ROCKLAND – Falling overboard in the middle of a windy sailboat race is never a good idea. But as Holly Lash clung to her flotation cushion in Rockland Harbor on Thursday afternoon, she had one thing working in her favor.

All two dozen or so vessels were Friendship sloops. And the name tends to rub off on the people aboard.

“I wasn’t worried,” said Lash moments after the 30-foot Rights of Man, piloted by owner Wayne Cronin of Thomaston, veered off the race course and the crew plucked her from the water. “I knew I’d be OK with all these friends around.”

The detour, of course, all but eliminated Rights of Man from contention in the Friendship Sloop Homecoming and Rendezvous race around Rockland Harbor. But this annual gathering of sailboats is about much more than a few days of friendly competition.

“It’s about keeping the legacy alive,” said Kirsten Cronin, Wayne’s wife. “And it’s about family.”

A century ago, they were everywhere up and down the Maine coast — 30-40-foot wooden boats with the graceful lines of a schooner, the sturdiness of a barge and the versatility of a pickup truck.

Lobstermen used them to haul traps. Islanders used them to ferry livestock and supplies out from the mainland. Long-line fishermen used them to catch cod by the thousands.

But then along came the internal combustion engine. And with it, the diesel-powered Maine lobster boat quickly overtook the Friendship sloop as the workhorse of Maine’s coastal economy.

Enter the Friendship Sloop Society.

Formed 50 years ago this summer, the organization has one simple purpose: to preserve the tradition of the Friendship sloop, named after the Maine coastal village where the design originated in the late 19th century.

It is, more often than not, a family affair.

Long before he bought the 45-year-old Rights of Man a few years back, Wayne Cronin, 39, was one of eight siblings crammed aboard the 38-foot Tannis along with his parents, Jack and Mary Cronin.

Jack was a contractor who could never seem to keep his weekends free from work, so he and Mary went shopping for a boat to use as a weekend getaway. It took them two years, but they finally settled on the Tannis, a Friendship sloop built in 1937 that the Cronins still keep in Salem, Mass.

“From the beginning of May through the end of September, we never missed a weekend,” Jack said. “I remember when we bought it, the broker told us the boat was old and not to push it. Well, we’ve been pushing it for 44 years.”

And it’s worked.

“All eight of my kids are here today.” Jack said.

A few boats down the dock, Bill Zuber of Friendship took a visitor down below on the 32-foot Gladiator. His three sons, all grown, refer to the sloop to this day as “our older sister.”

“See that?” Zuber said, pointing to the white-oak frame peeking out from behind an old plank. ‘That’s all original.”

Original as in 1902 — making the Gladiator one of the oldest boats in the Friendship Sloop Society fleet.

It is, Zuber said, a labor of love — with heavy emphasis on the labor.

While owners of newer, fiberglass boats might apply a new coat of paint and call it a day, Zuber has spent countless hours replacing planks, sealing the outside of the vessel’s hull with epoxy and cotton muslin and pouring salt down among the inner timbers to keep them from rotting.

He’s also recovered the boat’s earliest documentation papers from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — a copy of the original license, issued to a fisherman named Daniel Simmons of Friendship on April 3, 1902, now hangs on a wall inside the Gladiator’s head.

How long this celebration of Maine’s maritime history will last is anyone’s guess. In addition to the 281 Friendship sloops now on its active registration roster, the society lists 30 sloops that are “gone but not forgotten” along with 16 others whose current locations are unknown.

Still, there’s no doubting this group’s determination to keep the tradition — and their boats, for that matter — afloat.

Thursday afternoon, right around the time Wayne Cronin was sailing to the rescue of Holly Lash (who had fallen from the sloop Peregrine while trying to retrieve a loose main sheet), word came over the radio that the Tannis had sprung a leak and was headed back to the dock.

It turned out that a piece of caulking in the bow had popped free — the incoming seawater flooded the cabin up over the floorboards before someone stuffed a few socks in the crack and turned on the pumps.

None of which seemed to faze Jack Cronin, who later reported calmly that the leak had been properly sealed and the Tannis would live to sail another day.

Meaning he was one relieved Friendship sloop owner?

Jack shook his head and smiled.

“Nobody really owns these boats,” he said. “We’re just the caretakers.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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