A schooner is a type of sailing ship with two or more masts rigged in a variety of ways. There are a wide range of uses for the schooner, which was historically employed in a number of industries. Modern schooners generally take the form of charter boats or replicas of historic ships, since they have been replaced in commercial use by engine powered ships. It is often possible to see at least one schooner in a large harbor, especially along the East Coast of the United States, or at a festival of tall ships.
Several things distinguish a schooner. In order to qualify as a schooner, the ship must have two or more masts, with some schooners historically having as many as six. The front or fore mast is shorter than the rear or aft mast, and the main sail is attached to the aft mast, rather than the fore mast, as is common in some rigging plans. The sails are also fore and aft rigged, meaning that they run along the line of the keel.
The design of a schooner makes it very easy to manipulate, both on the open ocean and along a coastline. In a pinch, some schooners can be run by a single sailor, and in general only a small crew is required to handle the ship. Schooners also typically have a shallow draft, allowing them to take harbor in a wide range of locations. The versatile ships were used extensively all over the world through the 18th and 19th centuries.
The design and name of the schooner appear to have originated in Gloucester, Massachusetts, once a center of American ship building and ocean-based commerce. By 1716, the trade term “schooner” was being used, and the concept as well as the name spread to Europe by the mid 1700s. The origins of the name itself are a bit murky, and it may be related to the Scottish slang word scoon, which means to skim or glide along the water, as in “how she scoons!” The altered spelling is probably borrowed from the Dutch.
Sailing in a schooner can be an exhilarating experience, since the ships can seem to fly over the water. When the ships were in mass commercial production, they allowed New England traders to move quickly between locations, working both in the ocean and in large inland bodies of water. Schooners were also used extensively for fishing.