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A yawl (from Dutch jol) is a two-masted sailing craft similar to a sloop or cutter but with an additional mast (mizzenmast or mizzen mast) located well aft of the main mast, often right on the transom, or aft of the rudder post if the vessel has an inboard hung rudder. (A vessel with a larger mizzen located in a more forward position is called a ketch; see below: Yawl versus ketch.) The mizzen sail (smaller than the mainsail) is hoisted on the mizzen mast.
The yawl was originally developed as a rig for commercial fishing boats, one good example of this being the Salcombe Yawl (a small traditional fishing boat built in Devon). In its heyday, the rig was particularly popular with single-handed sailors, such as circumnavigators Harry Pidgeon and Francis Chichester. This was due to the ability of a yawl to be trimmed to sail without rudder input. Modern self-steering and navigation aids have made this less important, and the yawl has generally fallen out of favor.
In the 1950s and 60s, yawls were developed for ocean racing, to take advantage of the handicapping rule that did not penalize them for flying a mizzen staysail, which on long ocean races, often downwind, were a great advantage. A good example of this was Olin Stephens' Finisterre.
Both the yawl and the ketch have two masts, with the main mast foremost. On classic yacht types with long overhangs and inboard rudders, the distinction is simple: a ketch has the mizzen mast forward of the rudder post, whereas on a yawl, it is aft of the rudder post. For boats with shorter overhangs or outboard rudders the distinction is more usefully determined by comparing the purposes and relative sizes of the mizzens. Compared to a ketch, a similar size yawl's mizzen sail is much smaller than the main, and is usually situated very far aft, behind the helm station. On a ketch, the principal purpose of the mizzen sail is to help propel the vessel as part of the working sail, the sail area being split up between two masts to ease handling. On a yawl, the smaller mizzen mainly serves the purposes of trim and balance, working more as an "air rudder" or trim tab than as a substantial part of the working sail. Yawls tend to have mainsails almost as large as those of sloops of comparable sized hulls.
The above is an accepted modern definition, but it may not be correct within a historical context.
YAWL, n. A small ships boat, usually rowed by four or six oars. (Webster's dictionary 1828)
The seminal American yacht designer of the first half of the twentieth century, Francis Herreshoff, reflected this traditional definition of a yawl as "a ship's boat resembling the pinnace" set up to be primarily rowed.
To add a sailing rig to a rowboat, the masts must not interfere with the rowers. The mainmast is placed well forward and the mizzen as far back as possible. The mizzen has to be small in size to keep the sail area balanced around the hull's centre of lateral resistance to ensure the boat will sail in a straight line without excessive correction.
According to Herreshoff, "yawl" had nothing to do with rudder placement relative to the mizzen, and instead, a yawl rig is the sail and mast configuration that suits a yawlboat.
A review of "The L. Francis Herreshoff Collection"  would seem to indicate that he had no objection to the forward-versus-aft mizzenmast of the rudder-post definition, since he consistently used it in his own work.
Ketch was a "catch" or fishing boat. ("Ketch" from Middle English "cache", from "cacchen", to catch.) The mizzen is bigger to hold the bow of the boat toward the wind and oncoming waves. The mainsail at the front of the boat would have been dropped and the mizzen trimmed tight on the centreline. Set up this way, most boats will point directly into the wind in a reliable way. It is also possible to ease the mizzen slightly to allow the boat to move slowly forward.
In a fishing boat this attitude allows the nets to be handled without the boat becoming "broadside" to the waves allowing them to break over the sides of the boat. Fishnets can then be handled without putting the boat at risk.
For enough sail area to propel a fishing boat the mizzen mast has to move forward toward the middle of the boat which allows its sail to be bigger without upsetting the sail balance or distribution.
A "Ketch Rig" is simply the rig that matches the function of a "Ketch" or "Catch" or fishing boat.
The common definition of Yawl and Ketch using the rudder post does not reflect the nautical tradition and was created by much more recent developments of a handicap system for racing yachts.
The CCA (Cruising Club of America) rating rule was developed following World War II to allow different styles of boats to race against each other with a handicap calculated from measurements of each boat. It was later combined with the RORC (Royal Ocean Racing Club) rule to become the IOR (International Offshore Rule) rule in the late 50s which was used to handicap international racing until the late 1980s.
The CCA and the following rules used the rudder post definitions of ketch and yawl so they had a cut and dried definition for measuring sail so boats could be handicapped with boats fulfilling their new and arbitrary definition of Yawl and Ketch receiving slightly different handicaps.
The Humber Yawl Club was created in England on the Humber Estuary in the late 19th century. Its fleet of "Canoe Yawls" were primarily sailing boats that could be rowed effectively.
The purpose of the boats and the group was for recreational cruises along the coast of England over several days, camping on beaches and riverbanks. Some of the boats were small enough to be taken to Europe by commercial steamer and then used for travelling the canal, lake and river systems of Europe.
"Canoe Yawls" have a pointed stern similar to a canoe. Rudders were usually placed on the back of the boat which allows the rudder to be raised to allow the boat to be landed on a beach.
Regardless of the mizzen sail being ahead of the rudder the boats are termed Yawls because of their size and their good rowing capability.
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