Despite the recession, SailMaine has been growing, at least in the number of new and eager sailors finding the sailing school on Portland’s waterfront.

Those numbers for the nonprofit went up last year and again this year, and show no sign of slowing down.

“We were growing steady since 2004, then maintained during a year or two of economic downturn. And then surprisingly (last year) that growth came back soon, and we’re proud to have it,” said Executive Director Jeff Cumming.

Next Sunday, Mainers will have a chance to visit Portland’s waterfront to see how SailMaine’s programs operate, how its boats work and even how wet it can get on the water.

The free open house on May 23 isn’t so much about recruiting new sailors as it is a way to give back.

“I think it’s a great way for people to try it,” Cumming said. “It’s a small thing to do for the city that has been generous enough to be able to let us use this site.

“And for the support from the community in sponsorship and volunteers, this is a great way to give back, to say for one day, ‘Hey, come down and take a ride on us.’”

SailMaine has existed since 1998, but the program started to gain momentum in 2004 when it was given its home on the waterfront by the city as well as the Portland Parks and Recreation junior program.

Cumming said the program grew rapidly, then leveled off two years ago with the downturn in the economy.
Miraculously the growth exploded again last year.

“I think this year will have another substantial growth. The junior program grew 36 percent this year,” Cumming said.
The entire program puts 450 to 500 participants on the water and last year recorded close to 30,000 sailing hours by those participants, some of whom sign up for multiple programs.

While SailMaine’s fleet of more than 100 boats hasn’t grown in some time, program director Laura Evangelista said the competitive, collegiate-level fleet of two dozen dinghies get lots of use.

“The registration for summer classes is already full. On any given day down at SailMaine in the summer, there are 90 kids,” Evangelista said.

Several years ago it added a Special Olympics program and that, too, has wind behind it.
“I expect growth in that, too,” Cumming said.

With a staff of just one full-time employee and three part-time workers, SailMaine’s work is made possible largely through the help of two dozen active volunteers and more than 100 who help throughout the year.

Many of those sailors will be on Portland’s waterfront on May 23 to help teach sailing for free.

Last year 265 newcomers learned to sail at the open house after waiting in line. The turnout was nearly double from the first free event in 2008, and there is no cap on participation, said Pamela Thomas, the SailMaine volunteer contact.

This year should bring more of the same.

Boats are skippered by experienced volunteers, of which SailMaine has dozens.

Participants don’t need to go on the ocean to try out this adventurous and eye-opening sport. They can learn skills on shore, even learn to maneuver a boat from the safety of land.

The open house also offers lessons in knot tying, sailing games and safety demonstrations, Thomas said.

“I was one of the people who helped put it together. It’s a way to give back to the organization,” said Thomas, who sails year-round. “It helps SailMaine get the word out about what it’s about. They’re a very small organization.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:
[email protected]