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The Original FAME

The original Fame was a privateer schooner that sailed out of Salem, Massachusetts during the War of 1812.

But what, you ask, was a privateer? And what, exactly, is a schooner?

These are fair questions! A lot has changed in two hundred years. In 1812, however, everyone knew that a ‘privateer’ was nothing more than a privately-owned ship — sometimes built expressly for privateering, but more often a converted fishing or trading vessel — which applied for a government permit in wartime to go out and capture enemy vessels.

A ‘schooner’ is a sailing vessel with more than one mast and sails that are set “fore and aft,” that

is, parallel to a line running from the bow to the stern. Fore-and-aft sails were an alternative to “square” sails, which were set perpendicular to that line between the bow and the stern. Ships such as the USS Constitution and the Mayflower had square sails. Bluenose, featured on the Canadian dime, is a schooner, although from a later period.

Fore-and-aft sails required fewer crewmen and allowed the vessel to sail closer to the wind, which was a huge advantage for coastal sailing. Very soon after they were introduced in the early 18th century, schooners came to dominate the fisheries. They were simpler and more weatherly than brigs or ships, and yet more versatile than the sloops and ketches that were used in the 17th century. The schooner rig allowed fishermen to easily “heave to” — park the vessel with her head slightly off the wind — in a variety of conditions. This allowed them to get on with the business of fishing without having to work the helm or sails.

Again, all this was common knowledge in 1812, when everyone who lived in sight of the sea knew a sloop from a schooner, just as everyone today knows a minivan from a pickup truck. Sailing vessels were the primary means of communication and transportation across oceans and along coasts, and schooners were as intrinsic to the America of 1812 as trucks are to the America of 2006.

Fame was a relatively small schooner, only about 70 feet overall, but big enough to carry two small cannon and a crew of 30. Although she was originally built as a fishing schooner, her speed and maneuverability made her a successful privateer. She was one of the very first American privateers to get to sea, and one of the first to send home a “prize” or captured vessel. She took 22 prizes that we know of, while avoiding capture herself for nearly two years.

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