are their diaphragm, pumping sea-water in and out to mingle with fresh water and to lie in bright warm sunlight as a nursery for so many types of young who later follow that tide seaward to a wider life a midst the perils of the open sea. This was my first and greatest teacher, as well as my home.
Rozinante tied in for me with the whaleboat, her direct ancestor. This tied in not only with my home’s heritage, but also the pivotal role reading Moby Dick had for me as a youth. Albert Strange’s Canoe Yawls tie in to another literary influence of long-standing, Erskine Childers and his Riddle of the Sands. I’ve been captivated by this glimpse into a life, a time and a place, that connects so much with aspects of my own youth while gripping me with Childers’ image of an amateur, sidelined from the establishment, and keen to make a difference when presented with what Arthur Davies calls, “My chance.”
The main point I’m trying to make in this ramble is to illustrate the way boats act on our imaginations and the way they can connect with us intimately at a primal level. Our involvement with them, whether it is just reading and looking at them or if it involves designing them, building them, or sailing in them; are all routes back down to what has been called in other circumstances, “the better angels of our natures.” Our time spent with them strengthens our connections with the natural world, and its rhythms, and also with aspects of our cultural histories. In both cases these engagements feed us. This was the intent behind the term recreation, and the activities that grew up around it. L’ Francis knew this, Albert Strange knew this, Erskine Childers knew this. Melville was so far ahead of his time, he probably knew it too!
The prime conditions for what is now a quaint, traditional activity have past us by. If there ever was an ideal moment and place, Albert Strange’s life and Arthur Davies’ fictionalized existence probably came closest. Since then, the means to what had been considered a relatively modest form of boating, well outside of fashionable wealthy yachting, has receded as a realistic possibility for more and more of us. At the same time, the onslaught against estuaries and marshes has seriously degraded almost all of the world’s shallow waters. Any outing, instead of simply nourishing us with an immersion within the bounty and strength of the natural world, now either depresses us or demands that we turn a blind eye to its condition. Those of us who still care about such things are in retreat along with the Fiddler crab, the Mud Skipper and the Woodcock.
These conditions have a direct impact on our lives. They do so for everyone, but we are more likely to notice, to feel it in our bones. This is a good thing. Mourning over a loss, even the anger we may feel towards the senselessness of the destruction wreaked in our name, are healthy reactions; much preferable to a numbed paralysis sleepwalking as the destruction continues.
The intersections of all of these currents around boats, and in this essay, on Canoe Yaws and their significance as I see it, is what drives me to continue to persist in the folly of pursuing the design of small craft. This brings us back to Rozinante. She was named after Don Quixote’s wispy mount after all. L. Francis, the son of the great Nathaniel Herresshoff, was keenly aware that the moment for such things was already on the wane in his day. He knew that our choices were to either admit defeat in the face of overwhelming odds or to stand and tilt at our windmills, that in doing this we at least stand witness to what was and what might be again someday.
This is far from a call to nostalgia. Those of us who look to the past for guidance, and look askance at promises of Utopian futures held out as if baubles in front of children, are used to this charge. It is far from what is required. The root of remembering comes down to mean an act of putting together again: re-membering. We look to the past and the present that’s grown out of it for lessons of what has endured and what has failed to endure. We take those lessons to heart. We then restore what can be restored and fashion out of what is at hand a new circumstance to bring what we value to life. We don’t re-enact the past. We don’t fall for visions of perfection in the future. We just want to express our natures and find ways of engaging with what matters to us. That’s all.
That may be all, but it is a daunting task. Just as Childers felt in his day, on the eve of immense disruption and danger, somehow small boats and those of us who love them should have a “chance” to do our part.