Lobstering Under Sail

The Timeless Virtues of the Friendship Sloop
By: H.A. Burnham
Wooden Boat Magazine
Issue #161
July/August 2001

Page One

Let’s assume we’re going lobstering. Let’s assume you are meeting me at Gloucester’s Saint Peter’s Square public landing at 9:00a.m. on a typical Massachusetts summer day. When you get there, you see that my kids and I have brought CHRISSY in from her mooring, backed her in alongside the float, and picked up some bait for our trip.

“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.

As we get into a little more open water off the Cape Pond Ice factory, we will lay CHRISSY to in preparation for raising the main. “Lay to” means stop, side to the wind; to execute this maneuver we just sheet in the staysail and throw the rudder up. Although we could lay to on either tack, this time we will turn to port, away from Cape Pond Ice. What happens then is that CHRISSY comes around to a heading about seven points off the wind and just sits there, pointed toward the Coast Guard station. Because CHRISSY’s mast is located far forward on her hull, she cannot come through the wind without a good deal of headway and, as we have slowed her in our turn, she will never make it. At the same time, she cannot fall off either, because as her staysail fills, it starts her moving slowly ahead, rounding her up, and spilling wind from the staysail. So with no other options,

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.

As a boy, I went from a dory to a peapod to a catboat to a Muscongus Bay sloop to a Friendship sloop, and most of these boats didn’t have engines. So although I didn’t even know what this “laying to” maneuver was called, I instinctively found myself using it for handling sail and reefing. I discovered the virtue of the Friendship sloop as a fishing boat in a similar way. For the past ten years, I’ve taken passengers out hauling traps, and over those years I’ve learned that the Friendship sloop is an ideal one for doing this work under sail. And I’ve learned, as I’ll explain shortly, that one of this sloop’s greatest attributes, in addition to its speed and its maneuverability, is its simple ability to stop dead in the water with the sails still raised.

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.

Page Two

When I started building my first sloop, a 22-footer, in 1990 at my shop in Essex, I should have listened to my father, who advised me to make her 6 feet longer. At the time, however, there was a lot I didn’t know. I was a merchant mariner back then, and I didn’t know that between the foreign voyages I was making and the distracting activities I was engaged in at home, it would be two years before I finished that boat. I didn’t know that by the time the boat was finished I would be married to the girl I had begun building it to sail away from. And I didn’t know when I got married that Kim (the bride) would get seasick the minute she stepped aboard KIM (the boat). Once I figured all this out, I know I was going to need an excuse to go sailing, and what better excuse could there be than to make sailing a part of my livelihood.

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.

As I remember, I was crawling out of KIM’s lazarette one day when I heard my neighbor’s motor sputtering. At the time, “young John” was attempting to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as a commercial lobsterman. He had bought a new motor for his skiff, made himself a dandy little winch, and was really going at it. Unfortunately, things were not going well for him that day, as his new motor was lying broken in the bottom of his boat and the borrowed motor he had on the stern was barely running on one cylinder. Being so close to home, it would seem John’s troubles were about over, but this was not the case.

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.

I often laugh at the fact that when I began this venture, all I know about lobstering was that fishermen tended to keep their traps in the vicinity of the rocks. Although I doubt that this “knowledge” increased my catch, it certainly expedited the learning process and made me appreciate the fact that I had built a rugged boat. On the other had, the size of my catch, or lack thereof, has never mattered to me, as I have only lobstered to entertain my passengers. What is more, those passengers seemed as entertained at watching me learn as they would have been had I known enough to teach them.

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.

Page Three

CHRISSY is a sloop built by Charles Morse in Friendship, Maine, around 1910. She had a long career in the fisheries, and then Mr. J.W. Balano (her owner at the time) went to serve in World War II; during the war, CHRISSY was laid up. Although suffering from neglect, toward the end of the war CHRISSY caught the eye of Mr. Ernst “Ernie” Wiegleb who saw something more in her than a humble little fishing vessel.

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.

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. In fact, despite her yachty trimmings, I must say that my first impression of CHRISSY was that she was the most hogged and one of the ugliest Friendships I had ever seen in my life. Nevertheless, with Bruce’s relentless encouragement, I told the Wieglebs that I would give them a token sum for CHRISSY’s hardware and take the old wreck out of their yard. At the time, I was half hoping they would refuse, but Bruce told them that if they sold me the boat, I would sail it, and he proved to be right.

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.

Once we got CHRISSY home, I dragged her up in the creek beside our shop and let her sink there while I went back to running charters from KIM. When the charter season ended, I hauled CHRISSY up out of the water and took the lines from her hull. I carried the resulting off-sets with me on my last trip in the Merchant Marine, hoping upon my return home to rebuild CHRISSY and get her inspected to carry more than six passengers. While I was on that trip, I studied the Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to small passenger vessels and prepared a complete set of drawings to submit to the Coast Guard. Although it turned out to be impractical to get CHRISSY certified, the experience I gained doing those drawings would later prove to be an essential part of my education.

Page Four

On the other hand, I don’t value the feelings I had when I got off that ship and learned that since CHRISSY didn’t have a builder’s certificate, I couldn’t document her for coastwise trade without an act of Congress. Also, I was told that because CHRISSY wasn’t documented, I couldn’t use her commercially. Luckily, in the eyes of my baby boy all of this meant nothing, and so when his mother headed back to school, Alden and I started patching CHRISSY together with no idea where it would lead us.

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.

In an absolute fury one afternoon, using 16-penny spikes, a Sawzall, and a pile of wood from a broken-up Chinese junk, I shortened CHRISSY’s cabin, put in bulkheads, extended her cockpit seats to a new bridge deck, built a new working platform, and even installed a bilge pump. Then, over the next few days, while I was hanging new garboards and broadstrakes, a bunch of friends and relatives showed up and slathered CHRISSY from top to bottom with paint.

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.

Over the years since, CHRISSY and I have hauled a lot of traps together and taken thousands of people with us. As time afforded, I have sporadically done a great deal to improve her and to restore her to the way she looked as a fishing smack. Some of these improvements included retopping her and replacing her interior, making a new set of spars and sails, and installing a number of used engines. In mentioning the engines, I should also mention that with the help of Senator John Kerry, Congress passed special legislation allowing CHRISSY to be documented and making it legal for her to have a power plant. Now, back to our fishing trip.

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.

Page Five

You may have noticed that I keep a reef in the main, as this makes CHRISSY a lot more manageable. In case you are wondering, we use the jib for long passages only, not when hauling traps. As we approach Ten Pound Island and I get my bib out, Alden gets the gaff off the cabintop and Perry tells you that our buoy colors are red, green and yellow. Perry then points out our identification buoy that hangs from the starboard shrouds.

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.

When hauling a trap by hand from a sailboat in the proximity of other fishermen’s trawls, it is important to haul it straight up; dragging the trap will snag it in someone else’s gear. If all goes well, just about the time we get the trap on deck, the boat has reached that heading seven points off the wind where we can throw the rudder up and lay CHRISSY to while we tend to 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.

However, having seen one trap tended from a Friendship sloop, you have seen the basic principles. You have also seen that the whole process takes about three minutes from approaching the buoy to again getting underway. Now take into consideration the fact that may sloops fished upwards of 60 traps (some as many as 150). It is immediately apparent that the sloops’ ability to lay to – to sit over their gear – was as important to those who used them for lobstering as was their ability to sail fast. Knowing this is very important, for without this knowledge no one could ever fully appreciate the genius of the Muscongus Bay builders. That is the clincher: contrary to everything our modern sailing culture teaches us, these boats were designed to stop.

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.

The End