Sea Bird Yawl


Thomas Day and C.G. Mowers based their Sea Bird (or Seabird) design of 1900 more-or-less on the Chesapeake Skipjack-type workboat.

These vee-bottomed workboats would seem like the least likely of candidates for a sportsman's yacht, but Day, who was editor of "Rudder" magazine at the time, was a man on a sort of crusade.

Day maintained that this type of vessel was an overlooked resource for his readers. For one thing, Day felt that the relatively simple design could be built and sailed by a man of modest means. This notion of the craftsman-built boat would become the mainstay of Rudder and several other boating magazines over the years. It not only made good copy, but it broadened readership from the wealthy few who could afford a ready-built Herreschoff or Fife, to the more numerous middle class who could afford to scratch-build or finish-build a more modest vessel.

For another, Seabird was considered to be a relatively low-displacement vessel in her day. (Given her 5,000 pound displacement, one is given to speculate that her contemporaries must have been built along the lines of some of Wagner's more zaftig Valkyries.) Day promoted Seabird as a new kind of cruising vessel - one that would float along on the very air-sea boundary, like a sea bird at rest, instead of plowing through it like the heavy-displacement boats of the day.

That too made good copy, and lots of it when you consider the controversy it could be counted on to raise.

Originally a centerboarder, the prototype was converted to a fixed & ballasted keel, given an inboard engine and in this form Day sailed her across the Atlantic in 1911. It was, at the time, one of the smallest vessels to make the crossing.

Strangely, knowing of her Chesapeake Skipjack origin softens Seabird's gaunt, angular and mismatched lines into something more sympatico. (I think the process is similar to that which transforms Grandma's junky old spittoon, fit only for the furthest corner of the garage, into a rare and charming antique, ready to grace the dinner table.)

In any event, her Tidewater heritage endows her with a sort of folksy, down-home grace.

If it weren't for that, I'd have to say that I never cared much for the Seabird design; that there is something clunky about it - a nearly deliberate violation of any, even all, principles of harmonic construction; that it looks like a doghouse-on-a-raft, with sails thrown in as an afterthought - perhaps a tender for Monitor, the famous cheesebox-on-a-raft; that the lines do not flow - are angular and ornery; that it seems as if her lines fight the water rather than flow with it.

But her workboat origins forgive and dignify any severity or imbalance of line. Working boats on the Chesapeake were not designed to be graceful and swoopy like Herreschoffs and Fifes. Their shapes developed to be purposeful within the context of their work, and over time proved themselves in the unsentimental Darwinism of making a living.

In other words, for Seabird and her Skipjack ancestors, form follows function - period.

The accomodations appear to be rather spartan: there is no cockpit to speak of - just some planks around a footwell. There is more headroom than the illustration suggests, due to her "built-down" hull, but still kinda scrunchy. Overall, it looks damned uncomfortable.

It turns out, however, that Seabird is a case where looks are very deceiving. Once aboard, one finds that she has creature comforts to make up for any shortfalls in cosmetics. Seabird has, for instance, satisfactory (if not complete) headroom in her cabin. In this respect, she is quite unlike many contemporary, plastic, ULD 26-footers, which require the crew to duckwalk in the shelter. The footwell arrangement is quite comfortable. The interior, although presently in a major state of disrepair, has a pleasant feeling to it, nicely lit, potentially comfy - I can easily see a few Edwardian gents taking a pipe in her cabin, of a crisp, fall evening, after a long sail and a pan-fried meal.

In fact, I'm looking forward to just such an evening myself, just me and the dogs and a friend or two, taking in the stars and the quiet and the marsh-sounds some night, soon, aboard the Seabird Yawl Sally Rose.

More Info...
  • WoodenBoat Magazine provides building plans for the original Day-Mowers Sea Bird, as well a Charles MacGregor's enhanced plywood version. An article on the trans-Atlantic voyage of Sea Bird is also available in the #43, Nov/Dec '81 back issue of WoodenBoat.
  • There are several references on the Web to Harry Pidgeon's adventures in Islander, a 34-foot variation on the Sea Bird design.
  • San Francisco's Master Mariners Assoication has several Sea Birds in their roster.

    My Sea Bird Yawl...
  • Sally Rose