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Three-masted schooner Regina Maris

Schooner rigging:
1) Bowsprit 2) Jib, followed by fore staysail 3) (Fore) gaff topsail 4) Foresail 5) Main gaff topsail 6) Mainsail 7) End of boom

A schooner /ˈsknər/ is a type of sailing vessel with fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts, the foremast being no taller than the rear mast(s). Such vessels were first used by the Dutch in the 16th or 17th century (but may not have been called that at the time - see etymology, below). Originally schooners were gaff-rigged, but modern schooners may be Bermuda-rigged. Schooners were further developed in North America from the early 18th century, and were more widely used in the United States than in any other country.[1] The most common type of schooners, with two-masts, were popular in trades that required speed and windward ability, such as slaving, privateering, and blockade running. They were also traditional fishing boats, used for offshore fishing.[2] In the Chesapeake Bay area several distinctive schooner types evolved, including the Baltimore clipper and the pungy.

Schooners were popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but in Europe they gradually gave way to the cutter.[3]


According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, the first vessel called a schooner was built by builder Andrew Robinson and launched in 1713 from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Legend has it that the name was the result of a spectator exclaiming "Oh how she scoons", scoon being similar to scone,[4] a Scots word meaning to skip along the surface of the water.[5][6] Robinson replied, "A schooner let her be."[7][8] According to Walter William Skeat, the term schooner comes from scoon, while the sch spelling comes from the later adoption of the Dutch spelling ("schoener").

Other sources state the etymology as unknown[9] and uncertain.[10]

Schooner sail plan

Rig of topsail schooner Shenandoah without sails

1793 newspaper ad for a packet schooner, Chestertown, MD

Although a schooner may have up to six masts, the typical schooner has only two, with the foremast shorter than the mainmast. There may be a small bowsprit to help balance the rig. The principal issue with a schooner sail plan is how to fill the space between the two masts most effectively. Traditional schooners were gaff rigged, and the trapezoid shape of the foresail occupied the inter-mast space to good effect, with a useful sail area and a low centre of effort.

A Bermuda rigged schooner typically has four triangular sails: a mainsail, a mainstaysail abaft the foremast, plus a forestaysail and a jib (or genoa) forward of the foremast. An advantage of the staysail schooner is that it is easily handled and reefed by a small crew, as both staysails can be self-tacking. The mainstaysail will not overlap the mainsail, and so does little to prepare the wind for the mainsail, but is effective when close-hauled or when on a beam reach. Although the mainstaysail has less area than an equivalent gaff sail, a loose-footed "fisherman" may be flown above the mainstaysail to maximise drive in light airs . The fisherman's staysail, a four-sided fore-and-aft sail, is not strictly a staysail, but is clewed abaft the foremast. An alternatively light-air sail is a triangular mule. Some Bermuda schooners have (instead of a mainstaysail) a triangular boomed sail clewed to the foremast; but although it can be self-tacking, it will be smaller in area than a mainstaysail and its use complicates the flying a fisherman. Aesthetically, it can appear less attractive than a classic staysail schooner.

Multi-masted schooner sailplan

Multi-masted staysail schooners usually carried a mule above each staysail except the fore staysail. Gaff-rigged schooners generally carry a triangular fore-and-aft topsail above the gaff sail on the main topmast and sometimes also on the fore topmast (see illustration), called a gaff-topsail schooner. A gaff-rigged schooner that is not set up to carry one or more gaff topsails is sometimes termed a "bare-headed" or "bald-headed" schooner. A gaff schooner may carry a square topsail atop the foremast. A schooner with no bowsprit is known as a "knockabout" schooner. A "cat-rigged" schooner not only has no bowsprit but has no headsails, and has the foremast set as far forward as possible.[11]

Schooner rationale

Sailing vessels with a single mast will typically be sloops or cutters, either with a Bermuda or gaff mainsail. There is little justification for the cost and complexity of a second mast unless the vessel is reasonably large, (say) above 50 feet (15 m) LOA. If a vessel's size requires a second mast, the sail plan will usually be a schooner, ketch or yawl, all of which are fore-and-aft rigged, although the "topsail schooner" variant carries one or more square topsails on its foremast. The two-topsail schooner variant carries square topsails on both the mainmast and the foremast. The schooner may be distinguished from both the yawl and the ketch by the disposition of its masts, and thus the placement of the mainsail. On the yawl and ketch, the mainsail is flown from the forward mast, or mainmast, and the aft mast is the mizzen-mast. A two-masted schooner has the mainsail on the aft mast, and its other mast is the foremast. Compared to a single-masted vessel, all the two-masted vessels can have a lower centre of pressure in the sail plan.

Although the ketch (and to a much lesser extent, the yawl) is more popular than the schooner in Europe, the schooner is arguably more efficient. The schooner can carry a larger sail area, because of its much larger mainsail and the effective sail(s) between the masts. Also, in a schooner, all the sails work together in a complementary fashion, optimising airflow and drive. By contrast, on a ketch or yawl, the mizzen sail is of marginal use, being very small and frequently blanketed by the mainsail.

Multi-masted schooners

Schooner Governor Ames preparing for launch, Waldoboro, Maine

There was no set number of masts for a schooner. A small schooner has two or three masts, but they were built with as many as six (e.g. the wooden six-masted Wyoming) or seven masts to carry a larger volume of cargo. The only seven-masted (steel hulled) schooner, the Thomas W. Lawson, was built in 1902, with a length of 395 ft (120 m), the top of the tallest mast being 155 feet (47 m) above deck, and carrying 25 sails with 43,000 sq ft (4,000 m2) of total sail area. It was manned by a crew of only sixteen. A two or three masted schooner is quite maneuverable and can be sailed by a smaller crew than some other sailing vessels. The larger multi-masted schooners were somewhat unmanageable and the rig was largely a cost-cutting measure introduced towards the end of the days of sail.

The only seven-masted schooner ever built, Thomas W. Lawson


Essex, Massachusetts was the most significant shipbuilding center for schooners.[citation needed] By the 1850s, over 50 vessels a year were being launched from 15 shipyards and Essex became recognized worldwide as North America’s center for fishing schooner construction. In total, Essex launched over 4,000 schooners, most headed for the Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing industry.[12] Bath, Maine was another notable center, which during much of the nineteenth century had more than a dozen yards working at a time, and from 1781 to 1892 launched 1352 schooners,[13] including the Wyoming.


Schooners were used to carry cargo in many different environments, from ocean voyages to coastal runs and on large inland bodies of water. They were popular in North America. In their heyday, during the late 19th century more than 2,000 schooners carried on the Great Lakes. Three-masted "terns" were a favourite rig of Canada's Maritime Provinces. The scow schooner, which used a schooner rig on a flat-bottomed, blunt-ended scow hull, was popular in North America for coastal and river transport.

Schooners were used in North American fishing, especially the Grand Banks fishery. Some Banks fishing schooners such as Bluenose also became famous racers.

Two of the most famous racing yachts, America and Atlantic, were rigged as schooners. They were about 152 feet (46 m) in length.

Famous schooners

  • America, eponym of the America's Cup
  • Bluenose, a Canadian racing and fishing vessel
  • Brutus, One of the vessels of the First Texas Navy
  • Charming Betsy, the eponym of a famous canon of statutory interpretation
  • Clotilde, the last ship to bring African slaves to the United States
  • Delawana, a Canadian fishing vessel and race winner
  • Demeter, from Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a Russian schooner transporting Count Dracula from the Balkans to London
  • Effie M. Morrissey, now Ernestina, the oldest surviving Grand Banks fishing schooner
  • HMS Halifax, built as Nova Scotia Packet in 1765, well documented early colonial schooner
  • USS Hannah, the first armed American naval vessel
  • Hispaniola from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island
  • Independence, One of the vessels of the First Texas Navy
  • Invincible, One of vessels of the First Texas Navy
  • La Amistad, ship on which a famous slave revolt occurred
  • Liberty, One of the vessels of the First Texas Navy
  • Liverpool Packet, a famous Nova Scotian privateer schooner
  • Nellie J. Banks, Canadian rum runner
  • HMS Pickle, carried the news of Nelson's victory and death at Trafalgar back to Britain
  • Pride of Baltimore, a Baltimore Clipper recreation sunk in a white squall
  • Rich Harvest, a 72-foot ferrocement staysail schooner, infamous as the "offshore off-licence
  • RYS Royalist, sailed to Borneo by James Brooke, enabling him to become 1st White Rajahs of Sarawak
  • San Antonio, One of the vessels of the Second Texas Navy, and sister ship to the La Amistad, San Jacinto, and San Bernard
  • San Bernard, One of the vessels of the Second Texas Navy, and sister ship to the La Amistad, San Antonio, and San Jacinto
  • San Jacinto, One of the vessels of the Second Texas Navy, and sister ship to the La Amistad, San Antonio, and San Bernard
  • Separación Dominicana, the first armed Dominican Navy vessel
  • Thomas W. Lawson, the only seven-masted schooner
  • We're Here, from Rudyard Kipling's book Captains Courageous
  • Wyoming, the largest wooden schooner
  • Zaca, a wood-hulled schooner appropriated by the US Navy for local patrol of the San Francisco area in World War II
  • Zavala, One of the vessels of the Second Texas Navy, and the first Steamship-of-War in the Western Hemisphere


See also

  • List of schooners
  • Oyster schooners
  • Gulet - a Turkish schooner rig


  1. 'The evidence of two or three old prints seems to prove that the type of vessel now called ‘schooner’ existed in England in the 17th cent., but it apparently first came into extensive use in New England.' "schooner, n.1". OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press.
  2. Cunliffe, Tom (1992). Hand, Reef and Steer. Sheridan House. p. 21. ISBN 1-57409-203-0. 
  3. Cunliffe, Tom (1992). Hand, Reef and Steer. Sheridan House. p. 22. ISBN 1-57409-203-0. 
  4. SND: Scone
  5. Jamieson, John (1825). Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Edinburgh University Press. p. 349. 
  6. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition 1989. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Editors John Simpson and Edmund Weiner. Volume 14, page 641
  7. Babson, John. History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, including the town of Rockport. 1860. p. 251–252.
  8. The Oxford English Dictionary doubts the truth of the anecdote but endorses the likely origin of the word in Gloucester, Mass:'...The anecdote, first recorded, on the authority of tradition, in a letter of 1790 (quoted in Babson Hist. Gloucester, p. 252), looks like an invention. The etymology which it embodies, however, is not at all improbable, though there seems to be a lack of evidence for the existence of the alleged New England verb scoon or scun, ‘to skim along on the water’. Compare Scottish (Clydesdale) scon, ‘to make flat stones skip along the surface of the water’, also intr. ‘to skip in the manner described’ (Jamieson). The early examples afford strong ground for believing that the word really originated about 1713 in Massachusetts, and probably in the town of Gloucester.' "schooner, n.1". OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press.
  9. Merriam-Webster: schooner
  10. schooner
  11. Collins, Joseph William, "The Evolution of the Fishing Schooner" in Oppel, Frank, ed. Tales of the New England Coast, Book Sales, Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey, 1985. p.121
  12. has information about shipbuilding in Essex
  13. Reed, Parker McCobb. History of Bath and environs, Sagadahoc County, Maine: 1607–1894. Portland, Maine: Lakeside Press, 1894. page 179.

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