October 20, 2021

Plucky little Voyager still No. 1 > Oldest Friendship sloop prompts attention at Thomaston museum

THOMASTON — When the Friendship Sloop Society sails into Rockland this week for its annual family reunion, the 93-year-old patriarch of the clan will be sitting high, dry and handsome, greeting visitors at Thomaston’s Maine Watercraft Museum.

Voyager, built in 1903 by Charles Morse in the town that gave the legendary boat its name, is the proud bearer of sail No. 1 of the 262 Friendships registered with the society worldwide.

Though looking sharp in a fresh coat of green and white, the 30-foot specimen of the tough little fishing boat that’s now a favorite of recreational sailors, may, some say, be just too used up to sail again.

“I don’t proclaim her dead,” says John Shelley, founder and director of the museum. “She’s been restored three times, but there’s a tremendous amount of work still. Somebody will have to part with a tremendous amount of money, but my diagnosis is that there’s plenty of sailing life left in this old girl.”

No way is anyone going to sink more cash into a creaky old wooden relic than it would cost to buy some sleek, spanky new, bell-and-whistle laden job in (gasp) fiberglass, right?

“People who get bit by the Friendship bug do unexpected things,” Shelley said. “The Friendship design — the long bowsprit, the sails forward, the broad beam — is one of the most immediately recognizable in the world. It’s boxy, chunky, meant to be loaded down, fished in all kinds of weather and sailed home swiftly, and it did all those things extremely well. The original Friendships come from a time when every coastal town had its own local boat builder, and every one had a vision of what a fishing boat should be. This is one that proved itself. It’s stood the test of time. Friendship sloops are known all over the world. They say `Maine’ anywhere you go.”

The Voyager came to Shelley’s museum, now in its second season of operation, three weeks ago on permanent loan from its owner, the Atlantic Challenge Foundation of Rockland. “We’re going to put it on an attractive stand and, if we ever get some decent weather, give it some fresh varnish,” Shelley said. “It is a wonderful addition to our collection.”

That collection includes some 140 other Maine-made wooden recreational and working boats — classic canoes, skiffs, dorys, gigs, peapods, as well as a growing inventory of parts and memorabilia.

While many of the boats are too fragile to ever touch water again, those that have been made seaworthy are available for rent by the hour to museum visitors.

“As much as possible, we want to be a hands-on museum, not a place where everything’s kept behind velvet ropes,” Shelley said. “The great advantage to me of that approach is that we get people in here who know more about boats than I do. Whenever I think I know everything there is to know about a particular type of boat, someone comes in and gives me a whole new education.”

Does Shelley have a favorite? “Yeah — the last one that came through the door. Just when I think I’m totally in love, something else shows up to steal my heart. We have boats from the mid-1800s up to the 1950s, with every one telling part of the story of wooden boat building in Maine. The support from boat lovers has been incredible. We have boats show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night — we encourage that behavior.”

Some 40 members of the 36-year-old Friendship Sloop Society, with boats ranging from turn-of-the-century originals to modern, sleeker versions, are expected to sail into Rockland this week for the annual homecoming, which runs through Friday. In addition to races and demonstrations each day, Wednesday will offer a parade of sloops at 9:30 a.m. and tours of the boats at 4 p.m., followed by a public barbecue.

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