Set Fair for Sailing

Figureheads Required; No Experience Necessary

“Weel done, Cutty Sark!”

Robert Burns; Tam O’ Shanter 1790

Esperance, or more correctly, espérance, is a French word that rolls easily off the anglophone tongue. It is one of two words in French that mean ‘hope’, although admittedly the alternative – espoir – is more commonly used in everyday speech. These days espérance refers more to an ‘abstract, positive expectation’, according to our trusty dictionary, but in all honesty that is exactly the definition we prefer here at Waterfront Charters. The reason is straightforward: Esperance is our sleek, twin-masted, steel-hulled schooner, and we believe that every person who has booked a cruise aboard this unique V&A Waterfront craft will approach the event with an ‘abstract, positive expectation.’ What we know with certainty is that all people who disembark after a cruise have had a ‘very real, positive experience’, and hope has been supplanted by joyful satisfaction.

We have written about schooners before, but it’s worthwhile taking another look at the history and provenance of these graceful vessels. The first paintings and descriptions of these fore-and-aft rigged twin-masted boats date back to the early 17th century – the first authenticated painting, by Dutch artist Rool, is actually dated 1600; you don’t get much earlier than that – although the origin of the name itself is a bit more obscure. It relates either to the Dutch word schoen – as in clean lines, not a scrubbed deck – or perhaps to American settlers of Scottish ancestry who played a game called ‘schooning’ at the sea’s edge: skipping stones across the water. The elegant way schooners skated across the surface possibly put people in mind of the stones skipping along, disregarding the water’s pull. Both derivations have their adherents; we leave it to you to choose your favourite.

Like all vessels, the schooners were adapted and changed to fit circumstances, but always with an eye to speed. Classically twin-masted, with the foremast shorter than the mainmast, the shipbuilders looked to ever increasing needs for speed up and down coastlines, and the number of masts was increased. Three masts were popular, and a square-rigged foresail was added for extra oomph. Eventually schooners with no less than seven masts were built, but sailors quickly realised that more sail didn’t necessarily mean faster hulls; besides, the schooner was never meant to be a big vessel. They were ideal for quick journeys, fishing and the carrying of small loads (like opium and other contraband, but the less said about that the better), and were perfect for agile work like harbour pilot boats. Smaller boats meant smaller crews, and the next time you are aboard a Waterfront Charters yacht, ask the skipper what he thinks about rigging and running sails from seven masts with a crew of three.

The other notable feature of schooners are their bowsprits. Originally the bowsprit was a spar extending from the bow (you guessed that bit) that was an anchoring point for the stays from the foremast. The name holds no mystery: it originates from the Middle Low German word bōchsprēt – bōch meaning ‘bow’ and sprēt meaning ‘pole’. It also served a much better known function, as anyone who has studied piratical or early naval lore will know: it carried the ship’s figurehead. Those who have visited any nautical museum (the excellent one in Bredasdorp is recommended) will have seen figureheads that have been recovered from wrecked or dismantled vessels. Normally brightly painted (once upon a time) wooden sculptures of stern-looking women – possibly scantily covered like the infamous witch Cutty Sark – they were predominant from the 16th century until the early 20th century. But the idea dated back to much earlier times: the bows of Roman, Phoenician and Greek galleys were all adorned with signs and symbols or carvings of friendly deities. Protection against the enemy, the unfriendly deities of the enemy, sea monsters, whirlpools and just about anything that the sea could throw at them, the superstitious sailors would look to their talismanic symbols to keep them safe. The Vikings of the ninth century onwards continued this practice on their longboats, the dragons and other evil-looking toothy creatures sculpted on the bows were a form of apotropaic magic, warding off evil spirits. The Dutch sailors believed that little gnomes supposedly lived in the bow of every ship; kaboutermannekes, and these spirits guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds.  Carved versions were placed on the bow to encourage the little characters to greater efforts. (Afrikaans still retains the word ‘kabouter’, but mostly as ‘stoute kabouter;’ more unruly child than friendly fairy.)

Our Esperance has mobile alternating figureheads, and we’d like you to volunteer for the position. Putting it another way: nothing beats the experience of standing or sitting on the bowsprit of a schooner as she carves through the Table Bay swells. It’s a sailing experience like no other, and we would like to share it with every person who has a thing for the sea.

Our One Hour Sailing in the Bay Experience is the perfect way to find out just why we love our schooner so much, and to make it even more accessible we are running a special on this adventure: check out the Esperance tag and join us as we schoon across the Atlantic.