When nearly 20 Friendship sloops set out for the starting line off Rockland, Maine, this past summer, they didn’t just start milling about in preparation for the gun. Instead, they gathered together beyond the breakwater so a Friendship Sloop Society member could scatter the ashes of her late parents, per her father’s wishes. After a brief ceremony, the fleet turned back toward the starting line to begin three days of racing as part of the 60th annual Friendship Sloop Homecoming Days regatta.
Bringing together like-minded sailors and the sloops they love, the event provides the opportunity for a yearly gathering of the Friendship Sloop Society (FSS—fss.org), founded in 1961—a homecoming of sorts for many of the participants, who began taking part when they were toddlers in life jackets.
“When the event started in the 1960s, we didn’t expect for it to go on for 60 years,” says Carolyn Zuber, whose family has owned the 32ft, 119-year-old Gladiator since 1966. “What it has become is a community of sailors. There are lots of traditional boats, and when these are well sailed they are beautiful. You don’t have to be born into it, but people also don’t come to this lightly.”
“The excitement, when it began in 1961 was not only for the racing,” agrees boatbuilder and National Heritage Fellow Harold Burnham, who began sailing to Friendship with his parents, siblings and later his children starting in the late 1960s. “The event seemed to capture the country’s attention as people at that time were looking back and wanted to preserve things that were disappearing…Thousands of people came from all over the coast, and many remember when in 1962, a blue yawl came sailing through Friendship harbor to see the races and on board it was President John F. Kennedy... That was a really big deal for the President to show up.”
Sixty years later, the FSS’s commitment to the preservation of the historic sloops and the excitement they generate endures as the sloop has remained an icon of Maine’s maritime heritage. In a case of history repeating itself, in 2010 no less a personage than President Barack Obama was on hand to check out the precursor event to Friendship Sloop Homecoming, the Southwest Harbor Rendezvous Race, held the week before. Yet another example of how the appeal of these kinds of boats has, if anything, only become all the greater in recent years.
The attraction of the Friendship sloop design is due in large part to the combination of its simplicity and robust build quality. When the boats were first built in the late 1800s in Friendship, Maine, as a type of working boat, designer-builders like Wilbur Morse chose steam-bent rather than sawn frames with soft wood planking, thereby creating a lightly constructed boat that was both seakindly and capable of standing up to plenty of wear and tear. In the years since, the design has lent itself to the launching of a number of home-built and refurbished sloops that in turn have added yet more families—and competitors—to the annual homecoming races.
“I was a very young child in 1961 when the Friendship sloop Eagle came into my yard. It was not long after that my father, Don Huston, and his brothers and family attended their first Friendship Sloop Homecoming in 1969,” says Diane Fassak who most recently served as commodore of the FSS. “Many of the enthusiasts in those days were World War II veterans or had been in the Navy. For that reason, the FSS has always been full of very good sailors. As many of them were also working as engineers, they were drawn to the function and design of the sloops.”
The class also benefited from the expertise of local shipwrights like National Heritage fellow Ralph Stanley of Southwest Harbor, Maine. Stanley, who passed away at age 92 this past December, is credited with building some of the most beautiful Friendship sloops around. At that 2021 Homecoming Days regatta, he said he still especially loves seeing one of his own sloops win the race.
“Although the Friendship sloop was originally designed to stop and sit on a lobster pot, among those of us who grew up on Friendship sloops in the ‘60s and ‘70s and still race today, we really learned how to make a traditional boat sail fast,” says Burnham. “This skill is evident during our homecoming races. If you put any of these Friendship sloop sailors from the generation I grew up with and allow them to fiddle with a traditional rig, they can make a boat of any kind sail faster. It is one of the reasons the Cronin’s Tannis (Sail #7 and one of the oldest boats in the fleet) is able to beat so many classic boats at events like the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. All eight children are sought-after for their sailing skills.”
Another mariner who quickly found himself hooked by the beauty and durability of the original wooden Friendship sloops was the late boatbuilder Jarvis Newman, now credited with building 100 Friendship sloops in fiberglass.
As a young man working at General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the 1960s, Newman happened to be on vacation with his family when he heard there was going to be a gathering of Friendship sloops and decided to see what it was all about. He and his wife, Susan, immediately fell in love with the boats and soon became owners of the 31ft Dictator, sail #2, built in 1904, which he went on to use as a mold for a fiberglass boat matching the exact displacement of the original. He did the same thing with a Ralph Stanley-built wooden 25-footer to create a plug for yet another hull and deck mold. It goes without saying that despite his success with the two designs, Newman remained a fan of wooden Friendship sloops as well: as is clearly evident in the 1982 documentary film The Friendship Sloop—A Heritage Retained, which features Stanley building a wooden sloop and Newman building a fiberglass one.
Meanwhile, up in Maine, the FSS’s annual regatta continued to take place in the town of Friendship from 1961 to 1982, when it moved to Boothbay for 25 years before relocating to the town of Rockland, where it takes place today.
“In a sense, we are basically a one-design fleet, with its public domain and boatbuilding plans,” says Miff Lauriat, who owns the Jarvis Newman built fiberglass 25ft Salatia, which was built by Newman for his father in 1969. “What I really like, having come here for 50 years, is that although a boat like mine is 52-years-old it is competitive sailing against similar fiberglass boats that are newer and are all sailing well. One of the things I appreciate is that when people really know how to sail the boat, we can have a great race.”
Sharing a Way of Life
In the same way many sloops remain in the family, newcomers to a sloop-owning clan will often help pass the interest and passion to the next generation as well. For Cindy Pendleton, for example, marrying Bill Cronin, one of eight Cronin siblings, also meant being introduced into a family of Friendship sloop sailors. This connection in turn soon resulted in her becoming a Friendship sloop sailor herself. “I am lucky to be married to someone who loves sailing as much as I do,” Cindy says, “and because I worked on traditionally rigged boats earlier in my life, I love being on one.”
Today, the couple have two college-aged children and share the aforementioned 38ft Tannis, built in 1937 with the rest of their large family. In addition to owning Tannis for 45-years, the Cronins, a clan of master carpenters and the owners Cronin Cabinets, also just spruced her up with an extensive rebuild.
“People used to say to us, ‘Do the kids like it?’” Cindy says. “Well, they didn’t really have a choice as we were all going sailing. There are other families whose kids don’t participate, but ours both like sailing, and it becomes a happy time for us. My son has decided he is going to build a Friendship sloop of his own one day, and my daughter has decided she is going to take over Tannis and be in charge of her when she gets older.”
Similarly, Julia Merrill of Portland, Maine, has been coming to race with her husband, her children and her brother-in-law and his wife for over 30 years. “For most of our married lives, we’d get together for the races each July,” says Julia, who sails the 25ft Celebration, built by Jarvis Newman in 1980. “My sister-in- law and I varnish the spars together, and we all help get the boat ready for the event. Our grown children come too, and the cousins are now old enough to bring their children. People are serious about racing here, but most of all they want to see their friends and family. We are also very welcoming to new people who soon become a part of the fleet.”
Not surprisingly, given how strongly Friendship sloop owners feel about their boats, in the event it comes time for a Friendship sloop to change hands it is often as much a matter of a search by the current owner for the right buyer, as it is a buyer finding the right boat. Such was the case for Richard and Karen Schwartz of Portland, Maine, who recently took possession of the 28ft Freedom, built by Ralph Stanley in 1976 for a Washington Post correspondent by the name of Maldwin Drummond in the wake of Drummond’s being captured in Vietnam while covering the war there. While he was a prisoner, Drummond had promised himself that if he was ever able to get home again, he was going to get himself a Friendship sloop. Now, after a lifetime of sailing the boat he’d promised himself back in Vietnam, the search was on for the next owner, and for obvious reasons Drummond wanted to make sure it was the right one.
“After we met Mr. Drummond, we learned he must have approved of us. That was when we knew we were Friendship sloop owners,” Richard says. “We knew that all Friendship sloop owners want them to be taken care of, and that is what we have done,” he adds. To this end Richard and Karen have also dutifully attended the FSS Homecoming Days regatta for the past four years.
“When we first came to this group, we were a little intimidated by the size of the crowd and the fact that at first it feels a bit like it is a closed group,” he says. “Very quickly, though, you feel like you are part of a big family. It is an unbelievable feeling.”
A Heritage Retained
In the 200-page book Lasting Friendships, published by the FSS, there is a 100-page section called the “Catalog of Sloops.” In it is a listing of the 283 boats now registered with the FSS along with the year “the boat took possession of its current owner.” The list is the work of John Wojcik, who is in his mid 70s and is the official registrar of the FSS. Like many, he and his wife, Carole, depart southern Massachusetts each July on board their 25ft Banshee to make the trip to mid-coastal Maine as part of what they call the “Buzzard’s Bay” group Friendship sloop sailors.
“Now that I am retired, we take our time getting there and back. We logged 700 miles this summer with our group getting to and from the rendezvous,” Wojcik says. As registrar, he adds, his mission is to try and keep track of every Friendship sloop now in existence—a task that becomes increasingly difficult as the participating fleet continues to dwindle despite its members’ best efforts.
“One of the biggest problems we have is trying to keep track of them,” Wojcik says. “They are such unique boats, and we want to know how or where they are and if they still exist. We always offer new owners’ membership to the FSS and simply ask them to register them with us. But it is a never-ending battle to find out where they are today.”
That said, according to Wojcik attendance at the Homecoming Days event remains encouragingly strong despite the cost of ownership and increasingly hectic pace of life in this the 21st century. “When I was commodore of the FSS 30 years ago I used to worry that it would all end under my watch. But here it is 30 years later, and we are still holding steady.”
As for Fassak, who recently handed over the baton of FSS leadership to Victor and Nancy Goulding, owners of Inherit the Wind, she says she thinks the enduring strength of the class is in many ways the result of the can-do attitude of its members. “We have those family dynamics, and we all carry certain roles in this society,” she says. “We also have a lot of octogenarians in our society who are very committed to the FSS. Sometimes as commodore, I had to remind them that I am no longer nine-years-old, but that I am, in fact, a grandmother now.” Fassak adds that as FSS members age, they think a lot about the logistics, cost and time constraints of owning a sloop and attending Homecoming Days. “To have a non-profit group like this we don’t have anything to sell, but people still show up and remain drawn to this,” she says.
Nonetheless, if history is any guide, it’s a safe bet these hardy little boats and the equally hardy sailors who own and care for them aren’t going anywhere soon.
What Makes a Friendship?
My father, Charles Burnham, who built two friendship sloops, described the Friendship sloop as a one-masted schooner, and it is well known that many of the features we recognize as characteristic of “Friendship sloops” were copied from the fishing schooner models the original builders of the sloops would have been well acquainted with—these being the decorated clipper bows, beautiful elliptical transoms and lofty gaff rigs.
The genius of the Mascongus Bay builders who created the type is that they worked those features into a smaller boat (ranging from 23-45ft in length) that was perfect for Maine’s inshore fisheries and easy to build from cheap readily available materials. Lightly constructed of pine boards on bent oak frames, the original Friendship sloops derived much of their strength from their relatively heavy keel structures and a “shelf” joining the hull to the deck made up of heavy oak planks scarfed together around the sheer. While this feature would have been excessive on a yacht that was decked over, on a Friendship sloop that is open from the mast partners to the tiller head at the stern it is a necessity to provide the hull with the necessary stiffness.
The rig is also a thing of genius. While it is true that sloops sail a little better with their masts stepped farther aft, the Friendship sloops were designed for lobstering and fishing, so it was not only important that they go but that they be able to stop and lay-to on the fishing gear. Having the mast where it is means the sloops’ huge mains can be slacked out as the gear is approached, moving the balance forward and requiring the rudder to be put up just to keep her on course. This stops the boat and keeps it steady. Once the gear is tended, simply by straightening the rudder and hauling the sail back in, the boat is off to the next trap.
In the end, many of the same features that made the sloop popular for fishermen in Maine make them great for amateur builders, and people from all over have had a great time knocking them together. Moreover, to those of us who build them, those decorated clipper bows and beautiful elliptical transoms are as much a source of inspiration today as they were for the builders of old, who often signed their work as evidence of the pride they took in their craftsmanship.— Capt. Harold Burnham
Ed Note: in addition to being a National Heritage Fellow, Capt. Burnham is the owner of Burnham Boat Building & Design in Essex, Massachusetts, and Maritime Heritage Charters, which operates the schooners Ardelle and Isabella out of Gloucester. He and his partner, Mary Kay Taylor, are also rehabilitating the 80ft 1911 fishing schooner Sylvina W. Beal, which will soon join the other schooners in their fleet. For more information, visit maritimeheritagecharters.com