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Pilot Canoes and Pilot Yawls

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When inbound merchant ships approached their destination ports, they were required by law to pick up a pilot to guide the vessel safely into the harbor. Pilot schooners were stationed outside the ports to transfer one of their pilots to the incoming ship by means of a small rowing boat designed for this task, even in heavy seas. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this boat was called a canoe. In other ports, such as New York, they were of different design and called yawls. (1)

In hull form, the pilot canoe bore no resemblance to any Native American watercraft by that name. The term’s origin seems to be French, where a canot was a small, beamy, and very seaworthy rowing boat. A bilingual guide to French nautical terms and their English equivalents contains a sample dialogue between a shipmaster and a pilot wherein the term canot is used for the pilot’s boat. (2) Definitions and descriptions of the French canot as a ship's boat used for communication between vessels and between ship and shore support the French origin for the Boston pilots' term "canoe." (3) Pilot yawls, as built and used in New York, closely resembled Whitehall boats in design, though with variations in construction. (4)

– Erik Ronnberg


1. Charles I. Lampee, “Memories of Cruises on Boston Pilot Boats of Long Ago,” Nautical Research Journal 10, no. 2: 44–58.

2. Eugène Pornain, Termes Nautiques (Sea Terms) Anglais Francais, 13th ed. (Paris: Augustin Challamel,1890), 181–83.

3. John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1984), 283–84; and Lecomte, Jules, Dictionnaire Pittoresque de Marine (Paris: 1835; Douarnenez: Editions de L'estran, 1982), see "canot."

4. Erik A.R. Ronnberg, Jr., “Boston Pilot Canoes Revisited,” Nautical Research Journal 39, no. 3: 166.

Portrait of the "National Eagle"
Fitz Henry Lane
Oil on canvas
23 1/2 x 36 in. (59.7 x 91.4 cm)
Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass., Gift of the Estate of Marjory A. Johnson, 1988 (2612.00)

In this detail, the canoe can just be discerned conveying the pilot from the pilot boat to the clipper ship.

view ]
Termes Nautiques (nautical terms) Anglais Francais
Eugène Pornain
Augustin Challamel, Editeur,
Librairie Maritime, Troisieme Edition

Guide to terminology referencing use of the term "canot," see pp. 181–83.

Citation: "Historical Materials." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum.§ion=Pilot+Canoes+and+Pilot+Yawls (accessed June 17, 2024).
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