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The eyes of an old-car enthusiast grow moist behind his goggles when he sees a spitting Stutz Bearcat or a hissing Stanley Steamer struggle into action. When a bug on period airplanes watches a Spad or an early Curtiss waddling down a runway, his anxious heart leaps up as if to help the oldtimer into the air. When a salt-rimed devotee of antique watercraft sees a half-century-old Friendship sloop, such as the one pictured here, picking her way—like an old lady bound for church—past the fiber-glass martini palaces of a modern harbor, his impulse is to offer a gentlemanly arm. And an arm, right up to the shoulder, is just about what the devotee must be prepared to give if he has any notion of becoming such an old lady's lover, for the boats that cost about $400 when they were first built in Friendship, Me. back in the 1890s cannot be duplicated today for less than $10,000. To get one of the originals built by Wilbur Morse or his brothers, you pay whatever the current owner may see fit to ask, if indeed he is willing to sell at all.
Those sturdy, sea-kindly workboats with their broad beams, deep keels and graceful clipper-ship-type bows and bowsprits were designed as "sailing wheelbarrows" to bring the lobster catch in from the traps on the bottom of Maine's bays. They were built with oak timbers to fight nasty weather. A Friendship sometimes tends to be leaky and wet, but attempting to doctor her leaks only confuses her; she prefers to fix them herself, tightening her seams like a lady adjusting a corset for greater comfort. Why, you ask, should anyone buy, repair or attempt to duplicate such a crusty old spinster, particularly when she may—like her contemporary, the One Hoss Shay—collapse in a heap from sheer old age? It's hard to say, but many do. It is probably the Friendship's pristine beauty that seduces them. Under sail, she saunters along with the ungirdled gait of a fisher girl impudently seeking a date. Her trail boards are caught around her bosom like an old-fashioned shawl, with the eagle's head worn as a brooch at the center. Her magnificently broad afterdeck was made that way, of course, to get the heavy lobster traps inboard with minimum heave, but it looks like a veranda.
The great gift of the Friendship is that she stops firmly and stands still. There is some dispute about the best way to hold her, untended, on a running tide. The mainsail, with its long overhanging boom, is loosed amidships, everyone agrees, but there is sharp disagreement as to whether the jib should be freed or sheeted in to leeward to correct the tendency of the mainsail to make her fall off. LeRoy Carter, a 71-year-old lobsterman of Friendship, told Writer Lew Dietz a few years ago, "I owned one of Morse's boats back around 1910. It wasn't unusual to see 50 or more in the harbor either lobstering, handlining or trawling. You'd be surprised how nice those sloops worked tending traps. I'd just luff up to a buoy and let the jib sheet go while I hauled and baited up. Then off I'd go again. Those boats were just as docile as a milk wagon's horse while you hauled. When it came time to run for home, they ran."
An easy way to start a rain of pain in Maine is to ask which Morse actually invented the Friendship, the four brothers Wilbur, Charles, Jonah and Albion of Bremen Island in Muscongus Bay or the offside Morses, Warren and his brothers Cornelius and Edward, who lived on Morse Island. They all built sloops, and their womenfolk, some of whom survive, still nurture their credits.
It is impossible also to exclude two other clans, the Carters and McClains, who also built on Bremen Island, the earliest birthplace among the shipyards scattered through Muscongus Bay.
Actually, the Friendship's origins are transatlantic. In the 1870s, when Wilbur Morse was a young fisherman fretting at the inadequate longboat rig passed down in Maine from the days of Captain John Smith's mapmaking excursions, Portuguese fishermen used to work the Grand Banks the way the Soviet motor ships do today. All too often they would race and beat the Yankees to the nearest big market in Gloucester, Mass. One day a Portugee was wrecked near Gloucester. The Muscongus Yankees, seeing her deserted, landed nearby and measured her lines. They observed how her mast was placed far forward, only a fifth of the length from the bow, placing the center of effort of the sails well forward.
Wilbur moved over to Friendship and started a yard of his own to build boats patterned after the Portugees. At first his brother Charles was with him. But Charles had a tiff with the selectmen, loaded his tools and gear on a scow and took the whole kit 15 miles up-creek to Thomaston, where his yard still survives under the management of another Morse, Charles's grandson, Roger.
Wilbur, who was long on salesmanship, often had five boats building at once on a kind of assembly line. He sometimes turned out 26 boats in a year. The real worker in the background was his brother Jonah, who joined him at 19, worked for years and finally departed in 1923 to set up his own yard at Damariscotta. Nearly everybody agrees that the broad-faced, spectacled Wilbur, a strong 6-footer, was the seminal influence on the others. He defined a Friendship sloop as "a sloop built in Friendship, Maine by Wilbur Morse." He was a stern boss, paid his carpenters 15� an hour and permitted no idle talk during working hours.
Revered relics are usually surrounded by a lot of antiquarian gabble, but not Friendships. A no-nonsense attitude still prevails in the town of their origin. Nevertheless, a Friendship sloop has an insidious way of running her four-foot bowsprit, decorated trail boards, eagle, bobstay and all so deep into your heart that you are harpooned for life. "You can see that moment of surrender; they get a helpless look in their eyes," says an ex-owner who managed to kick Friendships only because his shoulders were getting curved from pumping.
I understand a collector's weakness for the Friendship because it felled me exactly 32 years ago in a greasy inlet of Piraeus in the Aegean Sea. From Gloucester to Greece is some 6,000 miles, but the 36-foot Friendship Ochito had made it in a mere two years, guided by a tough, wiry architect from Boston named John Edward Crowley. Crowley, a Harvard man not overly addicted to superlatives, called his gray antique "the slowest yacht in the Atlantic and the fastest in the Mediterranean."