UNESCO recognizes Martinique’s yole sailboat as intangible cultural heritage

In December 2020, UNESCO officially welcomed the Martinique yole to its Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, part of the organization’s Intangible Cultural Heritage project. Traditionally used by fishermen, the yole is a fast, lightweight sailboat with a tapered wooden hull. These distinctive vessels require incredible agility from crew members, who balance the boat by perching on long movable poles called «bwa dréssé», extending from the hull. 

Yole boats are constructed with painstaking detail in the grand tradition of Martinican fishing vessels initially developed by local craftsmen in the 40’s. Each vessel flies brightly colored rectangular sails over rounded canoe-like wooden hulls made from local pear trees. As distinctive in style as they are challenging to sail, quick and agile yawl boats test the mettle of even the most experienced sailors; their rounded hulls ensuring an instant capsize if ever the vessels should come to a stop at sea. The boats are the centerpiece of the Tour des Yoles Rondes, the race that is a highlight of the annual Martinican social calendar each summer for 35 years and counting. Teams representing various towns across Martinique compete alongside international competitors from neighboring islands on the route that literally circles the Island of Flowers. Akin to Carnival, supporters on land cheer on their teams with boisterous enthusiasm and bountiful parties. Similarly, the party extends to the high seas where hundreds of yachts, catamarans and other private vessels trail the racers partying along the way.

UNESCO’s selection of the yole recognizes the initiatives local Martinicans have taken to safeguard traditional boat-building techniques and pass on sailing know-how in order to preserve this important symbol of the island’s heritage. Learn more.