The Schooner: From Workboat to New England Icon

Spring/Summer 2019

Today, these double-masted sailboats carry sunset-seeking passengers and win regatta trophies. Yesterday, most of them were tractor trailers of the 19th century, with holds full of ice, mackerel, lumber, granite, coal, and produce. The bounty—and beauty—of schooners has allowed the rig to endure in the popular psyche and in coastal waters.

Though Edward W. Smith earned the first degree awarded in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, it was a range of other interests that drew him back each summer to his ancestral home in the Point neighborhood of Newport, Rhode Island, and to Kingfisher, the family catboat. 

An avid photographer, Smith trained his lens on the commercial and fishing schooners that plied Rhode Island waters toward the end of the 19th century.

Newport was, and remains, a playground for the wealthy’s gold platers, with its deep-water harbor, steady breezes, and relief from stifling Manhattan heat. Decades earlier, schooner America, representing the New York Yacht Club, out-performed 18 British yachts in the circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight for the Hundred Guinea Cup, the forerunner of the America’s Cup.

“There’s nothing particularly unique from any other type of vessel rig in the schooner’s ability to harvest the wind.”

But, like other, larger cities, Newport was also a port for commerce, and the glass plates Smith produced from a box camera while sailing were of the market fleet. They became the foundation of Workaday Schooners, compiled by his son and published in 1975.

These sturdy rigs, carrying fish, lumber, ice, granite, lime, produce, dry stores, and mail—the coasting schooners—called in from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and Block Island.

In capturing the images, Smith had no idea his photographs would have any historical value outside his family. “They will never be worth a thing to anyone,” he’d told his son.

But his century-old photos are testament to a time-honored aspect of Rhode Island heritage that today continues to inspire, inform, and influence. Sails dominated the bay hundreds of years ago, as they still do, and the schooner fleet remains a part of that scene.

Eighteen-wheelers of the age

Post-Civil War, industrial development—and with that, rail construction and the rise of the steam-powered vessel—led to a revived need for coastal shipping. Schooners, already a part of a young nation, answered the call.

Members of an unaffiliated, wider schooner fleet—including one on the West Coast that had also been moving goods globally—the New England coasting schooners chased their harvest and moved merchandise along the U.S. East Coast through Newfoundland, Canada. Like their West Coast brethren, they, too, on occasion sailed around the world on the job.

In Rhode Island, “schooners and sloops were easily the most common rigs that sailed Narragansett Bay and the Eastern Seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Tim Cranston, historian for North Kingstown. “I refer to them as the 18-wheelers of the day, as they were the primary movers of goods up and down the coast during that period.”

Cranston’s research into sailing vessels built in and homeported out of Rhode Island, specifically North Kingstown, indicates that most of the vessels, except for large ones, were designed and constructed to be multi-use.

“Vessels that began their lives as coastal fishers, as indicated in the port registries of Newport, Providence, and Bristol—Wickford being assigned to Newport—also spent lots of time registered as coastal traders or deep-water traders,” he says. “They might later be put back into coastal fishing when the opportunities and financial incentives were right.”

Beginning in the 1800s, packet runs moving people were established out of Wickford, Providence, and Newport, Cranston says.

“These were dedicated runs on set schedules between two or three ports, and they were primarily about freight and perishable and non-perishable commodities,” he says. “Ancillary to this freight service, most packets could also carry a limited number of passengers, so if someone needed to get to New York, Boston, or Baltimore fairly quickly, and was willing to pay a premium, they would approach the appropriate packet master to arrange for travel.”

The rig

Any discussion of the schooner must include an explanation of its rig—the spars, including masts and booms that run along the vessel centerline; the sails, or the material that catches the wind; and the lines and wires that support the sails and spars and help the hull move through water.

On at least one point about schooners historians and shipwrights are unanimous: Schooners were purpose built. Their distinct types and designs are indigenous to the locations in which they were constructed. While it’s true that a schooner is a specific type of sailboat, it is also true that within the class, there is a multitudinous subset. A Gloucester offshore fishing schooner, accustomed to heading to the deep waters of Georges Bank for cod or haddock, varies from a Delaware Bay oyster schooner, built to mine coastal waters for shellfish.  

As well, the number of masts ranged from predominantly two or three, with the mainmast taller than the fore, to, at most, seven, as in the case of the Thomas W. Lawson, a steel-hulled, 395-foot, seven-masted schooner launched in 1902.

Sail configurations and shapes have also evolved from the layer of square-shaped topsails at the masthead to the present-day Bermuda, or triangular-shaped, sails. Emerging hull forms included a deep-keel, shoal with centerboard, and a hermaphroditic form—a deep hull with a centerboard.

Local examples of a geographic-based configuration, according to Wickford shipwright George Zachorne, an expert in traditional craft, include the Block Island cowhorn and the oyster schooners of mid-Narragansett Bay.

Sitting outside the entrance of his shop at the Wickford Shipyard one summer afternoon, he pointed to Saudades, a 19-foot schooner-rigged sailboat formerly used for fishing off Block Island. It’s now used as a pleasure boat and is sailed singlehanded by its owner.

Zachorne, an avid collector of nautical books and ephemera, reminisced about the history of his former workshop site at nearby Pleasant Street Wharf boat-yard. “I have photos of some of the oyster schooners that sailed between Prudence Island, Davisville, and Quonset, from the north end of Jamestown,” he says. “The bottom of the bay was seeded as oyster beds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the schooners built for oystering would come into Wickford, to the Beacon Oyster Company, which is now Pleasant Street.”


(Above) Edward W. Smith photographed this schooner, and scores of others, in the late 1800s. Photograph courtesy of George Zachorne

America’s national rig

So where did the schooner originate? It’s a question marine historians relish. Answers start with Karl Heinz Marquardt, author of The Global Schooner: Origins, Development, Design and Construction 1695–1845.

Marquardt, a marine artist, model maker, and researcher, studied the schooner in Europe, America, and Australia. The first two-masted vessels with gaff sails, forerunners of the schooners, were the speeljachts of the Netherlands, a country marked by networks of waterways and canals, he posits. The Dutch word speeljacht means play or pleasure yachts; these were the years of the Dutch Golden Age, when the Republic dominated as a sea power; water recreation played a year-round role in citizens’ lives.

“If one looks to the speeljacht as the grandfather of the schooner,” Marquardt writes, “then nobody earns the title of father more than the Royal Transport.”

The Royal Transport is widely cited as a critical benchmark in the evolution of the schooner. According to Marquardt, in the late 1600s, against a backdrop of a regular flow of traffic between England and Holland, as well as the British reign of the Dutch-born William of Orange, the 90-foot Royal Transport was launched, in 1695. Royal Transport gained favor quickly, and the rig trend jumped from Britain and Europe to North America—and back.

“The preference for the schooner rig was due to its better suitability for a long and small vessel and the lesser number of deckhands needed in comparison to a sloop rig,” Marquardt writes.

“As with the experiment with the Royal Transport, the mercantile use of the schooner rig was such a successful combination that it not only became America’s ‘national rig’ for a few decades, but spread widely in Europe as well,” according to Marquardt. Britain’s Royal Navy bought six American-built schooners in 1764, he notes.

In North America, Dutch and English settlers adapted their shipbuilding know-how to local needs, Marquardt explains. “The distances between coastal settlements and the risks associated with an undeveloped road system gave trade and traffic on the American East Coast an overwhelming maritime character,” he writes.

At this time, from the New England colonies to the Chesapeake Bay area and beyond to the Caribbean, schooners engaged in trade as well as in slaving, privateering, and blockade running.

As for the actual word schooner, Marquardt draws a connection between the Dutch word schoon, which means “beautiful, nice, good looking,” and comments of admiration made by Dutch citizens observing the speeljacht rig sail by. “Sometimes names, considered mysterious, have a very simple explanation, and schooner seems to be one of these,” he writes.

Come sail away

Historical records allow us to explore every nook and cranny of the schooner story. But what of the ineffable quality of the rig—the parallelism of masts, the cluster of narrow-edged sails filled with wind—that captures our imagination?

“There’s nothing particularly unique from any other type of vessel rig in the schooner’s ability to harvest the wind,” says Ray Ashley, executive director and curator of ships for the San Diego Maritime Museum. “It’s really no different.”

What is different is how the perception of the schooner changed, sometime after 1850.

“That’s actually when the fun part starts,” Ashley says. “That’s when the designation of what a schooner is jumps off the rails. People start calling all sorts of vessels schooners. The square-rigged vessels are on the demise, especially with the rise of steam-powered ships. Steam ships are complements to railroads and transport of goods.”

“A boat like this can…take you back to a simpler place in time.”

Against this backdrop, the last true wind ships are schooners, the holdout from the age of sail, Ashley explains. They’re used in the aforementioned lumber, cargo, and fishing trades on the coasts and in the Caribbean.

Yet something else happens, beyond the cargo hold. “Gradually the meaning of the word changes from a specific type of ship to a ship you go on a quest aboard,” he says. “The schooner acquires an aura. It’s the kind of vessel that generates popular expectations about quest and romance.”

It’s plausible: From news of a racing schooner winning the forerunner to the America’s Cup to the silver screen featuring a Gloucester fishing schooner, where much of the activity in the 1937 film Captains Courageous takes place, the schooner undergoes a psychic transformation, Ashley contends.

Need another example? Look no further than actor Sterling Hayden, who famously challenged divorce lawyers when he headed to Tahiti aboard the schooner Wanderer in the 1950s with his four children aboard.

“What was Hayden aboard?” asks Ashley. “A schooner, not a sloop or cutter. It’s more than a ship rig. It’s a popular symbol of quest.”

That same aura is what lured Paul Gray of the American Schooner Association (ASA) to the rig.

“I fell in love with them when I grabbed the wheel of the Lettie G. Howard at South Street Seaport in New York during my middle elementary school years,” he recalls. “I felt like I had come home. I laughingly tell people it was a ‘yes, maybe reincarnation is a thing’ moment.”

That inspiration led Gray and others in Maine’s recreational sailing community to form the ASA in 1972.

“It primarily served as a ‘virtual’ yacht club, bringing like-minded folks together,” says Gray, who is secretary/treasurer. A total of about 200 members today hail from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with a significant number in the northern half of the U.S. East Coast, sharing information with each other and supporting schooner-centric educational programs for young people.

Schooners today

One needn’t look beyond the 400-mile-long coast of the Ocean State to know that the schooner rig still plies its waters. They may no longer carry coal, lumber, or oysters, but they call in at nearly every port along Narragansett Bay and beyond, whether owners use them privately, race them, put them out for charter—or some combination of all. Still others are teaching platforms. A few owners and crew took time to share their stories.


While countless schooners have found new life in the day trade, still others take passengers for longer terms, from a week to several. Berthed at the Herreshoff Museum dock in Bristol in summer is Eros. Its design is based on a Gloucester fishing schooner. It was built in 1939 by a private owner for pleasure sailing.

Eros has been used in the charter trade in the Caribbean and New England for decades; her current owners, who’ve had her since 2016, have undertaken improvements for her passengers, who range from families to couples and groups of friends.

What’s at the root of her appeal? Owner Cameron Riddell, whose parents sailed in the Pacific in the 1950s and spent time with Sterling Hayden, offered up his thoughts.

“I think most people, even if they don’t know much about sailboats, can tell that schooners are an old-fashioned rig,” he says. “Even at the dock, they look more historic. We have novices come up to us all the time and express their love for the boat.”

“People see that schooners are enchanting,” he adds. “They also see that a boat like this can get you out of your humdrum life and take you back to a simpler place in time.”


John Taft races the schooner Fortune throughout coastal New England and beyond.
Photograph by Carol Vernon

Schooners can also transport you across the finish line in high style. In 1974, business partners and experienced sailors Don Glassie and John Taft of Newport were on the hunt for a “gentleman’s yacht” to race in the classic yacht regatta circuit. They took it upon themselves to campaign Fortune, a sleek but neglected schooner built by Crowninshield in 1926.

First, they had to fix up the wood-hulled boat, which was a “complete mess,” according to Taft. They did that and what followed was a string of awards at regattas and races all over New England and Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, where they shipped the boat for the 150th America’s Cup Jubilee commemorative celebration. Despite Glassie’s passing in 2011, Fortune has never missed a racing season since the duo bought her.

“We have a lot of fun on her,” Taft says during a visit to the Yankee Peddler Inn. “She’s never been out of the water for a season.”

For insight about the rig, Taft paints a picture of a busy Newport waterfront during one of its signature events. “When I’m at the jazz festival aboard my own motor boat, I look around,” he says, “and I appreciate the extreme diversity of the boats out there. I think there’s something about the sail plan of a schooner that is aesthetically so attractive that people stop and look. With a sloop, which is more than 90 percent of the boats, one sail is in front of the mast, and one sail is behind the mast.”

“With a schooner, you have a range of options, some six sails you can put up depending on wind direction and strength,” he says. “On Fortune, we typically have four sails up, which means we have a lot to pay attention to, and visually, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Echoing contemporary and historic admirers, those who gushed as the speeljachts glided by, harvesting the wind for a transformative experience, Taft adds, “The play of light on canvas is so attractive. For people who see schooners under sail, there’s just something magical about it.

by Elaine Lembo
Top Photo S/Y Eros by Tim Wright

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