The schooner is an evolution of the fore-and-aft rig. a rig consisting mainly of sails set along the line of the keel rather than perpendicular to it. This rig had itself been developed from earlier rigs such as the lateen. It is not known when the rig we now call a schooner appeared, but the earliest evidence is Dutch artists' drawings from around 1700 and the Royal Navy's 1695 HMS Royal Transport.
Around 1700 rigging and sail material technologies had advanced to where they were strong enough for faster sailing, and hull shapes were adapted accordingly to be less barrel-shaped, and the traditional raised poop deck and a rounded and raised bows were lowered.
The type was further developed in British North America starting around 1713. In the 1700s and 1800s in what is now New England and Atlantic Canada schooners became popular for coastal trade, requiring a smaller crew for their size compared to then traditional ocean crossing square rig ships, and being fast and versatile. Three-masted schooners were introduced around 1800.
Schooners were popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but gradually giving way in Europe to the cutter. By 1910, 45 five-masted and 10 six-masted schooners had been built in Bath, Maine and other Penobscot Bay towns. The Thomas W. Lawson was the only seven-masted schooner built.
Although highly popular in their time, schooners were replaced by more efficient sloops, yawls and ketches as sailboats, and in the freight business they were replaced by steamships, barges, and railroads.
The following varieties were built:
- Grand Banks fishing schooner: similar to Bluenose, includes a gaff topsail on the main mast and a staysail. In the winter this would sail as a two-masted fishing schooner, without and topmasts and their upper sails. Surviving gaff-rigged two-masters include Effie M. Morrissey, Grace Bailey, Roseway, and Western Union.
- Square topsail schooner: includes square topsails. A version with raked masts and known for its great speed, called the Baltimore Clipper was popular in the early 1800s.
- Four masted schooner: this design spread the sail area over many smaller sails, at a time when sails were hoisted by hand. These were used for coastal trade on the Atlantic coast of North America, the West Indies, South America, and some trans-Atlantic voyages.
- Tern schooner: a three masted schooner very popular between 1880 and 1920. Wawona, the largest ever built, sailed on the West Coast from 1897 to 1947.
Schooners were built primarily for cargo, passengers, and fishing.
Bluenose was both a successful fishing boat and a racer. America, eponym of America's Cup, was one of the few schooners ever designed for racing. This race was long dominated by schooners. Three-masted schooner Atlantic set the transatlantic sailing record for a monohull in the 1905 Kaiser's Cup race. The record remained unbroken for nearly 100 years.
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