SailMaine wants everyone to get out on the water.
The starting line of the SailMaine Corporate Regatta is a tense place. In Casco Bay eight J/22s jockey for space and wind as each skipper watches the flags on the race committee boat count down the start of the race. Five minutes, four minutes, one minute. The sailboats maneuver so close to one another that it seems crew members on opposing teams could shake hands. It feels wonderfully dangerous. Then a flag drops, a horn is blown, and the boats are off on the course.
The regatta is all in good fun and for a good cause—proceeds support the SailMaine scholarship fund—but competition is still palpable. Ben Ford, the skipper for the team sponsored by law firm Verrill Dana, LLP, directs every moment on his boat, calling out commands to which the crew responds by pulling in or easing out lines or moving themselves from one side of the boat to the other.
The environment is extremely dynamic, says Ford, an attorney at Verrill Dana. And that includes what’s happening outside the boat: ferries going back and forth, lobster boats working, schooners taking tourists out for a sail. “Sailboat racing in general also involves a fair amount of danger,” he says. It all combines to create an experience that sailors—new and old-—quickly bond over. Even if they don’t win the race.
What they do gain is a hands-on learning experience that may ignite an appreciation for the sport and the water. It’s an effort SailMaine has championed in Portland for 20 years. In addition to sailing events like the regatta, the community sailing organization, located on Portland’s waterfront, offers youth and adult learn-to-sail programs, as well as social sailing, family sailing, and boat rentals. The mission, says SailMaine board member Michael McAllister, is to get people out on the water in a way that’s affordable for everyone who’s interested.
“SailMaine offers access to the water, which is a personally enriching thing for anyone, but you also learn lifelong skills: leadership, team building, technical skills,” says McAllister. “This sport is for anyone at any age level. You can learn when you’re eight or 80, if you want to be competitive or just go for a sail.”
It’s a mission that aligns with Ford’s own penchant for luring aspiring sailors onto a J/22—a small, stable keelboat that is friendly to new sailors—to teach them the difference between port and starboard, how to tack and when to duck to avoid a swinging boom—and so they can experience sailing for themselves.
Ford’s enthusiasm is on full display during the regatta, an annual fundraiser that brings area businesses together for an afternoon of races and socializing. Teams representing Verrill Dana, Sterling Rope, H.M. Payson, Dambrie Garon Real Estate, and other companies crew SailMaine’s J/22s for the race. Each team is comprised of one skipper and two or three additional crew, and while many competitors are experienced sailors, that isn’t quite true for Ford’s boat. On his team are Chantal Wilson and David Robertson, two colleagues from Verrill Dana. Both have sailed before—but not much. Ford finds that inexperience exciting, and he sees events like this as ideal opportunities to get as many novices on the water as possible. “I want to fill my boat with greenhorns,” he says. “We go slower, but that’s okay.”
Ford himself is no novice. He’s been obsessed with boats—particularly sailboats—his entire life. “It was a problem,” he says. “Because my family didn’t sail.” So he spent his childhood in San Francisco loving boats any way he could. He drew them in class (when, he says, he probably should have been paying attention to the teacher). And in his free time, he and his best friend built miniature sailboats out of balsa wood, testing their seaworthiness in a local lagoon. They’d compare notes on what worked and what didn’t, then go home and build new boats.
Eventually, Ford found himself aboard the real thing, crewing on J/24s out of local yacht clubs, thanks to welcoming sailors who encouraged the sailing enthusiasm of “some blond kid” who was always hanging around. “People would pick me up and take me sailing,” he says. These days, you’ll often find him sailing in Casco Bay or on the inland waters of Great Pond in Belgrade, where his wife has a family home and where Ford keeps his two sailboats: a Lightning class sailboat and a Vanguard 15 class sailboat.
“When you’re sailing, you’re taking in input, like whether you’re in deep enough water, where you’re drifting to, where you’re going, how you get there,” says Ford. “You’re much closer and more connected to your environment.” It’s an ideal way to connect with other people, too. “The best way to meet people is to get on a boat with them and say, ‘Let’s move from point A to point B.’”
In 2014, Ford helped launch the Belgrade Lakes Youth Sailing Program. “We wanted it to be an all-inclusive program that would encourage kids from all around central Maine to come to Great Pond and get on the water in a way that didn’t involve jet skis or other motorized activities,” he says. The very first year the four-week program filled up, and each summer 25 to 30 kids learn to sail on Great Pond. “Half the kids who participate are locals who wouldn’t otherwise have access,” says Ford.
The program is a partnership between the Great Pond Yacht Club, which Ford cofounded,
and SailMaine. SailMaine manages the administration, and the yacht club raises money to cover capital costs, like docks and chase boats. Scholarships are also available to ensure that any kid who wants to learn to sail can.
“Everyone in the state should have the opportunity to get out and spend as much time on the water as possible,” says Ford. He’s helping to make that happen, one greenhorn at a time.