The Schooner Boat, part II

Let’s dive right in. This is a heavy displacement thirty-footer. Construction is sawn double-futtock frames and carvel planking. The decks are laid and sealed with pitch. There is no engine. A pram, or even a small dory, can be towed or carried on deck. Accommodations are for two, or three using the hot-bunk method. A hold aft of the mainmast runs under a small cockpit well. Rigging is simple; galvanized wire, dead-eyes and lanyards, and simple bronze castings. A small woodstove is to Port. Headroom is about 5′-8″. The boat is rigged as a schooner with double headsails and an overlapping loose footed fors’l. No topmasts are carried. The sails are cotton canvas cut vertically without battens. A light genoa and a storm tri’sail would complete the inventory.

At first glance these choices might seem odd, the result appears to be no more than a small replica of a nineteenth century work-boat. I think it’s illuminating to go over how this design came together as it has.

I began with the idea of a smaller beach boat, either half-decked or open. I was looking at boats like the Crotch Island Pinky or the Hampton Boat – both familiar to any devotee of Howard Chapelle’s “American Sailing Craft.” This past summer I witnessed a beautifully built replica of a Crotch Island Pinky sailed at the Small Reach Regatta. It’s a substantial boat with a solid sprit-rigged cat-ketch rig. With rollers and a turnstile or hauled behind an oxen it could be worked off a beach.



I hope to follow that and similar leads, but for now my thinking pushed me towards a boat with more endurance and shelter for its crew. A twenty-five or twenty-six footer with a small cuddy proved still too small to provide a work-space/payload beyond just the accommodations. It was also difficult to work around the rig choices I was considering. This sketch shows such a boat with a cat-ketch rig.

I was focusing on two masted rigs, either cat-ketch, yawl, or schooner. This was for a few reasons. First, the versatility and range of sail options of these rigs seem fitting. Most working boats before engines did have two masts. This enhanced their versatility and robustness. Having two of anything makes it more likely that you’ll have something that works even after a catastrophic failure.

Two shorter masts are stronger, rely less on rigging to keep them standing, and are more easily sourced than one taller spar. The ability to maneuver with a divided sail plan is also a plus when we’re not relying on an engine to get around in tighter quarters. With a two masted rig mast placement needs to coordinate with the rest of the structure.

While many boats have been built with masts through their deck houses, there is nothing stronger than a mast keel stepped and run through partners at deck level. This thirty-footer shows how a schooner rig can fit in with an arrangement with a cuddy between the masts.

This is as small as we can go with a schooner without it becoming a toy. For a heavy displacement craft like this it gives us plenty of sail area spread low to mirror the under-body which is long and not too deep. Its draft is four feet. In a small schooner a loose-footed lapping fors’l keeps that sail from getting too tall and narrow and from simply becoming too small to pull its weight. This is the last sail to be brought in and reefed, the boat will heave-to under fors’l sitting out just about any conditions. There are two gaffs and a boom, to shift loads, act as gantries, bring a small boat aboard, whatever we might need them for. This arrangement leaves the after half of the boat clear.

Sawn frames make a strong structure that will maintain sufficient strength even after rot may have set-in. It is almost an armored hull with close to four inches of thickness over fifty percent of its surface. The frames are closely spaced. A long keel makes the boat easy to bring up to a shelving foreshore and let her dry out between tides, or to tie to a shoal wharf and touch bottom at low tide without problems even for an extended period. These were common techniques once, and increase a boat’s versatility by simplifying maintenance and permitting a longer term “squat,” as a visit might extend beyond the time when remaining at anchor or at a mooring is practical.



This hull form, with powerful sections, tumblehome amidships, and rising floors gives us a boat that can deal with heavy weather, have a good turn of speed, and have a strong and simple structure. My inspiration, as was true for the original sloop and schooner boats, came from looking at one of the crack schooners built in Essex Massachusetts for the Grand Banks Fisheries. The Harry L. Belden built in 1889, was designed by D. J. Lawlor. The Belden gained renown by winning the “Fisherman’s Race that Blew” in 1892. I’m drawn to this design, not only for this schooner’s reputation as one of the fastest and most weatherly of her age, but because this moment in the offshore schooners’ development represented a departure from an earlier fad for “clipper” schooners with enormous rigs and hulls that relied on a wide shoal form to keep them upright.

These were superseded by more wholesome boats like the Belden. Unlike most later designs, its form retains the simplicity of a rather plumb stem, a long keel with moderate rake, and a flat heart-shaped transom without a long counter. The Belden was a small boat writ large, and thus well-suited to influence a design for a small boat intended to have superior power and capacity.

Thomas Maclay Hoyne, Harry Beldon 540

I haven’t worked out displacement yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over twenty thousand pounds! Ballast will be either mostly or all internal. A long lead shoe, or better yet, a bar of cast iron could be incorporated into the keel. L. Francis Herreshoff used the following rhetorical question to make his case for external ballast, “Would you rather pound a hammer-head against a rock with your hand cupped above or below it?” It’s clear that an external ballast casting absorbs shock before it gets into the structure. Cast iron is best. Its hardness bounces off a reef, unlike lead which can conform to its shape and stick a boat where it strikes.

Still, this boat will have proportionally little ballast. Its heavy structure will use up most of the displacement, and we want to reserve capacity for cargo or payload, so a certain amount of internal and shift-able ballast will be needed. In the bilges the bays between the frames could be filled with scraps of lead, or iron, cast in concrete. This was done in the fishing schooners, and if done well, is long lasting – see William Atkin’s take on this in his “Of Yachts and Men” page 156. Trim ballast could be carried aft, and under the bunks amidships just aft of the foremast.



William Atkins Gaff Cutter 540

This type of hull was abandoned long ago for use in yachts. Atkin’s heavy displacement cutters and sloops were among the last to follow the rationale that displacement aids in comfort in rough weather and that a large and easily reducible sail plan can make up for the additional wetted surface. We contemplate a boat for conditions that don’t suit the contemporary notion of a yacht as a boat to carry its crew for enjoyment only, and that relies on elaborate external support networks to keep it going. What seem easy trade-offs with cheap and accessible fuel and no need to carry more than a few days’ or weeks’ provisions can be seen as foolhardy frivolity from the perspective we’re adopting here.

This seems to be the smallest craft that can have some autonomy in operations and still have enough volume to carry a significant proportion of workspace/cargo-hold. As you can see, from the mainmast aft the hull is an open hold reached by a good-sized hatch. If need-be, we could do without the foot-well, giving us an unobstructed space clear to the transom. This could include a live-well, or be divided into pens. As a traveling boatbuilder’s shop, it could be lined in shelves and bins holding tools and materials. The same might be true for an itinerant doctor… or shoemaker. The key is to have this space set aside from the beginning and not just carved out as an afterthought. Its blank-slate versatility best suits us as we go forward.

The accommodations are spartan, but workable. We’ve grown accustomed to nearly seven foot headroom in boats of this size. I don’t think this makes them more comfortable. It’s a marketing ploy for boat-shows and convenient when sitting tied up to a floating dock sucking on shore power. As soon as we go to sea, these large, high cabins become launch pads for serious falls and injury – or simply a scare that then ensures the boat will spend most of its time tied to a floating dock on shore power. I’m just over six feet. In this cabin I can slouch and move about – there’s not far to go! With the hatch open, there’s unlimited headroom at the companionway. But in a sea-way, I can brace myself with my head and both hands against the overhead and the cabin sides. There’s not far to fall.

That could be the watch-word for a boat like this. Everything is intended to aid in increasing general robustness and in creating a boat that is long-lived while made from locally sourced and artisanal materials. It relies on a series of local trades. Lumber would be cut and seasoned nearby. This does limit where such a boat could be built. The Maritimes, Maine, the Pacific Northwest all come to mind. These also tend to be places where blacksmiths, small forges, rope-walks, etc. either still exist, or could be brought back relatively easily. These skills, these adjutant Crafts to boatbuilding, have not been totally lost in these areas. A significant aspect of building boats such as this, boats with this ethos and this sense of purpose, is in exercising these other crafts and generating a demand for them if they are now dormant.

This is the kind of preparatory work that could be essential later and can only be done now, while there is still some space between us and dire necessity. Existing traditional boatbuilding programs, such as the Apprenticeshop, the Shipyard at Mystic Seaport, and a few private shops scattered around New England – and elsewhere, though these may not be as familiar to me personally – are a foundation upon which to build. They’ve kept boatbuilding alive, but they could use a shift in perspective concerning their value. I’d like to see them treated not just as depositories of old, “dead” skills, but as a vanguard in bringing back essential skills, modes of working, attitudes towards life; that will be of increasing importance to us going forward.

You might ask, where is any innovation in this design? We expect innovation to be the main thrust of a designer’s efforts, that without innovation we contribute nothing of value. This attitude is one of the ideas this thought experiment is intended to confront. We have caricatured “traditionalism,” conservatism of any real sort, as a straw-man no one believes has any redeeming features. Progress and appetite lead us to ever greater convenience and novelty. Neither of these need to defend themselves. They are taken for granted as positive.

One innovation in this design is its more effective rudder shape compared to the rudders of the nineteenth century, before aero- and hydro-dynamics had brought us an understanding of the flow over a foil. This rudder will provide more steering force with less drag than a larger rudder with a curving trailing edge and rounded bottom. Still, I’m not sure if even this small innovation is really for the best. This rudder is more prone to damage – even if it is many times more robust than a contemporary spade rudder. This could prove too big a risk. A schooner, any two-masted boat, can be sailed by adjusting sail-trim combined with judicious helm, instead of simply overpowering the boat’s weather-helm by hauling harder on the tiller.

These are the kinds of assessments that have repeatedly led me back to a set of arrangements that would be immediately recognizable to a working sailor of 1890. It is intended to point out that a designer’s role is to connect someone with the craft that will meet their needs, not to lure them into a lark.

The main value of this exercise is in laying down a different perspective on which boats we consider building, and how best to wrap our minds about conditions that are closer to those of a century ago than to those that have been predominant over the last seventy-five years. No matter how much we might think of boats as “escape pods,” as we get into contemplating how they might be built, and how we might justify their use, we come back to our needs to forge and revitalize communities of Crafts and their practitioners. Integrating ourselves into such a process is not simply “disaster preparedness,” but a substantial way in which we can improve our lives by any standard.

This process entails giving up and letting go of failed assumptions of how things will stay the same forever. It leads us to live each day to the fullest as we make connections, and act on fulfilling our responsibilities, within revitalized webs of inter-relatedness. Boats are the result of a culture. If we are unsatisfied by the boats our culture pushes on us, we need to forge a different culture to get the boats we think will better meet our changing circumstances. There’s much more to this than simply dreaming of sailing away….

Building such a boat, especially without reliance on “labor-saving” strategies and “economies of scale,” will be difficult and expensive, – if we simply look at the costs and efforts involved as something we take from others to aid in our stealing time from our “regular” lives. It is only possible as part of a greater overall commitment to a life in-and-with boats undertaken as THE way we live our lives. Only then do the costs begin to line up with the rewards. Only then are we reintegrated with the potential of Craft, and Craft of Transformation like boats, and what they can offer us. We need to make a series of choices that bring us to a common purpose and that generate a sense of community based on inter-related self-sufficiency instead of seeing ourselves in a battle of atomized desires competing for the scraps of what’s left of our world. Such a boat can’t be imagined as a consumer item or the result of an individual’s solo efforts.

Contemplating such a craft, and what it might do, throws us back to acknowledging our need to be part of some ongoing and evolving community structure in which we participate, and not where we merely subjugate others or are compelled to provide disjointed coerced labor. This boat might seem a period piece. The community required to build and use it is not. This is where we need to apply our innovations. This is where we need to unpack our assumptions about how we ascertain the value of things new and old, and come to new ways of moving forward.

Boats help us envision how this process might unfold. Our experiences on the water also show us that we arrive where we are headed, not through grand proclamations of intention and elaborately specific schemes, but by aligning our intentions with the vagaries of contingency, and recognizing a destination when it comes into sight. This is the process this design is intended to assist in its own little way. This is what this realm of the pleasure boat can give us. It is a place where we can imagine another way of life. Where, by taking care of how we use the scraps of time and bits of surplus we might still have, we can find a way into a world where there is no greater luxury than to have forged a satisfying way of life amongst those we care for and who care for us in return.







9 thoughts on “The Schooner Boat, part II

  1. Absolutely lovely. Schooners of your precedent era were a joy to behold. Of course, having a decent precedent and eloquently rendering an adaptation are two different matters. Clearly you captured the virtues of the historic model while interpreting the design into the finer, more elegant form and detail expected of a small sailing yacht. Two thumbs up.

    I too have always been attracted to the schooners of the era to which you refer above as well as the period slightly before. One of my favorite designs of that era was the pilot boat “George Steers”, which you may recall I had used as an inspiration for the deep long-liner schooner design that I had begun when I lived in Savannah. I am not sure how relevant it is to this discussion, but in many ways, I have also been attracted to the the pilot schooners as a precedent style for a small schooner yacht of this size since the pilot schooners were physically smaller boats than the Banks fishing schooners and also were a little less burdensome.

    I loved the Pilot schooner hull forms that were similar to your design so much that I actually ended up owning a small George Stadel designed “Pilot Class” cutter which was his interpretation of the pilot schooners of this same era and which had a very similar hull-form, although rendered with less finesse and artfulness than your design.

  2. Enchanting!! I just purchased plans for Robert Baker’s schooner “Samanthe”, but your design more truly representative of what I want to build. Are you going to offer this design and if so what would a set of plans cost?

    Have you considered a cat schooner rig, I sailed on one in San Francisco. It saved about ten feet on the slip fees, and we had a shippable bowsprit for the long reach. The boat was called MARS. It had a huge 150% lapping foresail. I think it was an old halibut schooner from Alaska. She was surprisingly good to weather, but a little ornery
    off the wind,hence the need of the shippable bowsprit and flying jib.

    I have the perfect Barn for constructing a thirty footer like this. I am an adequate loftsman, and I own all the tools necessary for getting out those heavy frames. I live on Whidbey Island and want to build a boat substantial enough to explore the inland passage to Alaska.

    Sometimes the cutting edge is to fall back on designs that most successfully brought the working sailor home safely.

    1. John,

      I’m so happy this cartoon has caught your interest!

      It does sound like this would be a good starting place for your new boat.

      Send me a note via the contact form so we can discuss this further!


  3. Tony,

    Thank you for the quick response, It is nice to find someone on the same minimalist wavelength as myself, as it pertains to boats. The adventure IS what it is all about. I have worked for major ” Tupperware” boat manufacturers
    building boats for destination minded, instant gratification addicted,trophy chasers. They neither appreciate what they have nor do they enjoy the the journey in their acquisitions. The racing crowd in particular are more prone to buy and sell the “latest beast,” beat the hell out of a decent boat, with no regard as to what went into building it.

    I have enjoyed a very modest life. I started building boats as a kid and have had a lot of fun. The completed boat was only a way point along the path . I have experience in many trades, but I am no master in any of them. I presently own a farm, raise a little livestock, grow my own veggies, do a little woodworking and fix the occasional boat. Life s a matter of changing hats with regularity. I built a boarding kennel on the farm and my commute is only three hundred yards.

    My barn/workshop is a turn of the century, five- thousand square foot, Gothic arch dairy barn with three inch thick douglas fir floors. My center bay is sixteen by forty- eight feet with haylofts on either side. Perfect to lay down the lines of a boat up to forty five feet. I am heavily tooled up and there is much space available to sticker lumber.

    I am fifty-nine years old and figure on a four year build, allowing two full days work on the boat each week. I will likely build my own sails, do my own pattern making and foundry work. Retirement is not in my mindset,although I am working hard to make myself the most expendable person at my own business.( A work in progress)

    I would like to go engineless, but these days it is not enough to get out one’s own way, With the amount of freighter traffic and the heavy currents in the Inland Passage it might be necessary to have a reliable diesel. I guess a yawl boat and an outboard would be workable but things happen pretty quickly in and about the Puget Sound. i do prefer not to have no ac/dc in the cabin. Systems add to the maintenance and complexity. Oil lamps and dry firewood are more important.

    Enough ruminations on my part. I guess a dialog has to start somewhere.


    1. John,

      Yes, We do need to start somewhere! Thanks for filling us in on your situation.

      The question of power is a big one. Your concerns about being able to get out of the way are real!

      Here’s an interesting discussion on the overall issue by Ivan Illich and written back when it could have done us some good if he’d been listened to!

      This provides the overall framework for many questions, including your particular concern about getting out of the way.

      As soon as we throw an engine into the equation everything does change. The question is, is there a minimal intrusion that keeps us from losing everything for the sake of having power?

      To me, the loss occurs as soon as we feel we are gaining “security” by having power. This slides right into conflating ease with security, trading impatience for the losses incurred by adding power. Does this actually make us safer? I don’t know. So many cases of people getting themselves into situations that only an engine can get them out of…. Then there’s the helicopter at the other end of 911.

      An anchor can do a lot of what an engine can do for us if we think about it, keeping us off the “slippery slopes” of tide and current traps. The lack of an engine keeps us in the present. We cannot push a magic button and be transported away from here & now. That’s a lot of why it’s not just a reaction to running out of oil, but a good thing in general to voluntarily give up the enticements of power.

      On a small boat like this, there’s also the space, and what to do with the space. This then begs the question, what is the boat is for? These all come into question. These are all issues inherent in this thought experiment of the Schooner Boat.

      It may be possible to have a really tiny diesel… powered by second-hand frialator oil…. But then, there’s still the prop and its aperture, spoiling light air performance and calling for its use. Even a really small engine spoils the “hold.”

      One of the things that is so tantalizing for me about reading pre-auxiliary sailing accounts is the patience, the acceptance of what is, that was a commonplace. Not going certain places, or taking an honest risk, not with fingers crossed, ready to dial for the rescue chopper.

      Security, the more I look into it, the less it seems an actual thing and the more it seems an illusion for which we are willing to give up just about anything!

      That’s another big question! But that’s why boats are so important! They keep us, they can keep us, focused on what matters.

  4. Tony,

    Philosophy and practicality, what a collision! Philosophically ,I am in deep agreement. Two events give me pause though, and give me a practical concern. The first was when I was sailing an engine- free Bingham Flicka into Santa Barbara’s Harbor. I was on a critical beach- on- the- lee- side tack when suddenly when I was engulfed by the local Sabot sailing fleet. Surely, right of way was mine, but these were kids nine to twelve years old hell bent on the race. I came into the wind, and lost all headway, Somehow we all avoided a collision, but it was really tense as Sabot after Sabot scrambled around me.

    The second event didn’t exactly happen to me, but gave me nightmares for years. I was sailing around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands at first morning light when a smallish coastal freighter plowed by. Hanging in the anchor and hauspipe was the broken mast,rigging and torn sails of a good sized sailboat. I never saw anything in the news and when I contacted the Coast Guard they new nothing of it. My guess is that they were clobbered at night by a ship on auto pilot and failed to get out of the way in time. I suppose that the crew cut everything loose and pretended nothing ever happened before arriving at the next port.

    After these two events I purchased a little British Seagull engine and maybe used a gallon of gas all year. I suppose I have enough clarity of mind to work through most minor disasters and the experience to get myself out of a pickle without a power plant. It is the actions of others that are the most unpredictable.


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