A homecoming 50 years in the making
Friendship sloops and the people who love them
celebrate a half-century of the boats that bring families together
By Laurie Fullerton
The 50th year of the Friendship sloop homecoming days were held in the city of Rockland, Maine, in July when more than 30 Friendship sloops gathered to both honor a milestone and get out on the water for three days of competitive racing. In a location where sailing conditions can be rugged and many of the sloops are from 50 to nearly 100 years old, the race organizers of this unique regatta have come to expect some damage. This year was no exception as the first day of racing featured winds gusting to 40 knots, a man overboard, and one boat, the 38-foot Tannis built in 1937, springing a major leak and retiring.
Although some sailing circles couldn't cope with these odds, what happened to Tannis is not unusual in the Friendship Sloop Society. The society is made up of all types of Friendship sloops (and people for that matter)-from yard-maintained yachts, to backyard-built boats, to dedicated families giving their all just to keep an old sloop going. Over the 50 years of racing together, there have been many cases of sprung garboards, popped planks, broken masts, topmasts and bowsprits. And even a relatively new vessel once sailed right to the bottom with everything up. This year, it just happened to be Tannis' turn. Owned for nearly 50 years by the Cronin family of Charlton, Massachusetts, Tannis had always been a winning boat. But the 50th anniversary event just did her in. With water pouring through her planks, ceiling, and even the kitchen stove, Tannis finally had had enough.
"Four of my children learned to walk at different times while we were on board Tannis, and when the kids were little the life jackets were their pillows," said Mary Cronin, mother of eight and grandmother to 15, who along with her family have been coming to the Friendship Sloop days for 43 years. Jack Cronin, the family patriarch, has, in the past few years, given the helm over to his adult children. His pride got the best of him at the awards ceremony this year after Tannis limped back to port. "See what happens when you put your kids in charge!" he shouted, but then added with a wide grin, "The Tannis will be back next year!" At press time, the talented Cronin clan, who operate Cronin Cabinets in Charlton, had Tannis back home, gutted and were completely rebuilding her from the inside out.
The slow evolution of the Friendship sloop from working vessel to sailing yacht began during the late 1800s to early 1900s, when the Friendship sloop became a favorite of summer visitors to exclusive Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island. The clipper bows and lofty gaff rigs made the sloops appealing to the eye. The well-to-do were just beginning to pursue sailboat racing as a pastime, so for a few weeks each summer they chartered the sloops from the local lobster fishermen.
"The Friendship sloop was originally a working lobster boat," said national heritage fellow and retired boatbuilder Ralph Stanley of Southwest Harbor, Maine, whose son, Richard Stanley, has continued the tradition of building Friendship sloops. "But, they are also a great racing and cruising boat and it was during those summer races in the 1900s that yacht enthusiasts began to understand and appreciate how easy they are to handle.
"When I started building them for other people and the fleet started to grow, a man named Bill Pendleton said, 'You should build a Friendship sloop for yourself too, even if you have to go without something.' So, I did."
As they became obsolete as fishing vessels, hundreds of sloops were converted first to indigenous boats and later to recreational or racing boats. The roots of this unique Maine sloop and its overall form appealed to those early members of the Friendship Sloop Society and, in 1961, sloop owner Bernie MacKenzie of Scituate, Massachusetts, initiated the idea of a Friendship sloop gathering on Muscongus Bay (near Friendship) and the idea took off.
"Friendship sloops are honest working vessels from the age of sail developed over time from readily available materials for lobstering and fishing on the coast of Maine," said Harold Burnham of Essex, owner of several sloops. His parents Charles and Maria Burnham built their sloop Resolute in 1973. "It is proof that the form that follows function is one of the most graceful afloat and the sloops survival into the modern era is due largely to individuals who appreciate that honest form."
For many years, the Friendship Sloop Days in Friendship drew thousands of spectators, including the late president John F. Kennedy, who reportedly sailed through the fleet to see the spectacle in 1962. Today, the Friendship sloop remains the state's official indigenous vessel and is a point of pride all along the coast.
Yet, with the sloops revival, replicas were built throughout this country, and the gatherings in Friendship, Maine, through the 1960s, 1970s up to the mid-1980s became like a wooden-boat Woodstock. Each year the town swelled beyond capacity, with thousands of people descending on the waterfront to watch the races, and the parties got to be a bit wild.
By the mid-1980s, the homecoming days were getting out of hand and it was decided that the event should move and eventually it settled in Rockland, Maine, where it is held now. Although the town and society elders felt the move was a good idea at the time, the event never again saw the numbers of spectators or participants.
"Every family has its roots and our roots are in Friendship," said one society member during this year's event. "When we were in the town where it all started, the feeling was so unique. We were going into the same docks the lobstermen were going into and learning about their lives," said John Wojcik, who owns Banshee, a fiberglass sloop built by Jarvis Newman in 1978 that Wojcik fitted out entirely himself. "There were no nearby shops or restaurants in Friendship then and in the morning a bread truck would come down and sell us bread or other groceries. It was a simpler time and basically Friendship was set in a different era altogether."
Because the participants often cruised the Maine coast en route and on their way back from the event, it became customary during the races that everyone got a ride whether it be the family dog, the 5-year-old, the summer babysitter or the visiting cousins. Fifty years later, many of the babies are now adults bringing their own children to the races. Although the homecoming days in Rockland remain a cherished event for the Friendship Sloop Society, for Kristen Cronin, who along with her husband and outgoing commodore Wayne Cronin organized the 50th anniversary event, the absence of 20-, 30- and even 40-year-olds getting involved in the event today is a concern. Although many of the original sloops from the 1920s still race and society members themselves are often the ones to build new ones or repair the wooden vessels, the skilled shipwrights like Harold Burnham, Richard Stanley, or Bill and Jeff Cronin met as boys during the homecoming days and are now in their mid-40s.
"A lot of our members are getting older and even the younger members who participate in our society are getting old," Cronin said. "I believe this absence is due in part to our overall society as the values and traditions that bound us together are passing. There are still family values out there, of course, but the idea of whole families spending weeks together as the Cronins or the Burnhams did, sailing to Maine and cruising for weeks in an enclosed space like a Friendship sloop, is not undertaken today as it once was. Yet, it is one of the best experiences a family can have and it has shaped their lives."
Despite the diminishing numbers of boats and families attending the event, many continue to make the pilgrimage each year to the Rockland docks, and will continue to do so because for them there is no place like home.
"I don't even sail," said Penny Richards, whose late father and journalist Bruce Morang of Reading, Massachusetts, sailed for many years aboard the sloop Chrissy and in the Maine tradition, wrote newspaper columns about Friendship sloops and its sailors. "But, I have been coming to the Friendship sloop homecomings since 1964 and I just can't imagine my life without these people."