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The most-masted schooner ever built

Jan 1, 2003

When the $258,000 schooner, Thomas W. Lawson, slipped down the ways at the Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company of Quincy, Mass., she was the only sailing vessel of her type in the world. It was July 10, 1902, and Coastwise Transportation Company officials who had ordered her more than a year earlier, watched her kiss salt water for the first time, confident that her appearance on the shipping scene would not only silence the death knell for sailing ships, but also ring in a profitable new century for the company and its shareholders.

It was not the size of the Lawson that made her unique, though her 380-foot length and her 5,216 gross registered tonnage were certainly impressive for a schooner. Nor was the fact that her hull was made of steel plate her main claim to fame. What singled out Lawson for special attention was that she carried seven masts. A whole forest ecosystem, somewhere in the Maine woods, had been put to the saw and axe that the behemoth might move upon the waves.

While finishing touches were being made to the distinctive ship, old seamen who had come to the quayside to behold the ultra-modern Lawson shook their heads in disbelief and longed for the century of their youth when ship-spotting was less difficult. How would they name all those masts? Fore, main, and another one, and another one, and another one, and another one, and finally mizzen? And were all those steam-assisted winches on deck really necessary for sail handling? As it turned out, the winches were absolutely vital because Lawson carried an incredible 25 sails in allseven gaff sails, seven topsails, six staysails, and five jibsfor a total sail area of more than 43,000 square feet. This mass of canvas weighed nearly 18 tons dry and, when wet, made the vessel unstable and extremely hard to handle in any kind of sea, so that she would never be remembered kindly by her masters.

Lawson spent her first four years as a coal-carrier before being modified to carry bulk oil at the Newport Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in 1907. Later that same year, on December 13 (Friday the 13, to be exact), she found herself unable to weather the Scilly Islands off the southwest coast of England, and her crew made preparations to anchor. In the evening her anchor chain parted in a heavy blow, and the ship drifted onto the rocks. Thirteen of her crew and the vessel itself were lost in the disaster.

Lawson was remarkable for being the first and last seven-masted schooner ever constructed. She did make money for her owners, but she was expensive to maintain and operate. In hindsight, it was fortunate that her designer, Bowdoin B. Crowninshield, opted not to go with his initial 1901 proposal for the ship. That plan called for a more costly, 400-foot, eight-masted design.