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Donkin on Sailing

July 2008 - Yawl sailing in Salcombe

Yawl sailing in Salcombe

Goose-winged, sailing towards the yellow marker buoy near the head of the estuary, we look up to see a Tiger Moth flying low over head, its engine stuttering steadily.

For a fleeting second the aircraft is reflected in the lacquered mahogany grains of the yawl’s deck before it is out of sight over the patchwork fields and gabled houses, the sort you would leave with your knapsack packed with sardine sandwiches and ginger beer to start a Famous Five adventure.

Out on the water, everything is feeling right with the world. It is as if time has stood still at some point between the two world wars before money and professionalism has exorcised the Corinthian spirit.

On land the scene changes. Down the hill from Salcombe yacht club, the street is lined with shops selling popular casual brands, often inspired by a nautical theme – Musto, Fat Face, Weird Fish and White Stuff. Not for nothing do they call this tiny Devon sailing village Chelsea-by-the-sea.

In high summer the population swells from a winter low of 1,500 to upwards of 20,000 as the affluent “middles” don Crocs without socks and bounce down to their second homes to sample the quiet rural idyll - all at the same time.

But in early May, winding down the narrow hedged lanes flushed with campion, primroses and bluebells, it is still possible to pause and savour just a hint of nostalgia for a gentler age.

Better still, step in to a traditional clinker-built Salcombe yawl, and touch the wood. You will touch the wood. You can’t help it. Someone likened it to a Chippendale with sails. Everyone wants one. First you buy your second home, then you buy your yawl.

“It takes 1300 man hours to build one of these,” says Bill “Scratch” Hitchen, a former trawlerman who has been dealing in yawls for the past seven years.

A distinctive one-syllable nickname seems to be synonymous with yawl-sailing. I’m introduced to Ian “Scud” Stewart, a local chandler who races one, and the yawl sailors speak in reverential tones when they mention boat-designer “Spud” Rowsell, credited with some of the finest examples in the fleet.

Between Spud, Scud and Scratch there doesn’t seem to be anything else worth knowing about yawls. The first thing to understand, however, is that the Salcombe yawl isn’t the copycat Devon yawl, based on a mould taken from one of the Salcombe boats; it is the real McCoy.

Sailing Yawl

“It’s like a classic car,” says Scratch. “People look after them and hold on to them. When I’m selling one I tell the buyers that their grandchildren will be sailing it one day.”

The design, with its distinctive mizzen mast and sail, was used first as a fishing or crabbing boat when the small third sail was used to set the boat in to the wind while taking in nets or pots.

Today this third sail doesn’t perform any useful function except the essential aesthetic of giving the boat its classic distinctive looks. Some eighty percent of the 185 Salcombe yawls made since the inception of the class are still around and sailing today.

So why aren’t there more? One reason is that few builders make them. The other is the craftsmanship involved in their construction. “Each plank is riveted with copper nails and roved on the inside. That’s a two-man job,” says Scud Stewart.

Scarcity, however, influences their price. A new yawl ordered today would most likely set you back around £40,000 with a six-month wait from order to delivery. A good modern second-hand one can be bought for around £25,000 – this for a 16 ft two-handed yacht that equates to a hand-crafted, old fashioned high-class dinghy with a tag-on sail.

Most of the yachts are over-wintered in barns and usually re-varnished and painted before the start of the short racing season that runs from May to August. In spite of such cosseting, the Salcombe yawls are serious racing boats attracting fierce competition in the two classes, red for the higher numbers and blue for the lower numbered older boats.

“In most races you will find there will be one or two ex-national champions or former Olympic squad sailors. They’re very keenly raced,” says Andrew “AJ” Squire who took me out as crew during a spring weekend race in Zenga, sail number 166, a beautiful blue boat owned by Mike O’Brien who let me take his place.

“How do you want to play it?” asked AJ at the start. “I want to win,” I said. What’s the point of racing otherwise? While winning might not always be realistic, it’s best to define your aspirations from the off.

In light winds AJ opted for what turned out to be the best tidal line and we found ourselves in second place by the top-of-the estuary mark. Yawl sailing in the Salcombe estuary is something of an obstacle course, dodging between moored boats while trying to avoid dense clumps of weed.

Tacking back, one of these clumps stopped us in our tracks, and three yawls sailed past us as we tried to rid the weed from the rudder and dagger board - a heavy bronze plate that gives the yawl its stability. All the same, we overtook one boat by the finish to go over the line in a creditable fourth place.

“Anything in the top ten of the newer red fleet here is a good result, so we did well,” says AJ. It had been some time since I had sailed something this size that requires sharp dinghy skills and timing with rolling tacks, but a good helm gives you confidence.

Watching the start of the afternoon race from the vantage point of the club house I can see why people come here for the sailing. The slopes of the drowned valley, forming the estuary, create a theatrical view. The brightly-painted yawls with their white sails and wooden masts look quaint in the afternoon sun, a working microcosm of earlier times, busily preserving all that’s best about sailing.

See also: Sailing in the Lofoten Islands

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