Schooners return to Gloucester for annual festival and race

Historians and the sea-legged alike dispute the origin of the schooner, a gaff-rigged, two-masted vessel whose graceful skip and billowing sails give her the appearance of a sea angel. But as sailors' tradition would have it, this seafarer's history finds roots in a story.

According to many accounts (though at times dismissed as a child’s lore) the first schooner launched in 1713 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. By taking the two-masted design introduced to Dutch vessels in the late 1600s, boat-builder Andrew Robinson crafted the vessel and filled her sails just south of the historic Reeds Wharf. The unusually rigged ship sailed so smoothly that it moved a bystander to cry, “Oh, how she scoons!” borrowing from the Scottish “scone,” which describes a flat stone skipping along the surface of the water. As legend has it, Robinson in turn replied, “A scooner let her be!”

More than 300 years later, we’re still just as taken by the smooth sailers, and Labor Day Weekend marks the kickoff of the 31st Annual Gloucester Schooner Festival. Schooners from near and far arrive throughout the day on Friday, Sept. 4, to take part in the celebration of seamanship held at the oldest seaport in the States. Festivities kick off on Saturday with Maritime Gloucester Heritage Day, which opens up Schooner Way to 25 community organizations and artisan vendors, with the breathtaking Ardelle and Lannon schooners open to the public, and the exhibits and aquarium at Maritime Gloucester will be open for half-price admission. The day ends on a lobster bake to the tune of traditional music and fireworks glistening on the harbor.

The highlight of the event comes Sunday, when the Essex-built Lettie G. Howard (1893), the Roseway (1925), and the Adventure (1926) join other schooners for the Parade of Sail, taking to the waters to make the Mayor’s Race, which starts just off Eastern Point. This year the 141-foot steel replica Colombia, a fishing and racing schooner originally built in Essex in 1923, joins as well, competing for the coveted Esperanto Cup. Named for the ship that Captain Marty Welch of Gloucester sailed to victory in the first-ever International Fishermen’s Race off Nova Scotia in 1920, the Esperanto Cup has been taken the last three years running by American Eagle, who returns this year to defend her title.

Just hop the shuttle bus giving free rides to the start of the race, where -- finally -- the schooners open their sails to skip across the waves, at last returning to the familiar home waters of their origin on the eastern seaboard. The 31st Annual Gloucester Schooner Festival and Mayor's Race take place over Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 4-6, at the Gloucester harbor and waterfront. For more information and a detailed schedule of events, visit, and check out this video from last year's festival!