SOUTHWEST HARBOR — On a recent afternoon after school, teenagers swoop around in two-person sailboats on sun-dazzled waters.
The Mount Desert Island High School sailing team’s veterans train in Rondar 420s, a new type of racing dinghy. Novices use older Club 420s. The Rondar group circles the coach boat, practicing roll tacks—heeling, rocking to windward, then flattening quickly.
There’s intense concentration as boats maneuver in close formation. The teens—in dry suits and lifejackets—leap side to side as they tack, adjusting sheets, avoiding collisions.
They move into team racing drills. Because it’s a cooperative venture, lead sailors turn back to block competitors so lagging teammates can move forward—serious maneuvering.
“If you’re going upwind and you want to control a boat that’s behind you, you have to be overlapped so they can’t tack away from you, and you have to be ahead of them slightly so your bad air is slowing that boat down,” assistant coach Wells Bacon counsels.
From early April, teen sailors drill most afternoons, and compete in local, state and regional contests most weekends. For the coming Sunday, they planned to meet at 7:15 a.m. to drive to an invitational in Rockland. Their travels, and the travels of other Maine teams, take in Portland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut; and Castine, where the Maine Maritime Academy host the State of Maine/Downeast Fleet Racing championship—the largest event in New England.
MDI’s team was the first of its kind in Maine, founded in 1993 by the nonprofit Oceanus Institute in Southwest Harbor. Based since 1996 at the MDI Community Sailing Center (MDICSC), the team, a member of the New England Schools Sailing Association, thrives, winning the state championship several times.
As importantly, MDI inspired other Maine high schools to start their own teams, which meant the establishment of a growing number of in-state regattas.
In Portland, SailMaine supports racing programs for six area high schools—Cape Elizabeth, Cheverus, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Portland high schools, and Southern Maine, a conglomerate of sailors from other area schools—which practice collaboratively.
The Rockland Community High School Team started in 2003. Blue Hill’s George Stevens Academy is a long-timer, and Bangor’s John Bapst sailing club sends kids to races.
Maine regattas today attract high schools around New England. The bigger events see scores of sailors, along with coaches and volunteers.
“There has been an increase in teams every year for the past four years,” said Griff Fenton, a former MDI coach and founder of the Maine Schools Sailing Association.
“Sailing is one of the fastest growing sports in Maine. I would anticipate that at some point we will get schools from interior Maine to join. There are so many fresh water lakes it is natural to anticipate there will be teams formed in those areas as well as the coastal communities,” Fenton said.
Sailing is different from other high school sports, Fenton said: Making decisions on their own during races, students learn independent thinking, teamwork and respect for nature.
For MDI, the excitement recently got extra bounce with the arrival of the Rondar 420s.
“These boats remind me of European sports cars,” said MDICSC director Glenn Squires.
The purchase is part of a collaboration between MDICSC, Northeast Harbor Sailing School (NEHSS), and the Little Cranberry, Seal Harbor and Bar Harbor yacht clubs. All together, the organizations bought 21 Rondars for the team and for summer programs. The design was drafted with input from NEHSS director and MIT sailing master Fran Charles, at Rondar’s U.S. subsidiary in Peabody, Mass. Unlike the aging Club 420s—slow and unresponsive in a variety of winds—the Rondar is lighter and features details that make it “faster, lighter, tougher and more exciting,” said Squires.
The collaboration addresses boating attrition caused by “the abundance of distractions” kids live with these days, and bring kids together for social interaction and fun, he said.
And, any adult observer will say, no matter who gets the trophy, the big win is just being there.
“Sailing is a fun sport,” said Fenton. “Getting out on the water and enjoying the elements is exciting and challenging. Beating another boat is very satisfying when it occurs. Many students enjoy the fresh air and competition provided by various regattas.”