History of the Schooner

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Rig of topsail schooner Shenandoah without sails

Since the 1700s, Schooner sailing vessels have been used for a variety of purposes because they are fast, sleek, adaptable, and considered the sturdiest ships of all time

A crowd gathered in the British North American colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts when shipbuilder Andrew Robinson launched the first schooner sailing vessel in 1713. “Oh, how she scoons,” a spectator cried as the ship moved smoothly across the water. This brief comment about the ship’s performance would make history. Robinson decided to make use of the descriptive term and name the vessel schooner, after scoon, which is a Scottish term meaning skim.

Anatomy of a Schooner

The schooner’s ability to glide across the waters with superior speed and admirable grace is due to its construction. The schooner has two or more masts. The forward, or front mast, is either shorter or the same height as the one toward the back of the ship. Traditionally, a schooner is gaff-rigged, which means it also has a square topsail on the front mast. The schooner’s sails run the length of the deck, enabling it to catch the wind at a closer angle. The placement of the sails allows the ship greater maneuverability. The ship can move closer to the wind, almost directly into the wind, which gives the ship its power and speed. Square-rigged ships have to sail in front of the wind and can turn to catch the wind, but they cannot command the wind like a schooner.

The Schooner and Local Commerce

Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the schooner was first launched, is surrounded by forests and water. With the introduction of the schooner, Gloucester and neighboring Cape Ann became the shipbuilding capitals of New England. The schooner’s role in New England’s commerce continued to grow as the speed of the ship allowed crews to reach the prime fishing grounds faster and return to ports to sell their catch ahead of other ships.

The American Revolution and Privateers

Schooners continued to serve the needs of the people with the start of the American Revolution. Schooners were commissioned for privateers, or government-sanctioned piracy. They were also favored for running blockades because of their easy maneuverability. British warships succeeded in destroying much of New England’s fishing fleet, but the schooners often survived because of their speed.

Schooners as Cargo Vessels

At the height of their popularity, in the late 19th century, there were over 2000 schooners serving as cargo vessels on the Great Lakes. Schooners traveling along the coasts and on rivers often used a modified design with a flat bottom and blunt-ended hull. These ships were called scow schooners. The Prairie Schooner, a covered wagon used as transportation for American pioneers, was named for its resemblance to the scow schooner.

Schooners as Racing Yachts

Schooners were also used as racing yachts, including the America, a gaff schooner and the namesake of the America’s Cup. The race was called the Royal Yacht Squadron’s “One Hundred Guinea Cup,” and on August 22, 1851, the America won by eight minutes over the next yacht. The race was re-named The America’s Cup in her honor. Other famous schooner racing yachts include the Atlantic, a three-masted schooner built in 1903 that held the title for fastest transatlantic passage by a monohull for 100 years, and the Bluenose, launched in Nova Scotia in 1921 and winner of the International Fishermen’s Trophy for 17 years.

Slave Vessels and La Armistad

Schooners were often used to transport slaves, including La Amistad, the 19th-century two-masted schooner that was built in the United States but owned and operated out of Cuba. In July of 1839, La Amistad’s crew was transporting African slaves from Havana to another Cuban port when the slaves revolted against their captors. The ship was later captured by the United States Navy, but La Amistad became an important symbol in the anti-slavery movement.

The Freedom Schooner Amistad

In 2000, shipbuilders at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut used a combination of traditional shipbuilding techniques and modern materials to recreate La Amistad. The ship was christened Freedom Schooner Amistad and it is operated under the supervision of the non-profit organization Amistad America, Inc. The Freedom Schooner Amistad’s home port is in New Haven, but she travels to other port cities to help educate the public on issues of slavery, civil rights, and discrimination. She is also the State Flagship and Tall Ship Ambassador for the State of Connecticut.

Resources:

  1. “Gloucester History.” The Cape Ann Historical Museum.
  2. “History of the Amistad Incident.” Amistad America.
  3. “The Great Ships: The Schooners.” Voyages. Tribune Media Services: 1998.