Lobstering Under Sail
By: H.A. Burnham
Wooden Boat Magazine
“Welcome aboard,” I say as I see you coming down the gangway. I gesture you into the Friendship sloop’s commodious cockpit. Next comes your introduction to the crew: “This is my son Alden; he is seven.” Alden nods. “And my daughter Perry; she is four.” She covers her face with her blanket and giggles. Then, while I give you the safety rundown, telling you the location of the toilet and lifejackets, etc., Perry goes up forward, sets CHRISSY’s staysail and coils up the halyard. Meanwhile, Alden takes in the lines and gives us a shove, letting the morning north-westerly take us down Harbor Cove. On the way out, as we pull the stops and quarter straps off the mainsail, we point out the different types of boats in our modern fishing fleet.
CHRISSY just sits there awaiting our next move, which in this case will be to raise the main. Before we do this, we let the mainsheet run all the way out so that as we raise the sail with the boom broad off, it will just luff rather than fill and round us up.
We’ll return to our fishing trip shortly. But first, here’s some background on how I acquired my two sloops, and how I came to this business of hauling traps under sail.
Chartering seemed like the thing to do, but it felt odd to me to go sailing without any purpose. I needed something that would challenge me and entertain my passengers while we were underway. Luckily, the answer to my problem soon presented itself, as answers often do.
After swinging around KIM’s stern, John neatly ran the bow of his boat on the marsh to tie her up. Unfortunately, as his bow rose, his stern set down just enough to put the transom under, and within a split second the boat was completely sunk. I can’t remember exactly how the events transpired from that point, but before he moved to North Dakota John sold me his traps with the understanding that we would retrieve them in my boat, under sail. The next season, armed with John’s traps, a nicely printed brochure, and an inexpensive slip, I moved my charter business to Gloucester.
Among the many things I learned was the fact that a 22’ sloop was a little small for taking six people out on lobstering trips. However, once again the answer to a problem presented itself to me: at the same time I realized that KIM (the boat) was a little small for her work, Kim (the wife) mentioned that the Wieglebs had called to say that they had agreed to accept my offer for CHRISSY.
Ernie bought the boat and owned her for the next 47 years, during which time he transformed CHRISSY into one of the most elaborate yachts in the Friendship Sloop Society. With her powder blue topsides, extended cruising cabin, small self-draining cockpit, varnished mahogany trim, and nine bronze winches, CHRISSY looked like the winner she proved to be. Under Ernie’s competent hands and with the high-aspect topsail rig he put on her, CHRISSY won 10 out of her first 18 Friendship sloop races.
Unfortunately, as both Ernie and CHRISSY got older, maintaining the boat became more difficult, and she once again fell into a state of neglect. After Ernie’s death at age 90, my friend Bruce Morang (who had been a good friend of Ernie’s) coerced me into having a look at her.
How I got that boat out of the yard after she had been sitting there for 11 years is a story in itself. The short version is that I rushed up to Maine, hastily hung new garboards, and launched CHRISSY into Friendship Harbor. She promptly sank like a stone, but she took up on the next tide. Then, while I was getting ready to rig her, my parents, who were attending the Friendship sloop regatta in nearby Boothbay, got word of my adventure, dropped their vacation plans, and towed CHRISSY back to Essex with their sloop RESOLUTE.
That spring, between my other jobs and chartering KIM, I jacked CHRISSY’s shape back into her, hewed some donated locust trees into new deadwood, retimbered her below the waterline, and then put some enormous floors on top of the timbers to hold her shape when I let the jacks go. As early summer approached, I discovered that because CHRISSY originally had no auxiliary power (and I had removed her retrofitted engine), she could legally carry up to six passengers without being documented. Of course, only a lunatic would attempt to run scheduled charters without an engine. I began working on her post-haste.
Although CHRISSY had literally been patched up with old junk, she looked good, and she proved to be a remarkable boat even without her engine. Our first voyage was back to Friendship, and it was on the return trip that I noticed her uncanny ability to steer herself. She went all the way from Seguin to Wood Island with no one at the helm. My customers loved CHRISSY’s somewhat excessive character, and by the end of the season she had paid for herself and her repairs four times over.
The reason for laying CHRISSY to is so that she’ll stay put while I take Alden up forward and patiently instruct him while he helps me raise the mainsail. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that we are not moving, I have maintained complete control of the vessel. With the main up, and as CHRISSY is lying side to the wind, I can head her up by trimming in the main, or head her off by straightening the rudder. And when I both straighten the rudder and trim the main, the boat gets immediately underway. From here we make a quick tack and head out past the paint factory toward Ten Pound Island.
The trap we are going to haul for you is called Sarah, named for our cousin; we name all our traps to tell them apart. We have many different types of traps from different areas and eras; some are wire, some are wood. Sarah is a large bow-style double-parlor trap, the type that my friend John (“young John’s” father) calls a “man-killer” because it’s so heavy. Nevertheless these man-killers seem to catch lobsters well, and that is why I am hauling Sarah.
As Sarah’s buoy is among a lot of buoys in fairly open water, I start my approach by heading downwind and then sail clousehauled up toward her. When the buoy is just off the lee bow, I let CHRISSY’s main run out, giving her a lee helm. Then, by countering this with the rudder, I slow the boat before I grab the buoy. Once I have the buoy I use the boat’s remaining momentum to steer up along the length of the buoy line. Jest as the boat comes to a stop (just above the trap, I hope), I throw the rudder hard to leeward. Doing this starts her off the wind while I haul the trap.
Alden deals with the lobsters. He shows you the difference between a male and a female as well as how to gauge them. He then tosses the “shorts” and “eggers” overboard. Next he puts the “keepers” in a bucket of water, explaining that when CHRISSY was fishing commercially she had a built-in wet well for storing the catch. When Alden is done, I bait the trap. Then Perry takes Larry (our rubber lobster) and shows you exactly how the trap works before she pushes the trap over the side. Amazingly, the whole time we have been showing you the trap, we have been oblivious to what CHRISSY is doing. Yet she hasn’t moved. Finished with the trap, I sheet in the main, straighten out the rudder, and head back in.
I don’t want you to think if you have seen one trap hauled from a Friendship sloop that you have seen them all. Between the wind, the water, and the rocks, there are infinite variables involved.
The irony of this realization is that almost in spite of the type’s best qualities, the Friendship sloop’s revival was largely as a racing class. The difference between sailing a lobsterboat and lobstering from a sailboat may seem to be a subtle one. However, having seen the boats from both perspectives, I can only look back and laugh at the seriousness with which I once raced Friendship sloops.