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True Friends - Soundings Online

True Friends

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She’s so pleasant, so pretty, so accommodating, so strong, it’s no wonder she’s called a “Friendship” Sloop.

The curve of her sheer is as uplifting as a smile. With her gaff raised, her sails billow sweetly like heaped white icing on a cupcake. Fill those sails, and she puts her strong shoulder down to the seas, as a good neighbor might when you have a large boulder to move. She’s so pleasant, so pretty, so accommodating, so strong, it’s no wonder she’s called a “Friendship” Sloop.

Read the other story in this package: A working Friendship

These fine qualities are not, one might correctly suspect, the source of the name. But on a late July morning this year, as skipper Roger Lee steers his Friendship Sloop, Sazerac, away from the Rockland, Maine, municipal dock, there certainly is camaraderie — even friendship — abroad on the water.

A score of Friendship Sloops have gathered for the 46th annual reunion of the class. Their sizes range from 22 to 38 feet on deck; there are white hulls, like Sazerac’s, and green and red. There are wooden sloops and fiberglass sloops. There are antique boats built originally as workboats and others hewn from more recent growth but built specifically as yachts. And while every boat carries two headsails plus a mainsail, some sport towering topsails and there is even a jib tops’l or two. These could not be called one designs.

So disparate are the vessels, in fact, it’s surprising that Lee and the other members of the Friendship Sloop Society — who raise their sails on this sunny, warm morning — think they can hold a fair regatta. Adding to the disparity: On this morning, there is no wind to lift a boat to the starting line. There is the quiet putt-putt of small diesel and gasoline engines as the fleet moves across the harbor, out beyond the moored yachts toward the Rockland breakwater and Penobscot Bay. There also is the splash of oars, standard propulsion on some Friendships.

At 35 feet, Sazerac is one of the largest sloops in the 2006 Homecoming and Rendezvous, and she is motoring. Lee, a patent lawyer from Belfast, Maine, who at 49 has sailed his sloop since 1993, scans the parade of boats and declares, “If you were to look at a photo of any [central Maine] harbor in 1900, you would have seen these boats.”

You see the Statue of Liberty and you think New York Harbor. You see a Friendship Sloop and, wherever you are, you think of the ocean-smoothed rock ledges and thick spruce forests of the Maine coast.

“Friendship Sloops — or sloop boats — were, back in the latter half of the 19th century or early 20th century, the utility workboats used all over the coast,” explains master shipbuilder and designer Harold Burnham, 39, of Essex, Mass., who has made a study not only of the boats’ history but of their use and handling. “They were used for all sorts of different things.”

Built in the Muscongus Bay area — the next

island-strewn notch to the southwest from Penobscot Bay on the serrated Maine coast — sloop boats were known as “good, cheap vessels,” says Burnham, a second-generation Friendship Slooper. “Boats don’t evolve,” he says. “They’re built to meet certain needs. It depended on what the person needed to do.” So each sloop was different than the one built before.

There were, however, some similarities. “The sloops built on Muscongus Bay tended to be built with bent frames [and] carvel planks nailed together,” Burnham says. “Of course, they were sloop-rigged, which meant they had one mast. They were nailed together using clinch nails. The top strakes were oak, and with the exception of a cuddy and bridge deck they were open from the mast partner to where the tiller ran through the deck. They had wide washboards for setting lobster pots on or fish gear, and most of them had fairly deep cockpits. Gaff-rigged, of course. Not all had clipper bows; most of them did.”

Lee’s Sazerac has a clipper bow, a pretty coaming painted dark green around the entire cockpit, bronze steering wheel, wide decks, an enormous varnished boom, beefy varnished mast, and a bowsprit thrusting forward. Launched in 1913, she is an example of the work of Wilbur Morse, generally regarded as the most prolific builder of sloop boats. His shop was in the Muscongus Bay mainland town of Friendship, and thus the name of the class. (The town might have been given its name in the time of pirates to suggest it was a friendly port, says local historian Walter Foster. He notes that an atlas of Maine shows the towns of Freedom, Hope, Unity and Liberty. “I suspect that there was just a popular movement to name towns by that kind of theme,” he says.)

Lee, who is vice commodore of the society, says the attraction of a Friendship Sloop is “its beauty and its heritage, the idea of being able to sail a boat that had such an important part of the marine history of Maine.”

As the fleet circles near the starting line for the first race of the regatta, the air is still. Lee must kick over the 42-hp diesel to turn his boat toward the line. Then he and his wife, Gail O’Donnell, 48, tinker with the sails, helped by volunteer crewmember Glenda Armandi, 47. At the start, Sazerac happens to be near the line and is in good position, but the rest of the fleet ghosts ever closer. Among them are Tannis, at 38 feet on deck the largest boat in the race, with about 1,400 square feet of sail stretched 55 feet from the tip of her 12-foot bowsprit to the end of her overhanging boom. There is Flying Jib, 30 feet on deck and carrying five sails in the light air. And there is the red boat, with a big No. 90 on its mainsail and a huge reputation for winning. She is Salatia, one of seven 25-footers in the race. Each has its story, its piece of sloop boat history.

“I got involved 39 years ago,” says Tannis owner Jack Cronin, whose family owns a Massachusetts cabinet business. “We were in the building game. Our weekends were taken up with customers, and finally it dawned on me I was doing nothing with the family. I didn’t know a Friendship from a hole in the ground, but when I found one, that was the boat I wanted.”

To Cronin, Tannis looked traditional. She looked seaworthy; she looked graceful. Mary Cronin, who was about to deliver their eighth child, agreed with her husband. When that daughter was 5 days old, the Cronins began their first voyage to Maine aboard Tannis. The daughter is now 36.

“It’s become a way of life for my wife and myself and the kids,” says Cronin. “We went 11 years and never missed a weekend, from Friday noon, from May to September. It didn’t matter if it was rain or shine or hurricane. It was my way of keeping the kids on my own little island. It turned out well. They love to sail. We are presently turning over the boat to the kids; the kids are 50 years old now.”

Sara Beck, a Massachusetts astronomer, has volunteered on tall ships as far away from home as Australia. In 1991 she got a 500-ton mate’s license and signed on to crew aboard a number of sail-training ships. She was aboard the Niagara in 1997 when it docked in Rockland on the weekend of the Friendship Sloop Homecoming.

“That’s when I first saw them and kind of fell in love with them,” she recalls. “When I returned home to Massachusetts, I found the list of Friendship Sloops for sale, and I found one in Newburyport. That was Flying Jib, and I purchased her.”

Miff Lauriat is a second-generation slooper. “Back in 1969 my dad had one of them built,” he says. Lauriat has owned that boat, Salatia, for the last 20 or so years. He painted it crimson in honor of his father, a Harvard graduate, and kept the name. If it sounds a bit salacious, that’s no mistake. “My dad was a Latin scholar, and he claimed there was a Latin root, which was to leap or jump,” says Lauriat, noting that his father “was fond of women that would leap or jump into bed.”

“Nearly every time you go out sailing, you get a compliment,” says Lauriat, 50, a carpenter and professional sailor who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. “There are plenty of boats that detract from the natural beauty of the coast of Maine, atrocious modern boats designed with a ruler, designed to be floating bedrooms or cocktail parties. I think that most people who see a Friendship Sloop think it adds to the scenery. I’ve often times picked up private moorings in front of houses. I’ve never been kicked off a mooring. People say: ‘Oh, you’re so pretty. Love to have you.’ ”

In the late 1800s, when the first sloop boats were built on Muscongus Bay, they were not meant to be decorations. “They were the lobster boats of their day, and they were used for freighting and shipping,” says Maine boatbuilder and designer Ralph Stanley, now thought of as the sage of sloop boats. (Stanley is known for his Friendship Sloops, and the society has an award named for him: the Stanley Cup.) “Oh about the 1870s, lobster fishing became a way of life. They used an open boat with a sail. Sometimes it was a little open boat with a centerboard and a sort of sloop rig. And then they wanted a bigger boat. That sort of evolved into what they called the Muscongus Bay sloop, [which] also had a centerboard, a bowsprit. Then they wanted to go to deeper water; they evolved into a deep-keeled sloop, which is the Friendship Sloop.” Stanley says he has built “six or seven” sloops and rebuilt several more.

As the fleet passes the eastern end of the Rockland breakwater, the wind fills in a bit and the boats find themselves on the windward leg of an L-shaped course. At a turning mark near the far shore, they will tack to port and reach out into the bay near picturesque Owls Head Light — perched on a rocky cliff — then reach back into the harbor and, turning to starboard, run back to the starting line for a second lap.

The Friendship Sloop Society is as interested in pageantry and photo opportunities as it is in the placing of its competitors. So it has created a unique method of handicapping that strives to have the entire fleet finish close to each other. It is called “handicap alley.”

Part way out the first leg, Sazerac — named for the favorite cocktail of one of its owners in the 1940s (Peychaud bitters, bourbon, sugar and lemon rinds) — makes a 90-degree turn to starboard and heads down a line of 10 buoys, set by GPS 0.05 miles from each other. As one competitor notes, “Sazerac has been judged a dog,” so although she is one of the larger boats in the fleet, she makes a U-turn at the second buoy and heads back for the course, having dealt with her handicap. Tannis, however, has to go to the 10th buoy, sailing more than a mile before she returns to the race.

Once the boats get on the reaching leg, the wind fills in and the Friendship Sloops lower their shoulders, exulting in the chance to demonstrate the power of their big, gaffed mainsails. Lee is running just off the stern of Beck, and his Sazerac is actually gaining on her Flying Jib. Beck had all sails up for the drifter that this race was moments before; now the topsail is twisting to port and, from time to time, the port rail is in the water. Beck, who says she is chicken about burying the rail, has no time to enjoy the fragrance of spruce pitch — the sap that bubbles through a spruce tree’s bark and hardens into balls that woodsmen chew — that is blowing from the nearby woods.

Sazerac has no such troubles. Her bowsprit and boom are shorter than they probably were in 1913, and she has no topmast or topsail to overpower her. She plows ahead, sturdy under foot, heeling little, following the contenders to the turn at Owl’s Head, a fine foam curling into her wake, a beautiful fragment of the whole gorgeous spectacle that is the fleet of Friendship Sloops under sail on a blue-sky day off the Maine coast.