Whence? Whither? We don’t know—
Fill up the schooner! How she schoons!
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

The distant shore will host a show
Of distant stars and distant moons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Yes, shoes will walk, and arms will row,
But sail-ships scud across lagoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Our breath is breeze, so let it blow;
We’ll ride our lungs like air balloons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Our lives are fluid; let them flow,
Not shine contained in silver spoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

And shall we bury treasure? No!
We’ll trade our jewels in saloons!
Whence? Whither? We don’t know…
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Who is not sparked to poetry by the sight of a tall ship? Or at least to imaginings? And hoistings of glasses? I set down the above villanelle just now in a libatious fraction of an hour. Here’s another poem, written a century and some ago by Richard Hovey:

The Sea Gypsy
I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

Ah, the romance of the schooner, come from a distant past, heading to an uncertain future. Who would merely set shoe after shoe on soil who could sail a schooner on the sea?

What is a schooner? It’s a kind of ship, originally with two masts but sometimes with three or more; the foremast is shorter than the main mast. Schooners are larger than cutters, but smaller and easier to manouevre than frigates or galleons; they can move well with a small crew. They were, in their time, popular for fishing and shipping – and piracy.

One of the things schooners shipped was sherry, from Xerez in Spain. Sherry was traditionally served in two sizes of glass: a smaller glass was called a cutter, and a larger glass was called a schooner. From that, the name has transferred to beer glasses. In Australia, a schooner is a glass smaller than a pint; in Canada, it is larger than a pint (though you won’t find it everywhere).

Nowadays schooners are popular as tourist attractions. The star of Toronto’s harbour is a three-masted schooner built in Germany in 1930, originally named the Wilfried but bought in 1960 by a Danish captain and renamed Kajama after his children Kaywe, Jan, and Maria. It was bought in 1999 by a Toronto company – it is newer to this city than I am. The picture above is of the Kajama in Toronto harbour. Here’s a closer look (yes, taken with an old film camera).

The word schooner has a Dutch look to it, doesn’t it? The spelling does have a Dutch influence. But the word is not originally Dutch; it is English, or perhaps it is borrowed from Scots. The first schooner was (by some accounts) launched in 1713 at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and there is a probably apocryphal story connecting it to the Scots word scon, meaning ‘skip across the water’ (as a stone), by way of a bystander’s exclamation: “Oh, how she scoons!” We’re not really sure just how the word really came around. It was first spelled skooner or scooner, anyway. But the Dutch borrowed the word (with the ship), and made it schoener, which is kind of funny because schoen is Dutch for ‘shoe’. The current English spelling may have been influenced by that, or by school, or both.

You won’t see too many schooners these days. Unless you’re Canadian, that is. It’s true that most Canadians are not in Toronto or Nova Scotia (where other schooners may sometimes be seen), but all we need to do is look at a dime. The Canadian dime features the Bluenose, a schooner that was both a working fishing craft and a racing ship unbeaten for seven years in the 1930s. It was enough to get it onto the dime in 1937 (well, technically the image on the dime is a composite of the Bluenose and two others, but never mind), and it’s been there ever since.

But the Bluenose itself (or herself, if you hew to that usage) ended up in the Caibbean. A nice retirement? Not exactly. Fishing schooners were displaced by motorized boats in the 1930s, and the Bluenose was sold to work as a freighter. It wrecked, laden with bananas, on a reef off Haiti in 1947, just 10 years after making it onto the dime. No one died in the wreck – other than the Bluenose. You can go see a replica at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Or just pull out a dime, if you’re Canadian.

And if you carry cash. Many people don’t these days; coins seem to have an uncertain future (the Canadian penny has already gone under). But go to a pub and order a pint – heck, order a schooner – and hoist it to the Bluenose and other sailing ships, and while you’re doing that, look over at the bar for a glint like a star. It may be a dime, left as part of a tip, half-submerged in a lagoon of ale. Wish it a safe journey – but not a dull one.

5 responses to “schooner

  1. Yes, I know neither of these photos has the sails full out. The Kajama often cruises under motor now.


    Thanks for this one. The only place I have had a schooner of beer is in Buffalo, and I have ordered glasses of beer from Boston to Bellingham WA. I always wondered about its origin. John

  3. Very interesting! I wonder if the English “scone” is related to the stones one skips on the water! Also, please correct me if I am wrong, but does not “schoen” also translate as beautiful in German? (When spelled out w/o the diacritical umlaut?) I thought German for “shoes” is “schuhe.” In any event, I happen to feel as you do, that schooners are Indeed beautiful!

    • Yes, the German word schön means ‘beautiful’. I thought of going into that, but it would be quite a tangent. It’s not related to schooner or to Dutch schoen, and Dutch schoen isn’t pronounced the same way. In Dutch, oe spells the same sound as we spell oo in schooner (the “ö” sound is spelled eu in Dutch, adding to confusion for people who don’t know the language, since in German eu spells an “oi” sound – can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard mispronounce Breughel as “broigl”). Also, the Dutch ch is even farther back in the mouth than the German back ch (there’s a front ch, as in ich, which is close to “sh”). So Dutch schoener is like English schooner if you happen to be trying to get a popcorn hull out of the back of your mouth just when you say the ch.

  4. Thanks for that! For some reason I was thinking Deutsche where you said Dutch, and thus my misunderstanding about shoes and such. Please forgive. Still wonder about those scones, though! 😆

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