Hockey, football, baseball, soccer—these are the types of sports that come to mind when you think about competitive high school teams. Even here on the coast of Maine, sailing does not immediately come to mind as being part of the spectrum of high school competitive sports, but it is, and it’s been steadily gaining ground since the early 2000s.

There are about 16 high school competitive sailing teams in Maine, and the number of students participating on those teams has been growing, said Sarah Helming, director of programs at SailMaine, a nonprofit organization in Portland that supports community sailing. Five high school teams—Falmouth High School, Cheverus High School, Cape Elizabeth High School, Portland High School and a conglomerate team of students from schools that don’t have enough participating students to form their own team—are based at SailMaine.

SailMaine’s high school competitive sailing program began in 2004 with 10 to 15 participants, said Helming. Today, there are about 100 participating during the sport’s fall season and 60 to 75 participating in the spring season.

Maine’s teams compete against each other, but also sail against teams from all over New England, and, when they qualify, go up against sailors from across the country during national competitions.

Payson Robinson, 17, a sailor with the Portland High School team, has been sailing since he was in junior high school. Most of his friends don’t understand that sailing is a sport, he said. They think it’s a hobby.

“I hang out with a lot of friends who are, like, on the football team, on the rugby team—all these hardcore sports like hockey and stuff,” he said. “If I ever got any of them in a boat and I got them working and they saw the work it takes to sail”¦ it’s not just getting in a boat and cruising around. There’s a lot more to sailing than it looks.”

“I think sailing in general is a pretty unique sport in that you have to be very physical to be a quality sailor, to be a strong sailor,” said Helming. “”¦ (Y)ou have to be pretty smart to be a good sailor because there’s a lot of different variables that you have to consider.”

While sailing is like any other high school sport when it comes to getting rough, it is unlike most high school sports in that it’s not a spectator sport and it’s saddled with the perception of being exclusive.

Sailors with the SailMaine teams pay a $500 fee for each season, which means at least a $1,000 investment if a sailor participates in both the spring and fall seasons.

“It’s definitely cost-prohibitive. Community sailing centers like SailMaine do some great work in that they really bring the cost down. That said, we are currently a pay-to-play sport,” said Gerry Tiernan, one of the coaches of the Portland High School team.

“Is it a barrier? I don’t know,” he continued. “When I go out and look at what a set of hockey gear costs kids and what they spend in ice time and sticks and mouth guards—sailing is comparable. And for the schools, it’s definitely comparable. The price to host a sailing team, at least through SailMaine, is definitely comparable with hosting any other sport.”

SailMaine has a scholarship fund and has never refused a request for financial aid, Helming said.

While most of the schools don’t kick in funds to support the sailing teams, they will offer other forms of support, like providing dry suits and transportation to regattas, said Helming.

Maine’s sailing teams are co-ed. They sail for about eight weeks in September and October and April and May. None of the teams from Maine made it to the national competition this spring season, but that didn’t dim the enthusiasm of the sailors, who knew by mid-April that they wouldn’t be going to the nationals in Seattle.

“I love sailing with (the wind) blowing 15, 20, 25 (knots),” raved Robinson. “I mean, getting on a reach or on a close haul and just flying across the surface of the water with nothing but the wind. I think it’s just awesome… You can’t even describe it—the fun you get from it.” 

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance contributor living in Bath.