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In the fishing and lobstering communities of Friendship and Bremen, on the coast of Maine, sometime in the early 1880’s, there originated the idea of a gaff-rigged sloop for hauling lobsters and for commercial coastal fishing. This smallish sailing vessel, called the Friendship sloop, was based on the design of the fishing ketches that sailed out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Gloucester boats had been fishing the Georges Bank just below Newfoundland, for some 20 to 25 years prior, and were distinctly rigged for the high winds and heavy seas of the open ocean.
The Friendship sloop is a small single-masted sailing vessel with a fore-and-aft mounted, four-cornered sail, with, occasionally, a topmast, and fore-sails such as a jib and flying jib. A distinguishing feature of the sloop is that the mast is set back from the bow approximately one-third of the vessel’s length. The gaff-rig is a spar, or gaff, from which the top side of the mainsail is hung. This gaff gives some added strength and versatility to the mainsail, while allowing for a separate top-sail to be set above, if desired.
Friendship sloops instantly achieved popularity up and down the Maine coast as a highly maneuverable, all-weather lobster boat and coastal fishing vessel. Rarely constructed longer than 31 feet (9.45 meters), with the average being 28 to 30 feet (8.53 to 9.14 meters), its small size confined the Friendship sloop to voyages of one or two days, at best. Though sturdy, these boats were not designed for the open seas.
Friendship sloops were built from the 1880’s until the 1930’s when efficient gasoline engines made the use of strictly wind-powered sloops and ketches obsolete for commercial fishing. Today, the gaff-rigged Friendship sloop is a popular charter vessel. Constructed of fiberglass, and usually powered by a small marine engine, yet still sporting the gaff-rigged mainsail, and the no-nonsense lines of its progenitors, Friendship sloops are a reminder of the old days of sailing ships.
Commonly, Friendship sloops, because of their limited amenities, are chartered for an adventurous day cruise. These vessels are, after all, based on a bare-bones commercial design. However, chartering a Friendship sloop for a week or more is not unheard of, with two or three nights during the week spent ashore. Many original Friendship sloops have been converted from fishing to commercial charter vessels.
Of course, many Friendship sloops, both of original wood construction, and of fiberglass manufacture, are privately owned. The Friendship Sloop Society, based in Maine holds races, events, and social gatherings for owners of these elegant vessels. These sailors come from up and down the East Coast of the U.S. to show off their seamanship, as well as their boats, and perhaps to re-live a bygone era.