A Man and His Boat
by Bernard MacKenzie
I found my Friendship Sloop one wintry afternoon in 1951, sitting in a crowded boat yard at Onset, Mass. Her name was Voyager. She had been shored up and hastily covered with odd pieces of canvas many months before. Snow was still lying about in patches as my partner Frank Westerhoff and I pulled back the cover revealing the lovely sheer of her deck underneath. Perhaps it was this very act that sold us on the old dowager, but whatever it was, we gazed at her hull and thought she looked like a 'Queen on a throne' amongst the lesser shapes of modern plywood boats that were stacked around her. Voyager measured 29 ft. overall, 9 ft., 6 in. beam with draft of 4 ft. 10 in. The cutwater was quite fine with pronounced hollow at the waterline sweeping out to the firmness of her bilges and gradually receding into a flat run towards the elliptical transom. The proud clipper bow still bore the name of "Charles Morse, Builder, Friendship, Me."
Perhaps if some knowledgeable friend had come along and tried to make us listen to reason, emphasizing that we were buying a boat that was built in Teddie Roosevelt's era, we might have listened, but I doubt it. Once we climbed that ladder to her deck, we were hopelessly lost. It didn't make any difference to us that the cockpit was a jumble of loose boards and the accommodations were little better than when the fish shared the hold, or that the gaff mainsail was in patches and the jibs black with mildew. To two bachelors in their twenties, Voyager was just what we had been looking for as we crawled over every aging Friendship from Marblehead to Cape Cod. An hour later we were at the owner's home to sign the Bill-of-sale.
Through the happiness of the occasion, I noticed the man's wife and children were in tears. This was my first insight into the feelings these sloops engender. I thought about this later, wishing that I knew the full history of all the generations that had owned this boat. How many had reacted in like manner when she was sold? Who were the fishermen that owned her before the curse of gasoline engines, and where were the children that grew up on this boat and learned to sail and care for her?
That day our minds were full of dreams of how we would fix up Voyager and sail with comfort to far off ports, and how, snug in the cabin after a blow, we would be warmed by the old fashioned shipmate stove, and plan new adventures together.
Frank and I knew little about sailing and less about repairing boats, but after the old auxiliary engine had ground itself to pieces in the bilge, Voyager showed us how to sail. Our education came the hard way and she forgave us the many jibes, groundings, bad landings and squalls that she suffered at our hands.
Later, Frank met a younger bride and left me alone with my sloop. Our association became more serious as I replaced mast, sails, motor, cockpit, and refitted the interior of the cabin. Decks required fiberglassing and new rigging was spliced. After this, the old girl seemed to have a new lease on life and no longer won the snail's cup in the annual regatta.
The era of the antiseptic-looking plastic boats had begun. They were beginning to dot our harbors, drumming out old wooden boats like Voyager with a tattoo of steel halyards against their aluminum masts. These were boats without souls: cast in molds like teacups and built without the 'skill and honesty of good shipwrights. I would always look for the soap dish when I climbed into their round, slick cockpits. Surely the fine history and traditions of American yachting were not going to come to this. Somewhere I thought there must be other sailing men that understood the beauty of a well-designed and constructed vessel. Joe Richards and Howard Chapelle were with me, but the fact remained that, outside of the little town of Friendship, not a real Friendship Sloop had been built in the last thirty years.
Nine years later, sailing had become a way of life, and Voyager had made many friends cruising westward to Nantucket and Newport, and eastward to New Hampshire and Maine. The people were more interesting than the harbors. They would row out to us at anchor and give off sighs of pleasure when I acknowledged that she was a Morse boat. It was always the same interest everywhere we went. Finally, I realized they were in pursuit of a legend; the precious intangible commodity of the distant past that this vintage craft symbolized.
I often wondered if this nebulous legend could be stirred to reality. Perhaps if I could reach other sloop owners - could get a few of them to sail back to the birthplace of Friendships, others would see that here was the perfect cruising boat; as much at home in a gale at sea as she was ghosting along in a ladies breeze. How to reach them? How to make them see the possibilities? I was pondering this problem when the 1960 Boston Power Squadron race for Auxiliaries gave me the answer.
It was Saturday, September 17th in Boston Harbor and we were hopelessly outclassed by sixteen large, modern Marconi-rigged sloops and a few ocean racers. It was blowing northeast, and white-caps were beginning to form. The larger boats were rounding a windward mark and all the others were privileged to start for home under this handicap system.
Running downwind, our position looked good. We had passed most of the smaller auxiliaries, but those spinnakers blossoming astern spelled real trouble. We had no spinnaker aboard Voyager, only a huge gaff mainsail like those used to get the fish to market long ago. Could we hold out with eight miles to go? We kept an eye on a blue-hulled splinter astern which was slowly closing the gap. That was Contessa. Then a touch of luck! The wind increased. We drove with a comber at our bow and a quarter-beam wave under our stern, signaling that this was hull speed and she would go no faster. We had to come on a reach to follow the course between two islands when BANG! our jib split from peak to clew!
It took all three of the crew: Jean Sullivan, Bob Brown and myself to get this down and another set, while our race observer steered, eating humble pie for saying earlier that he thought Friendships were logy! Due to the delay with the jib, one of the big fellows was right on top of us, but going through the gut his parachute pulled him over, right down to the water. He would come up with tons of water pouring out of his chute, only to have it immersed again.
Running free in Quincy Bay, we were actually gaining on the fleet and we opened up a half mile lead not having to worry about spinnakers. The crew was joyous as we approached the lonely committee boat, having clocked a seven knots between the last two buoys.
The flash of the cannon cut through the stillness of the autumn afternoon, and its echoes even blew away the cobwebs down at Friendship.