Keble Chatterton on the origins of the schooner

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E Keble Chatterton on the origin of schooners

I’m reading the 1922 second edition E Keble Chatterton’s book Fore and Aft Craft, which explains the history and development of the fore and aft rig, and in particular the influence of the Dutch. It’s an eye-opening work and I was particularly struck by this section on the invention and origins of the schooner. I remain puzzled by the fact that two-masted fore and aft rigged craft are depicted earlier in the book and I’d be intrigued to know what other countries known for their schooners (such as the Portuguese) would say were the origins of their craft. Even more, I find the image he includes difficult to interpret – but what he says is intriguing and certainly makes a good story. (Beware though – the comments below strongly suggest it may not be entirely true!)

It all starts with mention of two masted sloepes depicted in painting dating from 1629 to 1642.

‘Some of these so-called sloepes were about 24 ft long in the mainmast, 42 ft in length overall, with a beam of 9ft. Now we referred some pages back to the colonisation of northern America by the Dutch, who called their territory the New Netherlands, and that which is now known as New York was called by them New Amsterdam.  Along that Atlantic coast stretching northwards to Gloucester and Boston, are to be seen to this day perhaps the very finest class of schooners in existence, or ever conceived by the mind of designer. The reason is to be found in the fact that the Dutch colonists took over the Atlantic not merely their ideas of cutters and single-masted sloops, but also the other notions of craft, including this kind of vessel depicted in the Boijmans’ Museum.

‘It was in 1664 that, during the Anglo-Dutch War, the British seized New Netherlands, but that did not mean that the whole Dutch colony vanished , nor that the Dutch-American shipping was instantly to be swept out of sight. Undoubtedly, this two-masted sloepe held on. But in the year 1713 there came a change: there was seen to be room for improvement, for it was realised this “two-sticker” could be made a better craft by adding a triangular jib as in the single-masted sloops. And so this was done. The foremast was already very far forward in the eyes of the ship, and so a broeksprit or bowsprit, had to be added also on which to set the jib, and so with this the schooner as belonging to the years 1800  to 1850 came into being. It was then distinctly a Dutch-American craft, and not British, and the date of the first of this new type was, as stated, 1713. Captain Clark relates that as she was leaving the launching ways some one exclaimed: “See how she scoons,” and from that day this prototype and her descendants have been called schooners.

‘The place where this vessel orginated was Gloucester, and this early reputation for the two-masted fore-and-after has been since continuously maintained by that port. Two separate reasons have contributed to the development of the Gloucester schooner. First there was a demand for an able type of vessel that should be capable of riding out bad weather in the Atlantic; and, secondly, the type that was required muust also have a good turn of speed, for two separate kinds of people needed just such a vessel as possessed these qualifications. In the first place there was the brotherhood of pilots, who were so keen on getting to the incoming ship that they would race for many a long mile out into the ocean so as to arrive first. Secondly, there were the fishermen who earned their living by going to fish off the Grand Banks. Having filled up with the spoil of the sea, it was their duty to hurry back to market, and obtain the best prices for their catch.’

More on the last Portuguese fishing schooners

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Brites, built in 1936 crossing the Atlantic in the 1960s – her wooden dories clearly visible on deck

(Above, left )Adelia Maria, (above, right) Coimbra, both of which were built in 1948

Novos Mares

Following his tip-off about the stunning Lonely Men of the Dories Youtube videos Jay Cresswell has sent through some old photos of the last of the sailing Grand Bankers of Portugal from his personal collection.

The Lonely Men of the Dories footage shows the crews of the Portuguese Grand Banker schooners using the small wooden boats called dories for long-lining cod.

Luisa Ribau was the last sailing Grand Banker to be built, and was launched in 1953 and destroyed on the Grand Banks by fire in 1973.

A number of large Grands Banks schooners were built by the Portuguese after World War II, notably the four-masters Adelia Maria and Coimbra in 1948.

Collectively known as the White Fleet, the last departure of the schooners from St John’s in Newfoundland was the wood-built lugre named Novos Mares in July 1974. So ended the last significant chapter of trans-Atlantic commercial sail, an aspect that Jay remarks seems to be barely known about here in the UK, and which seems to have been missed by famous maritime historian Basil Greenhill when he was writing wrote his 1980 book Schooners, which was published by Batsford – although he did include the Canadian Bankers at the very end of the dory-schooner fishery on the Banks, and enjoyed rowing a dory on near his home towards the end of his life.

Perhaps he hadn’t heard about the Portuguese – the world was a bigger place in those days, and I suppose it’s a reminder that historians, like journalists and everyone else, can miss important points from time to time. What I find striking is the discovery that these large sailing fishing craft were working so late into the 20th century. When I grew up I remember everyone said that the days of large sailing craft were long over outside of sail training ships – but everyone was clearly wrong.

More excellent video of Grand Banks schooners dory boats and fishermen

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The Lonely Men of the Dories

Jay Cresswell has been in touch to tell us about some more video of the Grand Bankers of Portugal – see Comments in the left-hand column above left.

He’s also been in touch to say that within a few years, there will be as many as three restored four-masted schooners built in the 1930s for use in the Grand Banks fishing grounds.

But to return to the video, the material he has found is marvellous footage of the schooners, their wooden boats and the fishermen themselves – six sections of film titled The Lonely Men of the Dories – the link above goes to section 1, but the rest are linked below. By the way, don’t let the title you see in the Youtube pages worry you – the voiceovers are in English.

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 1

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 2

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 3

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 4

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 5

The Lonely Men of the Dories part 6