The Devon Yawl is as sturdy as she looks and there is plenty else to admire about this popular Salcombe Yawl evolution, says Peter Poland


A friend and I once decided that instead of sailing, an August hike might do us good. So we took the coastal path from Branscombe to Bigbury.

On the leg from Start Point to Salcombe we were hit by the tail end of Hurricane Charley. Sitting outside a Salcombe pub, huddled against driving rain and a rising gale, we watched yachts scurrying for cover.

Yet, amazingly, several elegant yawl-rigged dinghies were still sailing. But these were no ordinary dinghies – they were Salcombe Yawls.

Gleaming beauty: Michael Atfield built SY 183’s hull; Stones Boatyard made the deck, spars and did the finishing and painting

Salcombe Yawls (SY) trace their history back some 200 years to the days when they were used as fishing boats. The mizzen steadied them when working, and the mainsail and jib gave them ample oomph to get to and from their fishing grounds quickly and safely.

But when fishermen moved from sail to power, the yawl changed tack, evolving into the dayboat and sophisticated racer it is today.

Ian Howlett – famous for designing 12 and six-metre yachts – often stayed in Salcombe and told me: “Out of the blue in 1999 I was contacted by Jim Stone (third generation of 90-year-old family firm Stone boat builders) who explained why he would like to set in motion a new design/build of Salcombe Yawl.”

Stone decided that Michael Atfield should build this Howlett-designed yawl, and several more followed.

Howlett said: “The build quality of his traditional clinker planking was exceptional; we’ll probably never see such fine examples again.”

There’s only one drawback to a Salcombe Yawl. If you want to buy a new one, it could cost considerably more than a new Mercedes to tow it. However, the Salcombe Yawl Owners’ Association sensibly splits the fleet into ‘Blue’, ‘Red’ and ‘Gold’ divisions, taking account of boat age and crew experience. So owners of older boats have just as much fun.

Salcombe Yawls – racing in Salcombe: SY183 (nearest the camera) and 178 are both Ian Howlett-designed examples. The SY was used as a mould for the first DY.

In 1968, a Salcombe Yawl sailor, Michael Quick, decided that a new glassfibre One Design yawl would appeal to less well-heeled sailors. So a Salcombe Yawl hull was used as a plug for the new class’s hull mould and the new GRP deck and cockpit were designed. And thus the Devon Yawl (DY) was born. Its pretty clinker hull looks (and sounds) much the same as the SY’s. Its spars are alloy instead of wood, the SY’s wooden bowsprit remains and the heavy cast iron centreplate is the same.

The Devon Yawl community

The Devon Yawl is not just a successful One Design. It also makes a superb dayboat.

Its appeal is wide, according to the Devon Yawl Association (DYA) membership secretary Ian Scholefield.

“We have just over 170 members, most of whom own a Devon Yawl or Devon Dayboat,” he tells me.

A new Devon Yawl ready to leave Pennant Yachts

“Around 400 Devon Yawls have been built, with about 20 built in the USA; the builder is Andrew Siwik in Connecticut. In addition to the Devon Yawls, some 70 Devon Dayboats [with a cuddy] have been built, together with a few motorboats, called the Devon Sea Angler in the UK and the Devon Launch in the USA.”

Main UK fleets are at Topsham SC, Yealm YC, Dittisham SC, Newport and Bosham SC.

A regular newsletter of news, events and pictures of these photogenic boats keeps owners in touch and up to speed.

Devon Yawls are still built in the UK. James Gough-Allen of Pennant Yachts (part of GA Marine) took over production in 2014. Finding the original mould to be distorted (having been stored outside) James produced a new hull mould.

His first production boat (DY383) was launched in 2015, sailed on the Yealm for two years then won the Devon Yawl Nationals. James told me a new DY costs £18,000 ‘ready to sail’, adding that he’s working on a modification to make the cockpit self-draining to get a CE mark and expand the market.

The DYA added that providing the side tanks are sound, even a flooded Devon Yawl won’t sink. The excellent DYA website covers this in detail.

Robert McVean’s Devon Yawl parked in peaceful waters on the Isle of Lewis coast (photo by Robert McVean)

The Devon Yawl experience

As well as sailing a DY myself – my uncle bought hull number 85 – I contacted several owners who gave me a broad view of the DY’s character and versatility.

Robert McVean summarised his DY’s virtues, telling me: “Gracenote sails off the Isle of Lewis and is a terrific family boat, cruiser and fishing boat. She sails close to the wind and, with the genoa, sails at decent speed. Gracenote will handle most seas and if it blows too much I furl the foresail or drop the mainsail.

“She also sails surprisingly close and fast on just the mizzen and genoa; which keeps fair-weather sailors happy in a fresh breeze. She can go practically anywhere – out past the rocks, breezing over the Atlantic swell and into shallow bays and lagoons. With her shallow draught and centreplate, almost everywhere is in reach. My children can sail her easily too.”

Andrew Matthews, who mainly uses his DY for racing, told me he bought the boat in 1993, paying £2,528 including trailer.

“Unlike many classes, the DY holds its value well,” he says. “This boat would change hands today at around £4,000.”

When not racing, Andrew uses his DY for family coastal day trips. “It’s ideal for four grandchildren aged between four and eight – but not all at once!”

He goes on to say that the Devon Yawl “is much quicker than it may look at first sight; it is particularly good upwind.

“The class is more active than ever, certainly on the racing front. My own fleet on the Yealm is the largest, with around 30 DYs – up to 25 participate in our Wednesday evening racing series.

“Apart from the racing interest, DYs continue to be family day-sailed all over the British Isles.”

A Devon Yawl on the slipway in Brixham prior to the 2019 Nationals (photo by Eduardo Aldaz Carroll)

Peter Bowden told me he once raced Salcombe Yawls. So when his wife said she wanted to sail again, he thought of the SY. But when he realised how much one would cost, he changed tack: “A Devon Yawl would be more suitable to sit on the mud at low tide, be more affordable as a One Design and more seaworthy,” he says, adding: “I potter around, anchor and go swimming, picnic, fish and occasionally race. In light airs she’s faster than most people expect!”

Tim Petitt (2019 DY National Champion) bought DY186 in 1995 when he ‘moved west’ and joined the very competitive Yealm fleet.

He told me the DY “can be kept safely on a mooring. It’s also a family boat: with a 2hp outboard motor we used it for going out to the local beach in the estuary or for a day sail with the children.”

Tim says the DY’s weight of 432kg means that for trailing you need a good rollercoaster type trailer that supports the keel so the boat can be launched and recovered easily.

DYA membership secretary Ian Scholefield bought his DY without ever having sailed one.

“I made the right choice!” he says. “She is faster than other similar-looking craft and can be raced in a mixed fleet of lighter dinghies and still hold her own. She can either be raced or cruised under full rig, or be sailed gently under jib and mizzen when one wants to just potter.

“I trail my yawl and take her to away events a couple of times a season. It took a while to get the system right but I can now launch and recover her single-handed.”

Mike Bennet told me he originally bought a Drascombe Dabber when he first moved to Dittisham (on the Dart) but, unimpressed by its sailing performance, bought a DY instead (also without trying one first) in 2003. Now he cruises his DY on the Dart – solo or with crew – and races on Start Bay in the Royal Dart YCs Wednesday series, adding: “We race with Class 2 and the boat goes well in these coastal conditions.”

Devon Dayboat

As an alternative, the Devon Dayboat version has the DY’s hull, a similar rig and a small cuddy/cabin in the bows. As well as shelter and stowage, this offers basic sleeping space. David Langley told me: “Our two granddaughters put all their stuff up front and theoretically could use the two bunks. We have a cruisey approach to sailing our DD but my wife and I sometimes do a short blast ‘a deux’ … The DD is a capable little ship and gives us such a buzz.” With around 70 built, there’s often a DD available second-hand.

Tried and tested: Devon Yawl review and test sail

When my retired uncle John bought his DY, he also took the plunge without a trial sail. Instead, he phoned me and said: “You know about boats. I’ve got a problem. I’ve been on the waiting list for a local mooring for ages and they say I’ve finally got one. These moorings don’t come up often; if I don’t put a boat on it, I’ll lose it. So what should I buy?”

This threw me a bit. So I asked what sort of mooring and what size boat he wanted.

“It’s a drying mooring in Snow Hill Creek in Chichester Harbour. I want something that can live on the mud, that I can sail by myself if needed and that is safe enough to pop over to the Isle of Wight when the tides are right. And it’s got to sail nicely and have a motor.”

My uncle once owned an X Boat. I reckoned he would not be happy with anything slow. But he was also a big man – well over 6ft tall and on the heavy side. And replacement hips reduced his agility. So anything too tippy would be difficult to board from a dinghy. I took a punt and said: “Get a Devon Yawl. Look for an elderly one, so if it doesn’t do the job, you’ll get your money back.”

He’d never heard of it, but he went ahead and bought one.

My uncle, John Poland, demonstrates the stability of the Devon Yawl as he stows sails after a jolly day afloat. Photo: Peter Poland

Years later he invited me to come and sail his DY.

“She’s wonderful,” he said. “She still lives on my Snow Hill Creek mooring. When I bought her, she was the only Devon Yawl in the creek. Now there are five.”

So, relieved that my suggestion had been a success, I went for a sail.

Getting out to the boat proved more challenging than sailing it. You need a dinghy to row out across the mudflats as the incoming tide covers them (and vice versa on the way back). So a small Avon was extracted from the car, inflated with an electric pump, then we rowed across the shallows to the boat.

The DY then demonstrated the first of her many qualities. She was bobbing on her mooring under a cockpit cover. The centreplate was up.

“You stay in the dinghy while I clamber aboard,” said Uncle John as he heaved his bulk onto the yawl’s sidedeck; I awaited the inevitable sideways lurch.

The boat barely moved. “Stable, isn’t she!” he said with a grin.

As soon as I joined him on board, I discovered why. Even though the substantial 79kg (175lb) plate was raised, its weight – combined with 65kg (144lb) of fixed internal ballast – was enough to keep the boat on an even keel. Weighing 431kg (950lb), she has a 33% ballast ratio. Compared to say a Wayfarer weighing 168kg (370lb), the DY is very stable.

With the cover stowed and main and mizzen made ready, we fired up the 4hp Mariner outboard and left the mooring. This elderly yawl (number 85) had an outboard bracket on the transom, while newer models have a bracket moulded into the stern deck.

Under power, she moved easily and fast. The trim didn’t alter as I wandered around the spacious cockpit searching for my bag of beer cans. Anyone looking for a versatile dinghy that can also troll for mackerel under power or anchor off a sandbank to catch a sea bass, will find she’s an excellent fishing boat. Which is no surprise, given her ancestry.

Once clear of the creek, we raised the main and mizzen then unrolled the genoa from its furler on the end of the bowsprit. And the boat came alive.

Sadly the wind was light, so I was unable to sample the DY’s renowned heavy-weather performance.

“What’s she like in a blow?” I asked. “Fantastic. She’s fast and stable, although I am not a racing man so I reduce sail if necessary. I’ve never felt near to capsizing. She always feels safe.”

“What happens if you take waves over the bow?”

“I’ve got a bilge pump.”

In the light conditions her speed surprised me. Even with her original and stretched red sails – “What’s wrong with them?” asked my uncle. “They haven’t got holes and she’s sailing nicely”– she slipped along at a speed that belied her weight.

With the wind on the nose, she pointed high and ‘talked’ to the helmsman. It’s not a heavy helm – instead it feels steady and positive.

Tight mark rounding during a DY regatta. Photo: Tom Gruitt

When the wind gusts, it tells you that the boat wants to point higher. As long as you do as you’re told, the boat lifts and accelerates. Then, when the breeze drops, she tells you to free off to keep the sails full and the speed steady.

Some boats are skittish, some feel dead, and others sense the wind and speak to you. The DY is definitely one of the latter – a proper boat that makes sailing a pleasure.

When it was time to head for home – before Snow Hill Creek started to empty – the DY settled onto a leisurely reach. We relaxed in the cockpit, pulled tabs off beer cans and listened to the bow wave chuckling along the GRP clinker planking. It was easy to raise the centreplate with its drum winch, then the boat swept along the shoreline, close to the wildlife and away from convoys of gin palaces.

Back on the mooring, I admired the comfortable cockpit. Being an older model, No.85 has a traditional wooden floor with a shallow, flat bilge beneath. There’s stowage space under the fore and stern decks.

The centreplate case takes up little space, and there’s ample room for a family crew to spread out without getting in the helmsman’s way.

A crowded start line at a DY championship. Photo: Dawn Barsley-Dale

Which brings me to the second major appeal of the DY. It’s not only still built (in the UK and the USA) but it also has an excellent owners’ association that organises annual rallies for the pottering fraternity and regattas for the racers – all featured in the class newsletter.

Michael Quick definitely made a bold and inspired move back in 1968. By introducing the Devon Yawl One Design and Devon Dayboat, he has given a lot of people a lot of fun. And because these boats are built to last, this fun will continue for many years to come.


Length (excluding 0.6m/2ft bowsprit): 4.87m / 16ft 0in
Beam: 1.88m / 6ft 2in
Draught (plate up): 0.28m / 11in
Draught (plate down): 1.36m / 4ft 6in
Weight: 432kg / 950lb
Weight (inc. cast iron aerofoil centreplate): 79.45kg / 175lb
Weight (inc. fixed internal lead ballast): 65.38kg / 144lb
Sail area (with jib): 13.9sq m / 150sq ft
Sail area (with genoa): 15.5sq m / 167sq ft

Originally published in PBO September 2020 issue: Subscribe here or buy a single issue