The two-masted schooner, in her original form, is a uniquely New World ship that was originally built by the seamen of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The first proper schooner was launched in 1713 and built at the yard of Andrew Robinson. Her nativity, like so many Yankee built items, came out of necessity.
The coast of North America, with its reefs, shoals, feathers and inlets, did not lend itself well to square-rigged sailing. The common frigate was fine before the wind in blue water, but the need for a shallow draft and ease of maneuvering quickly made itself clear to the merchants, fishermen and, yes, pirates who plied the waters off New England, the Chesapeake and the Islands of the Caribbean. Enter the schooner.
Originally a take on a Dutch design, the American schooner averaged between 80 and 100 tons and could have a draft of as little as three feet unladen. She carried a foremast stepped close to her extended bowsprit and a taller main mast. Both masts were rigged with fore-and-aft gaff sails, boomed on the main and frequently “loose-footed” (not connected to a horizontal boom or spar at the bottom) on the fore. The foremast could be fitted with square-rigged topsails and the long bowsprit allowed for the setting of as many as five jib sails, all of which increased speed and improved tacking.
Over the course of the 18th century, the schooner became the most important vessel up and down what is now Canada and the U.S. From pirates in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to cod fishermen off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the schooner was put to good use. She could carry a compliment of up to 75 men, a relatively small crew for a sailing vessel made possible by the ease of working fore-and-aft sails in comparison to square-rigged sails. She could make up to 15 knots – a remarkable speed at the time – in favorable airs and she could carry up to ten smaller cannon and a few swivel guns as well.
All of her assets brought the schooner to the attention of navies on both sides of the Atlantic who used her for scouting coastlines, carrying messages, and as a tender to larger ships. Largely because of its speed, the schooner became popular for transportation of personnel and livestock as well. In the 19th century, the schooner’s sleek hull would be married to three square-rigged masts to create the clipper ship.
The origin of the schooner’s name gives her a bit of romance to add to all that recommends her. Though there are words similar to “schooner” in a number of European languages, it is probable that the Scottish Gaelic word scoon, which means to skim the water like a flat stone, is the original base for the ship’s moniker. And to my mind, that makes a schooner’s name just as lovely as she is.
Header: Anonymous painting of the schooner HMS Speedy c 1803