Monday, December 5, 2011

Ships: The Pirate's Choice

In 1713 the shipyard of Andrew Robinson at Gloucester, Massachusetts launched a completely new type of ship. She was light, no more than 100 tons in her true form, shallow of draft at a sleek five feet, could be run by as few as 75 men and sailed briskly regardless of the direction of the wind. Robinson called her the schooner and she ushered in a new age of fast, effective sailing not dreamed of prior to her introduction.


The word schooner is a conundrum as there are similar words in most Latinate languages and German as well. John Batchelor and Christopher Chant offer that the word actually comes from the Scottish dialect of Gaelic in their The Complete Encyclopedia of Sailing Ships. According to them, schooner derives from scoon:

a verb describing the skipping progress of a stone skimmed over the water.

No more poetic description could be used to help one imagine the quick, bouncing form of a schooner in full sail. The sails, routinely fore-and-aft, were rigged on two masts and at first included one or two square topsails on the fore. These were replaced in the late 18th century by so called jackyard topsails that were shaped very much like a jib sail (as illustrated on both fore and main mast in the painting at the header). This configuration of sail made the schooner a viable option for all types of conditions as she did not have to run before the wind to attain high speeds, as was the case with square-rigged vessels. She could sail with the wind on any quarter, turn and tack more readily and quickly, and keep to coastal waters where larger, deeper draft ships would founder.

This speed, ease of handling and ability to be run by a smaller crew, as fore-and-aft sails were more easily handled than square rigging, made the schooner the ship of choice for just about every use. By the dawn of the 19th century, she was being built in Europe as well as the U.S. and could be found in virtually any port around the world. She was used as a mail packet, a tender for ships of the line, a troop and supply transport. Most notably, she was a favorite vessel of both pirates of the Golden Age and the new breed of privateers that came after them. A stop in the Laffite brothers’ Barataria Bay circa 1810 would have revealed half a dozen schooners of various rigging at anchor at any given time. Along with the hermaphrodite brig – which itself was a variation of the schooner type – nothing was more trusted or handy in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean at the time.

Because of its popularity with the men of a piratical bent, the schooner was also the ship of choice for the best of pirate hunters. David Porter, the brilliantly successful Commodore of the Mosquito Fleet that virtually wiped out the tail end of the pirate class in the West Indies, counted on schooners to enter lagoons and bays around islands like Cuba. This allowed him and his men to ferret out the worst offenders and relieve U.S. merchants of the predations that were costing the entire country an arm and a leg.

In the 1840s, with the dawn of the California gold rush and the need for even more speed, the schooner type was modified again. Square rigging was added to her light frame, along with a third mast, and the legendary clipper ship was born. Schooners are still a favorite vessel with sailors of all types, myself included. Their ease of handling and beautiful lines are hard to resist. And what could be better than to be aboard a fast runner on a clear day? Not much at all.

Header: Early 19th century clipper ship by an unknown artist

2 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Fast and functional, it's no wonder they became so popular.

I like the painting too.

Pauline said...

They're just awesome ships. I always think of Uncle Renato and his Spy when I see one :)