“Schooner” is a generic term referring to a sailing vessel of two or more masts whose functional sails run fore-and-aft and whose main and foresail is gaff rigged. Simply, this means the sails are either attached to the mast directly (by hoops) or to a stay (a wire rope) running from a point at the bow to the top of the forward-most mast. This contrasts with usually larger sailing vessels having sails attached to yards (poles suspended perpendicular to the mast.)
Variations of the basic schooner sail plan allowed for topsails (sails flown from the top portion of the mast), several combinations of headsails (jibs and staysails), and the addition of more masts.
The most common schooner configuration had two masts. The main mast (pronounced “maymis”), stepped just aft of mid-ship, carried a large main sail (“mainsil”) held at the top by a gaff and at the foot by a boom extending past the transom. The shorter fore mast (“formis”) carried a similar but smaller sail called the fore sail (“forsil”).
The bow was typically rigged with a bowsprit which had one or two jibs hanked onto the forestay that attached to the end of the bowsprit and ran to the upper part of the foremast. A staysail (“staysil”) or jumbo was a jib-like sail which hanked onto a stay that attached to the bowsprit and ran to the upper part of the foremast below the forestay. Other variations included topsails which hung between topmasts (“topmists”), or extensions to the masts and the gaff of the foresail and mainsail.
We don’t know where the gaffed fore-and-aft sail configuration of the schooner was first used, but the earliest recorded evidence comes from artists’ renderings from Holland circa 1700.
More accurately, perhaps, the fore-and-aft rig developed over many generations from earlier types of sailing rigs such as the lateen (an early type of sail carried on a pole running from the bow and attached to the upper part of a mast). Certainly, the use of a material sail to propel a craft dates back thousands of years and has been found to have evolved separately in different regions and civilizations.
The 1700s seem to be a defining period where fishing vessels developed the size, shape and sail configuration to be classed as what is today termed the schooner.
Vessels constructed before the 1700s had a tendency to be barrel shaped with rounded bows and a rounded stern rising to an elevated poop deck.
As sail materials and rigging developed the strength for faster sailing, the rounded hull began to be sleeker, deeper, and finer in the bow for better windward performance.
The raised forward quarters were lowered thereby eliminating the need for the helmsman to be perched on a high poop deck. The master’s quarters located under the poop deck became the much lower aft cabin over which the helmsman could see, and thus the familiar deck structure of the fishing schooner.
Vessels of the late 15th Century, such as John Cabot’s Matthew, had gaff rigged sails, lateen foresails, staysails, and sails suspended from yards. They could not have been rigged like fore-and-aft schooners because at the time sail material and rope could not be made strong enough to support such a sail combination without stretching or breaking.
Sail material on a fore-and-aft rig must maintain a flattened shape to help drive the ship to windward. When sailcloth and the rope that held the mast vertical was strong enough to withstand these forces, it was clear that this configuration demonstrated superior ability to power a sailing craft at faster speeds and more directly into the wind. This ability is the miracle of sail.
At the same time as this gaff rig was being developed on fishing boats in the British Isles, fishermen were beginning to winter in Newfoundland and build boats for the coming season’s fishing. The gaff rigged sail was clearly the rig of choice.
Meanwhile, cod fishermen around the coast of England seemed to prefer single-masted gaff rigged boats known as prawners or nobbies, or two-masted gaff rigged vessels with the mainmast forward and a much lower mast aft which were called trawlers or smacks.
Larger fishing schooners which arrived in Newfoundland in the spring and left in the autumn frequently kept a yard sail on the foremast for convenient reaching on long voyages. This sail, however, was diminished to a topsail which then classed the ship as a topsail schooner. Fishermen who built their vessels during the winters in Newfoundland preferred the two-masted schooner rig.
The term “Newfoundland schooner” is ambiguous because there is no single model or type that fits this label. Several different categories of schooners could be distinguished by shape and size. Each of these underwent constant change and innovation over generations, so they can be followed through a progression.
The interesting thing about studying the different types of schooners and the changes they underwent is that it is possible to trace the origin of the forms to specific regions of the British Isles. In this way we can generalize about the region of origin of builders of specific vessels, and the registry records of vessels can be used to find dates and building locations.
The changes that were made in these types of schooners over time highlight many important aspects of Newfoundland life in fishing communities. They reflect such things as: local sea and wind conditions in the regions they fished, the specific type of fishing carried out in various regions of the island, technical innovations and developments that influenced the fishing industry, and the outside groups that most significantly influenced local fishing technology.