MS Regatta and the MS Harborfest
by Merle Hallett as told to Jody Cady
A small group of dedicated sailors from the Falmouth area arranged a sailboat race for mid-August. The timing was set to influence some of the sailboats that participated in the Monhegan Island Race to stay an extra week for another event. The idea was originally to have a fun race with some of the out-of-towners until someone said how ‘bout making it a benefit?
The organizing group liked this idea and went about looking for a worthy cause to support. Multiple Sclerosis was chosen because it was, at that time, a relatively obscure disease with no know cure. The devastating physical effects of the disease alter a persons life forever yet it often leaves the mind of the victims intact and untouched thereby making the disease that much more debilitating.
Some of the first participants of the dozen or so sailboats that left the starting line in 1982 are still involved today. A few of those early participants included Dan Wellahan, Merle Hallett, Jim Stanley, Bruce Hamlin, Bob Kellogg, Jan Pedersen and Fred Leighton.
The officially named MS Regatta raised funds with three different sources. First was a raffle available to the participants for the prize of a one week rental of a sailboat in the Caribbean from Sun Yachts and two airline tickets from Delta Airlines to get there. Second was the Celebrity Auction prior to the race of sailing stars, dignitaries, boat builders, sailmakers and heroes. A skipper could purchase the likes of Gary Jobson, Robert Hall, Robbie Doyle or Walter Greene to sail with them in the race. One of the best auctions saw Joanie Greene auctioned for more than her husband Walter the internationally know multihull boat builder from Yarmouth Maine. Third was the idea of individual local companies sponsoring individual boats. This is one of the primary fundraising practices that still continues.
Registration fees went to pay for trophies and the awards dinner held at a local restaurant in Portland. Participants looked forward to the dinner, and most considered it a Must-Attend event.
In 1985 the MS Regatta had grown to about 60 boats. The committee decided to move the start line from the Falmouth waters east of Clapboard Island into Portland Harbor. The idea was that all boats should be visible to spectators at all shore side vantage points. The start was from near Fish Point under Fort Allen, as it is today, and laid out as a triangle that could be viewed from the Eastern Promenade, Mackworth Island, Spring Point and many of the islands.
The race was preceded for the first time by a parade of sail into Portland Harbor and up the Fore River. The parade concept continues today with each MS Harborfest group; sail, power, tugboat and lobster boats, having a parade at different times throughout the weekend.
The participation continued to grow slowly through the years. Even in the late 80’s when the country was trying to deal with the stock market decline, long time sailors selling their boats and sailboat racing in general poorly attended the MS Regatta continued to slowly grow.
In 1987 the American Veterans of Foreign Wars post 795 challenged other service organizations to donate sponsorship and compete for a silver trophy donated by them. The sponsor of the boat with the best finish would keep the trophy for the year. This challenge continues today.
The idea of individual local companies sponsoring boats continued. With the relocation of the race more promotional opportunities arose. A sailboat sponsor could now have their name displayed during the parade and viewed by hundreds of spectators that lined the Eastern Promenade and the breakwater out to the Spring Point light. They also had their names listed in promotional material and radio announcements.
In the early 90’s the organizers got to the $25,000 mark in donations and they thought they “had beat the world”. The celebrity auction and raffle system of fund-raising had ended but was replaced with a silent auction of material, goods and services. A live auction was also held for artwork, furniture and jewelry instead of people.
With the number of boats steadily rising and continuing enthusiasm the Regatta committee also continued to grow. Individual Fleet Captains volunteered to help organize, lead, enroll and educate boats similar to their own. Many sailboat owners had never raced or only might do one race, once a year — this race.
The Portland Chapter of the National MS Society began to take a more active part in the organizing and promoting of the MS Regatta. The all-volunteer committee had been running the event since the beginning and delivering a check at the end. The committee now takes advantage of the additional volunteers and influence of the office. It remains that all the MS Harborfest committee chairs are volunteers.
The date of the MS Regatta is moved for one time only to mid July to coincide with Operation Sail 2000 that took place in Portland Harbor. 114 sailboats participate. Also in connection with the OpSail 2000 events the first annual Portland Harbor Tugboat Muster is held. Tugboats from all along the coast of Maine journey to Portland to participate.
The MS Regatta resumes its traditional Saturday Race in August with the addition of the second annual Tugboat Muster on the following Sunday. This is the only year (in recorded history of the event) that participation is below the previous year, yet still 111 sailboats register to race.
The Tugboat Muster has become a mainstay held at the Maine State Pier. This year the first MS Shoreside Event is included. A day of music, food and displays is highlighted by the attendance of 12 tugboats bow-in to the Maine State Pier available for a close-up look by the public. Line handling contests are enjoyed by the crews of the different tugboats and the curious public. A children’s competition is also held. The Tugs then go into the harbor to demonstrate feats of power and speed in 1 on 1 racing and pushing contests. During the transition year to a weekend long event the MS Regatta is renamed the MS Regatta Harborfest. This year the MS Harborfest finally has a logo to unite the various parts of the weekend. The logo is created by Mary Ballou of MTM Designs.
The weekend long event is simplified to the MS Harborfest. The weekend includes the MS Benefit Auction and MS Regatta skippers meeting on Friday night. The MS Regatta and MS Powerboat Poker Run on Saturday and finally the MS Tugboat Muster and MS Shoreside Events at the Maine State pier on Sunday.
Since 2004 the weekend event has continued to grow and thrive. There have been changes from the original courses for the regatta based on commercial traffic and safety concerns, for the powerboaters due to levels of participation and added interest from the marinas they visit, the tugboats have moved their on-the-water activities to off the Eastern Promenade to allow greater visibility and space. In 2010 the MS Harborfest welcomed Lobster Boat races for the first time. The turnout was overwhelming with over 50 boats coming from all over the coast of Maine to participate.
It has been asked why the event expanded to a weekend long event, what was wrong with just a sailboat regatta? Simply it seemed like a logical continuation of a successful and heartfelt event. The people who originally started the MS Regatta were fans of the water and loved finding any reason to be “out there”. It was sometimes quite difficult for most people to be on the water. By pursuing this cause it encourages people to take their boats; sail, power or commercial out for a different reason. Maybe bring a friend who has never been out there before. Please do.
The MS Harborfest is about the entire waterfront, pleasure and working. It is an opportunity to enjoy what each of the participants already enjoys and be “out there”. Tugboats get to have a sort of bus-man’s holiday testing each other’s strengths. Powerboats get a day of using their boats in a different way; it is not about a destination but the joy of the water instead, it is a slower, easier trip since theirs is not a race. Instead they get a chance to meet others in places they might not normally think about visiting. Enduringly sailboats get a chance to see each other close up, enjoy some camaraderie during a fun and festive parade and then some get the chance to begin to figure out what all this racing stuff might be about.
It is mostly a way to use what we each appreciate to donate to a very worthy cause. Most of us don’t bike or walk or run, we sail. It’s an opportunity to raise money like our neighbors do, but in our own way.