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A schooner is a sailing vessel with two or more masts, having only fore-and-aft-rigged sails. This type of rigging enables the vessel to sail closer to the wind than a square-rigged ship can. Schooners are also easily maneuverable and can be handled by smaller crews. They were fir st built by American colonists in the early 18th century and were used extensively as merchant and fishing vessels until the second decade of the 20th century, when they were replaced by steamships. Today schooners are generally used as yachts.
The typical schooner of the 18th and early 19th centuries-which engaged in the American coasting trade and, to a lesser extent, in transoceanic trade-was a two-masted vessel with foresail, mainsail, topsails, staysail , and one or more jibs. A schooner that is rigged with a square fore-topsail and top-gallant sail, is called a topsail schooner.
About 1840, larger vessels of three or more masts came into use, and for the rest of the century, American shipbuilders constructed ever larger schooners. Schooners built in the 1880's and 1890's were often quite large, ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 tons and having four, five, or even six masts. These schooners were generally constructed for the foreign trade. The only seven-masted schooner was the 5,200-ton Thomas Lawson, built at Fore River, Massachusetts, in 1902. Its sails were raised by a donkey engine, making it possible to sail it with a relatively small crew.
Although the schooner was always a favorite and distinctive American rig, it was used in the 19th century by French and English shipbuilders.
Today's schooner yachts usually have only two masts with triangular sails on the after side.