PS Advisor October 15, 2002 Issue

PS Advisor: 10/15/02

Pros and Cons of Schooners
I have read your magazine now for quite some time. I find it very useful, and until now have had most of my questions answered.

I am looking at a schooner made by Downeast and would like to know all I can about it. I have never sailed a schooner, but sailing is sailing. To help me decide on this purchase I would also like to know the pros and cons of a schooner, or where I could find a book or other publication that is easy to understand. I don't at this time even know all of the terminology of the different sails of a schooner. As all of my time has been on a sloop and a few cats.

-Kenneth B. Stringer
Via e-mail


One of the big challenges facing sailors through the millennia has been how to get as much canvas as possible as high as possible. Now that we have aluminum and carbon fiber, it's easier to build tall sticks to carry sail higher. In fact Hall Spars has just produced a 182-foot carbon fiber mast for a Reichel/Pugh-designed Baltic 147 in Finland. One piece, baked in an autoclave, Good grief. But we digress.

While modern materials have made tall marconi rigs possible, the fastest rig before that was the schooner rig, which put sail area up high via the gaff, and which was set fore-and-aft, which meant it was relatively close-winded. We don't know who "invented" the schooner, but it had to have been an immediate descendent of the fore-and-aft sloop, which in turn must have resulted from experimentation in bracing sails more and more parallel to the centerline (bracing them "sharp") in order to go upwind better. This evolution would have coincided with the development of shapes that provided better lift underwater.

The after mast on a schooner is the mainmast, and is taller than the foremast (otherwise you have a ketch or yawl). The main boom usually extends past the transom.

In their heyday, schooners were built with as many as seven masts. A number of light-air sails can be set between the masts.

Schooners were, and still are, economical in terms of muscular demands - they're typically sailed by small crews (the "man and boy" team in which the boy was 70 and the man 82), which is why they prospered for many years in the coastal trade. They were also good offshore - the famed Baltimore clippers, for instance, were schooners (they carried square topsails as well as fore-and-aft sails) as were the Grand Banks fishing vessels like the Bluenose (Lunenberg, Nova Scotia) and the Gertrude Thebaud (Gloucester, MA). Sterling Hayden sailed as an honest-to-god masthead man in the Thebaud during the famous races with the Bluenose. Nuts, we've digressed again. It's the romance of the schooner...

Like most boats with more than one mast, the schooner is better off the wind, but it's not a good rig for dead downwind - it's first and foremost a reaching rig.

Schooner fans, like those of yawls and ketches, swear by the maneuverability of their boats in close quarters, since they can be turned in very little space by backing and trimming sails in various combinations with the rudder. Schooners also behave well under shortened sail and hove-to offshore, though it should be noted that in heavy going, the weight of a gaff high and to leeward will be a liability.

The terminology for schooners has a few words more than what most of us are used to, but they all follow sea-going logic (is that an oxymoron?). Here's the basic lexicon for a typical gaff-rigged schooner: You have a mainmast with mainsail, main gaff and main topsail (if set). You have the foremast with foresail, foremast gaff and fore-topsail (if set). Forward of the foremast is a staysail, usually set on a staysail boom (club foot). And forward of that is the jib. The part of the gaff that closes on the mast is the throat; the other end is the peak.

During the late 1970s, Downeast Yachts of Santa Ana, CA built the following models: the Downeaster 32, 34, 38, 40, 41 and 45 (as well as a 40-foot trawler). The 38 and 45, at least, were offered with sloop, cutter, ketch and schooner rigs. The last model year was '81. Downeasters have a reputation for solid construction and fair finishing. They're heavy, designed for offshore cruising, so won't be spritely in typical coastal US conditions.

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