Skip to main content

A working Friendship

For master shipbuilder and designer Harold Burnham of Essex, Mass., his circa 100-year-old Friendship Sloop, Chrissy, is both a working and recreational vessel.

The Friendship Sloop’s origin as a working fishing vessel built in Friendship, Maine, and its evolution to a fast and stable recreational yacht is well-documented. For master shipbuilder and designer Harold Burnham of Essex, Mass., his circa 100-year-old Friendship Sloop, Chrissy, is both a working and recreational vessel.

Read the other story in this package: True Friends

Burnham, 39, is the only sailor fishing from a Friendship Sloop in the traditional way, which he does as part of his Gloucester, Mass.-based charter company. Further, he uses Chrissy to both promote his boatbuilding and repair business at maritime events and for gunkholing along the New England coast with his children: son Alden, 12, and daughter Perry, 10.

The famed Chrissy, which measures 28 feet on deck, was built in Friendship by Charles Morse around 1910 and has had only three known owners in her history. Her longest owner was the late Ernest Wiegleb, who purchased Chrissy at the end of World War II and owned her until his death in 1991. Wiegleb converted her from a fishing vessel to what was, in her heyday, one of the most elaborate yachts in the Friendship Sloop Society.

“My first memories of the Chrissy were as a 7-year-old. She had elaborate winches and a huge jib topsail,” says Burnham, who grew up sailing on the Friendship Sloop Resolute with his parents, Charles and Maria, and two siblings. “I remember rowing around her at the time. She was so hogged I believed she had been built with a reverse sheerline. This was something that I found very unattractive about Chrissy.”

When Wiegleb grew older he retired Chrissy to his dooryard, and Burnham didn’t see her for many years. To Burnham, however, Chrissy and her owner were legendary among their many mutual friends in the Friendship Sloop Society. “It was not so much the Chrissy that people talked about, but the kindness and knowledge of the late Ernie Wiegleb,” says Burnham. “The way he and his Chrissy were revered by his friends left quite an impression on me.”

During breaks while attending Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and subsequently going to sea as a merchant marine, Burnham built a 22-foot Muscongus Bay sloop. At the time he read an article by Bruce Morang, editor of a Reading/Wakefield, Mass., weekly newspaper and helmsman for Chrissy. It was a story of his old friend and mentor, Wiegleb, who had died at the age of 90. At the end of the article, Morang wrote that, “Chrissy was in Ernie’s yard, with her heart gone and soul distracted.”

“The article was both a goodbye to his old friend and a trap for anyone who might be interested in an old wooden boat,” Burnham says.

In the summer of 1993, and with the urging of his friend Morang, Burnham traveled to Friendship. He bought Chrissy from Wiegleb’s estate for $500, unsure of her condition after spending 13 years out of the water. After some quick patching, Burnham launched her at the Friendship dock; she sank like a stone. With some salt water in her, she floated on the next tide, and Burnham’s parents tied her to Resolute and towed her 110 miles from Friendship to Essex, with Burnham aboard Chrissy and bailing throughout the trip. Once he got her to his home in Essex, Burnham took over Wiegleb’s role, lovingly patching the old wreck together.

“The first year I patched the bottom and sailed her without an engine,” says Burnham. “She turned out to be an extremely handy boat for carrying passengers. Every year since, more work has gone into her, but she is always out sailing. She is like an old pair of jeans: more patch than boat.”

While Burnham downplays his restoration of Chrissy, much of the work sparked renewed interest in boatbuilding in Essex, the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in particular. The project also helped grow his Burnham Boatbuilding business ( ). “I replaced her deck — it’s the third deck she has had — and the timbers I put in were her fifth set,” says Burnham. “We replanked a lot of her hull for the second and third time, and I have put three sets of garboards in her.”

And he realigned Chrissy’s sheerline — the shape that troubled Burnham when he was young. “She was so old and weak I was able to jack her shape back into her, and that got her stern back up,” he says. “I also squeezed her in several inches to put the hollow back into her bow. Whether any of this work affected Chrissy’s sailing qualities is hard to tell. But Chrissy is and always was a nice-sailing boat. She is easily balanced on all points of sail and will hold her course for many hours without anyone at the helm.”

When Burnham says Chrissy sails herself he means it. “The first time I noticed it was on the Maine coast, when a friend had accidentally turned her around while I was taking a quick nap,” he says. “After I got my friend back on track, I slept again for two hours. When I awoke and asked him how it was going he said he hadn’t touched the wheel for two hours. Our course was unchanged.”

They decided they would leave the wheel alone. “Five hours later, she sailed herself in behind Wood Island. I had never seen that before in a boat,” says Burnham.

As Chrissy and her owner grew accustomed to one another, Burnham slowly transformed her from the yacht she was back to the fishing boat he would use for the charter business.

“Chrissy’s enormous cockpit once proved a safe, stable platform for fishermen,” he says. “Now we use her for charters and lobstering. Chrissy taught me a great deal about what it is to fish from a sailboat. First, the sloop is designed to sail and designed to work. Everything about her is business, when done right. The side decks are made so that lobster traps sit locked in place. Its ability to stop and sit unattended when hauling traps is remarkable. And you have to work hard to fall out of one.”

Because he has always felt the children were safe in Chrissy’s generous cockpit, Burnham has been cruising with Alden and Perry since they were infants. “As I grew up sailing in Friendship Sloops myself, I know that sailing is not that interesting to children,” he says. “What they like about sailing is spending time with their parents and going different places. So a typical day sailing with my children starts before sunrise, when I get under way to a different port. When the kids wake up we are usually arriving somewhere new, or have arrived.”

He says breakfast consists of pancakes prepared on a single-burner stove in the cockpit. “Once breakfast is done we go for a long walk somewhere, meeting people who love our sloop, Chrissy,” says Burnham.

Alden and Perry have specific jobs they can do on board. “When we get under way again, the kids handle the sails and haul the anchor or put away the lines,” says Burnham. “There is so much that the kids and I share on the boat and that we can laugh about and that often comes up in conversation. When the teachers in school ask the kids to talk about who they are, the Chrissy is spoken of almost as a member of the family.

“For me, I like a boat best when it is taking me home, or bringing me somewhere and I think of those whom I have shared her with,” he says. “What I really love about Chrissy are the memories.”

Laurie Fullerton is a freelance journalist from Marblehead, Mass., who regularly reports on the sport of sailing. An avid weekend sailor, she attended the 2003 America’s Cup competition in New Zealand and covered the 100th anniversary of the Newport Bermuda Race this past June.