Sea Otter 21ft – Review

Jenny Bennett and Peter Chesworth travel to Lancashire to sail a new design twenty-one footer canoe yawl. Published courtesy of The Boatman.

Once in a while, just when you think that the line of traditional boatbuilders who have learned their techniques in yards must surely be coming to an end, you meet someone who puts your mind at rest. David Moss is one of those. The new Sea Otter has not been quick in its build and it has to be said that, if you want a boat tomorrow, David Moss is not the man to ask. But if you want an original created with unquestionable craftsmanship and quality materials and if you are buying a boat to keep for many years to come and are therefore prepared to wait for the best, then this quietly spoken, highly-skilled man from Skippool Creek in Lancashire is worth a visit.

During the course of construction, Sea Otter developed from her original concept of a dayboat with cuddy to become a small, cabin boat with a fully fitted interior. She measures 21′ LOA, 18′ LWL, 6′ 91/2″ in the beam and has a fixed draught of 2′, a centreplate-Iowered draught of 4′. Her construction is solid, giving rise to a displacement of 3920 lb, and the best quality materials have been employed throughout.

The hull is strip planked, rough sawn, square-edged , 5/8″ Douglas fir topped with a 1/8″ khaya mahogany veneer. The backbone is iroko throughout its length, laminated in the stem and sternpost and solid in the hog and keel. Having to accommodate the centreplate slot, the hog is 11″ wide and 2″ deep while the keel is a narrower 8″ wide but 2 1/2″ deep. Both are in solid timber.

Beneath the true keel there is a ballast keel, some 1450 lbs of lead and through it all, pivoted within the lead keel, passes the 1/2″ galvanised steel plate weighing 200 lb. The boat is fastened with silicon bronze screws and the keel is held by aluminium bronze bolts – it may not all be visible but there is no question of short cuts or “what the eye cannot see.”  Once planked up, the hull was planed fair by hand and only when David was satisfied that the finish was perfect, did he finish off with the 1/8″ diagonally-laid khaya veneer.

Of those parts of the boat that are visible I could find only one phrase which did justice to David’s work: true craftsmanship. He has a theory about boats that explains much of the manner in which he puts them together: “A boat should be pretty and sail well. It should never be ugly like so many modern boats. In the 1930s there were so many new beautiful boats and those are the ones that today’s yachtsmen are doing up and cherishing. But what are the yachtsmen of sixty years hence going to be doing up? The way the industry’s going, the answer is, very little.” One thing, however, is certain: if she is in need of renovation, then Sea Otter will be well worth the effort in 2023.

You would need to travel far to find better quality craftsmanship.

There is an elegance to Sea Otter that belies her diminutive size, the attention to detail is beyond compare and yet, thanks to the sheer efficiency of the layout and design there is no feeling of ‘preciousness’ or of ‘over the top fancy’. The beauty is lent by curves where there might otherwise be angles, the strength by solid wood where there might otherwise be ply, the warmth by a bright-finish and cream paint interior where there might otherwise be veneers and plastics.

Cabin Interior

There is a surprising amount of space down below although this has, perhaps, been gained at the expense of cockpit area – more than two adults would feel overcrowded when sailing. There is limited headroom but, as the bulk of the cabin is mattress with lockers under, this is no loss. From amidships forward, the cabin is dominated by two berths divided by a solid infill aft, acting as a fiddled surface for the reading book, the bottle of wine, the glass, the torch… and, forward, by the wooden support for the deck-stepped mast and the navel pipe for the anchor-chain – also in wood to reduce the noise of the moving chain. Immediately inside the hatchway from the cockpit is, to port, a small wet-locker and shelving and, to starboard, the centreplate and its lifting gear, a two-burner Optimus paraffin stove and some mug and plate racks custom-designed to accommodate the already-purchased crockery. All the shelves are fitted with bottom fiddles, while the curved locker openings have solid wood restraining bars to prevent their contents spilling out when in a seaway. Throughout, the solid timber has been bright finished the Douglas fir of the cabin roof contrasting well with the laminated cedar and fir beams – while the plywood sole, bulkhead and locker fronts have been finished in Epifanes cream monourethane paint.

On deck, 1/2″ plywood throughout, the layout is clear, uncluttered and simple. There are no guard rails but, with all the running rigging leading back and the foresail fitted with a Wykeham Martin roller, there is little need to leave the safety of the cockpit. There is, however, a deep iroko toe rail that runs right around the boat. The cockpit itself is deep and comfortable with highly varnished iroko seat tops hinging up to reveal two spacious bin lockers to starboard and one, running the length of the cockpit, to port – this latter is large enough to house the long-shaft 6hp Seagull outboard. Although there have been some complications in the simultaneous stowage of the engine and its fuel tank, the outboard will normally be stowed whilst under sail. However, as we were in a strong tideway, we elected to leave the motor in its bracket and, although the propeller did drag, it did not greatly interfere with our performance.

It is always one of my fears that a boat which looks beautiful, and is obviously well built, will let itself and its creator down when sailing. I also have to confess that I have not been a great fan of the yawl rig on small boats, not because of their performance but more because with three sails, the rigs tend to end up being low and spread out and thus, to my mind, not as visually attractive as some other arrangements. But here, with a high-peaked mainsail and an equally high-peaked mizzen of a size large enough to have a significant effect, I was prepared to accept that all aesthetic preferences should be prepared to allow exceptions! Furthermore, she behaved beautifully, despite it being only the second outing (her first in a strong breeze) and despite having a helmsman who was inexperienced with the strength of the ebbing spring tide in the main channel.

I should make mention of the weather helm which was, for me, slightly on the heavy side but I should also say that had we been sailing for a leisurely afternoon’s fun, we would almost certainly have put one reef in the mainsail which would have instantly negated this problem. I did find that her heeling motion was comfortable and would be surprised if she proved to be unpleasant or particularly wet in a seaway.

I was, however, particularly impressed by Sea Otter’s performance under jib and mizzen alone. I have always expected a yawl to be comfortable and safe under such a sailplan but not, to be honest, particularly useful. How wrong can one be? When it was time to sail back up the creek to David’s landing stage, we lowered the mainsail into its lazyjacks, tacked back and forth against and into the tide whilst the sail was stowed and then crept up the creek. Not once, when going to windward, did I have to attend to the mizzen, and not once did she falter in coming through the wind and settling down into her new point of sail. After the energetic performance under full rig, it was wonderfully restful.

Thus, Sea Otter forced me to revise my opinion of the yawl sail plan and proved that David is not only a first class builder but also a designer of no small merit. Ask David Moss for a boat and you vvill not be met with a glib salespitch and promises of delivery yesterday, but if you are prepared to be as thoughtful and methodical in defining your vessel as David vvill be in building her, there is no question that the result vvill be worth the waiting, so much so that you would need to travel a long way to find better quality boat craftsmanship.

LOA: 21ft (6.4m)
LWL: 18ft (5.5m)
Beam: 6ft 9 1/2in (2.1m)
Draught –
centreplate up: 2ft (0.61m)
centreplate down: 4ft (1.22m)
Weight: 3,360lbs (1,524kg)
Sail Area: 252 sq.ft (23.41 sq.m)
Cost on application.

The Boatman