Why is a Schooner?

Schooner Mystic Whaler
The Mystic Whaler is a replica of an early New England schooner.

For as long as I can remember there has been a story of how the particular sort of boat known as a ‘Schooner’ was named.  When the first one ever built in New England was launched into the harbor, a bystander is supposed to have exclaimed in wonder: “See how she schoons!”  People tend to disregard this tale simply because it seems so unlikely, but no one can offer a better etimolygy for the word, so I say we may as well go with it.

Dugout Canoe in Snug Harbor
Instead of having a rudder, the Kuna Indians steer with their paddle from the after end.

But wherever the name came from, there are few nautical things more New England-ish than schooners.  At one time they carried the bulk of the coastal trade up and down the eastern seaboard, were used for every sort of fishing, and routinely travelled as far as Panama to trade for coconuts.  Among the San Blas islands of that Central American country are many places with very Yankee-sounding names—Elsie; Gertie; Nellie; Snug Harbor—obviously a legacy of the coconut traders, and many of the dugout canoes there sport sprit and gaff-rigged sails, which seem in all likelyhood copied from the characteristic sails the schooners flew.

Schooner Aquidneck Crew
Sheer simplicity!

The summer before last, after sailing from California to New England over three years by way of the Panama Canal, I was hired as crew of Aquidneck, an 80-foot schooner that in season does five sails a day around Narragansett Bay.  She’s the biggest of several schooners that sail out of Newport, and I was amazed at how easily that much boat can be handled by a captain and two crew.  She’s rigged in the traditional schooner way: big gaff-headed mainsail; smaller gaff foresail; staysail; and jib.  There are no winches to crank or furlers to jam—all the hoisting and sail control are done with old fashioned tackles and manpower.  Best of all, the steering mechanism is an old-fashioned worm-gear; the sturdiest, most reliable method of steering boats too big for a tiller.

Ganymede Sailing toward Nova Scotia
Even on our own nickle,every penny counts and not one was put to waste.

It was a wonderful summer, and without question the best job I’ve ever had—how many people get paid to go sailing?  And all this time I’d been sailing Ganymede on my own nickel!  I even had a twinge of regret last spring when we sailed for Nova Scotia that I wasn’t going to get to sail on Aquidneck that summer.  Of course that soon passed in the nonstop excitement that was our summer cruise, but we knew even before we sailed away that we would be returning to Newport, and (hopefully) returning in time to work on the schooner again.

However much our plans went cockeye last summer (you can read all about it a dozen or so blog installments back), we did make it back to Newport, and I got my berth again on the schooner.

Schooner Aquidneck Recommissioned
Freshly recommissioned, Aquidneck ghosting through Newport Harbor in a light air.

Several weeks before the sailing season began found us out at the shipyard where Aquidneck had been stored for winter, painting, sanding, scrubbing—the annual tale of preparing for summer.  As launch date approached, preparations reached a fever pitch.  The protective plastic canopy came off; painting projects got their final coat, the worm gear was re-assembled; varnish applied.  As soon as she was launched I spent nearly six hours up the masts rigging tackles and reeving halyards while my shipmates clapped on seizings and bent sails down below.

Sailing Narragansett Bay
A schooner ride is a cool option for a hot day.

The last week went in a whirlind rush that culminated in our first sail of the season.  What matter that it was cloudy and still a bit on the chilly side?  The wind was glorious; the schooner put her rail right next to the water, and away we went, tack after tack, down Narragansett Bay.  The other schooners, of less substantial underbody than Aquidneck, all had reefs in, or went gap-toothed (which is when the foresail in not hoisted at all), or both.  But Aquidneck loves a good breeze, and seemed as excited to be sailing again as we were.  If it were only that first day that we were to sail, it would still have made all that work worthwhile.  But we have a whole sailing season to look forward to; hundreds of sails, each one unique; each one a chance to share the magic of wind and water and boat with our guests.  If any of my readers are in Newport this summer, I urge you: come sailing with us. See how she schoons.

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