Why a schooner?
Gaff-rigged schooners were a common sight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Every harbor in the United States had a fleet. They were simple to sail, fast, and versatile rigs used mostly on commercial boats. Today, few gaff schooners are built and even fewer are modern designs.
First some definitions, a "schooner" has two or more masts where the fore-mast is shorter or the same height as the main-mast.
A "gaff" is a spar on the top of a fore and aft mounted sail. Gaff rigged sails therefore have four sides.
The Alma, at right, is a gaff rigged scow schooner. It belongs to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and can often be seen sailing in San Francisco Bay. It is a typical work boat built in 1891. Many people love the look of gaff rigged boats and schooners in particular. The alma is flying a small topsail. Jakatan has no topsails and is therefore considered a "bald headed schooner".
Why did this rig fall out of favor and why are so few built today?
There is no single answer to this question but undoubtably a major factor was the growth of small boat racing. Two masted boats do not point as high to windward as single masted boats. The design of private sailboats has been dominated by the needs of round the buoy racing in which upwind performance is critical. This is one reason that single masted boats, sloops and cutters, represent the majority of sailboats built today. There are other reasons too, such as cost. However, in addition to being pretty, schooners have some definite advantages for cruising and day sailing.
The schooner Jakatan is an attempt to build a modern cruising boat that has all the advantages of a schooner and eliminates the disadvantages. Other modern schooners have been built with the same goal, but they usually eliminate the gaff sails. I wanted a gaff schooner that was as easy to sail as any modern sloop and offered advantages over sloops and cutters. I was somewhat inspired by Mark Ellis' Nonsuch sailboats. He took another old design, the cat boat, and created a modern, easy-to-sail version. The Nonsuch was a success and is still desired by many. Jakatan is a test to see if we could do something similar with a gaff schooner.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Schooners
1) Three sails of roughly equal size. Compared to a sloop with similar sail area the schooner's sails will be smaller and easier to handle.
2) Low bridge clearance. A schooner's sails are spread out horizontally. Jakatan has a favorable 50' bridge clearance with over a 1000 square feet of sail. You won't find that combination on a sloop.
3) Flexible sail plan, With three sails there are many ways to reduce sail area. You can sail with all three sails, main and jib only, fore-sail only, fore-sail and jib only, or any combination with reefed main or fore-sail.
4) Easy to balance. With three sails it is always easy to balance the helm.
5) Powerful and comfortable. Every thing else being equal, a schooner can carry a larger area of sail with less heel because of the low center of effort. A schooner can't point as high as a sloop but on any other point of sail it excels. Downwind you can sail wing on wing, or even fly a spinnaker.
6) Redundancy. With two masts and three large sails it is more likely you will be able to continue sailing with the damage or loss of a component of the rigging.
7) Uncluttered and safe cockpit. With the main sheet led far aft, the cockpit remains unobstructed by the sheet and traveler. Also a schooner typically has a boom gallows which means no one standing in the cockpit will get their head hit by the boom.
8) Dinghy storage. Where to stow the dinghy is always an issue on small sailboats. Schooners look good with davits, but more importantly the area between the masts is an ideal location for stowing a dinghy when offshore. On Jakatan we can fit a 10' hard dinghy here and it doesn't interfere with the foredeck.
9) Appearance. To some people, schooners look great.
1) Two halyards per sail. Gaff sails have a throat halyard and a peak halyard. The peak halyard often has to be adjusted at different angles to the wind. The double halyards increase complexity and clutter. On Jakatan we devised a single halyard system that does not need to be adjusted. In addition, the fore and main sails have full battens attached to the mast with track cars. Halyards, reefing lines, and sheets are led to the cockpit. It is easy to sail Jakatan single handed.
2) Running back stays. On a schooner the main sail is far aft. With a Marconi main you typically need a boomkin to support a back stay. With a gaff main you need to use running back stays, which have to be released and set with each tack. By using stout carbon fiber masts, a triatic stay, and slightly swept spreaders, Jakatan does not need any back stays and we are able to keep the forestay reasonably taught.
To me, the elimination of the double halyards and running back stays were the two most important factors in making an easy to sail gaff schooner. If I couldn't achieve these simplifications I wouldn't have gone ahead with building the boat.
3) Upwind performance. Any boat with two masts will not point as high as a single masted boat. There is nothing that can be done about this. While this makes a big difference in round the buoys racing, it matters less in cruising and day sailing.
4) Cost. Two masts are more expensive than one mast. Not much we can do about this either.
5) LOA. Most schooners have a significant bow sprit, 7' on Jakatan. This is a great place to hang the anchor, watch dolphins, and they look good, but if you leave your boat in a marina you will need a longer slip and that costs more.
Just a couple more thougths before we leave the subject. Many schooners of traditional design have full keels and interiors that are less than ideal for cruising. This reflects more the needs and traditions of the era of the design than a necessity of schooners. Jakatan has a modern underwater profile with modified fin keel and free standing rudder. The interior is spacious with 6'6" headroom thoughout. And although the interior has to accommodate two masts instead of one, we found the main mast was actually more out of the way compared to many single masted boats where the mast often finds itself in the middle of the table.
So far Jakatan has met our expectations. The rig is simple to use, the boat is comfortable, and it performs well. Perhaps the boat is not as pretty as some classic schooners but all boats are compromises and I am pleased with tradeoffs we made. The builder Eric Jespersen, the architect Bob Perry, and I were all a bit nervous on our first sea trial. The wind cooperated at 15-20 knots and we were all delighted how fast and powerful the boat turned out to be.
a modern cat boat