This year is special for the MS Regatta, the largest and longest-running charity sailing event in New England.

When boats hit the starting line on Aug. 21, it will mark the 30th year of racing and raising money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. It also represents three decades of fun and great memories for the families, friends and co-workers who have made the regatta an annual tradition.

The regatta had a humble beginning in 1992, when Merle Hallett of Handy Boat Services and Dan Wellehan of Sebago Shoe led a group of sailors in a race around Portland Harbor. Money was raised for the MS Society through entry fees and sales of T-shirts and other items. As the years went by, more sailors joined in, and participation grew to more than a hundred sailboats. For many participants, it’s the only organized regatta they sail all year.

What is it about the MS Regatta that inspires even the most casual sailor to compete? For Mike Beaudette, an enthusiastic participant for the past six years, it was the idea of combining a good deed with a nibble at competition. His boss’s wife suffered from MS. He wanted to try racing but didn’t relish the idea of mixing it up with highly competitive boats. The MS Regatta’s format and class breaks suited him just fine.

“It’s fun and relaxed,” he said. “The hard-core racers going for points have their own divisions, and those of us out there having fun are not in their way.”

The regatta offers several divisions for racing boats that fly spinnakers and cruising boats that sail with just mainsails and headsails. There are also divisions for one-design boats, if enough sign up in advance. Older, classic yachts get their own division, as do multi-hulls. The idea is to break up the fleet so that boats in each division have a good chance at performing well against their competition.

And since each division gets its own start time, the line is less crowded … and less intimidating.

Beaudette, who races his Sabre 28 Got Sales with co-workers from Sysco, likes to keep it casual. Of course, being casual doesn’t mean that you can’t at least try to do well in the race.

“With any luck, we’ll be going out after work to practice ahead of time,” he said. “I try to be the first Sabre 28 to cross the finish line.”

And while it’s not a requirement, Beaudette and his crew raise their own sponsorship money by collecting pledges. They’ve had good luck, even as the economy has faltered.

The MS Regatta serves as the cornerstone of MS Harborfest, a three-day festival of sailboats, powerboats, tugboats and lobster boats.

It all starts with the MS Benefit Auction Friday evening, Aug. 20, at The Portland Company on Fore Street.

This year’s auction is shaping up to be one of the best in years, with hundreds of offerings including art, jewelry, trips, nautical items, luxurious spa services, sports tickets, cruises and one-of-a-kind events and services. You don’t have to be a participant in any of the boating events to attend. Tickets are $20 per person, or $150 for a table of 10.

Saturday offers multiple events. While sailors compete in the MS Regatta, power boaters will collect and compare poker hands in the MS Poker Run. Participants travel by boat to several stops, where they pick up a card. They’ll return to DiMillo’s Marina to compare poker hands and enjoy a celebratory barbecue.

No boat? No problem. Landlubbers can come to the party, too, where poker hands will be distributed. Admission is $125 for a group of four. Additional adults are $35 each, children between 12 and 16 are $15, and children under 11 are free.

The MS Shoreside Festival at Fort Allen Park on the Eastern Promenade runs both Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and includes musical performances, food and merchandise vendors and children’s games.

On Sunday morning, lobster boats will gather for the MS Lobster Boat Races. Last year’s inaugural event marked the first time in 24 years that lobster boat races were held in Portland Harbor, and it raised more than $11,000 for the MS Society.

Sanctioned by the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, the event divides boats into several classes according to fuel type, boat size, and design.

Tugboats also will gather Sunday morning at the Maine State Pier for the MS Tugboat Muster. They’ll parade through the harbor at 2 p.m. Races and pushing contests will follow.

Gail Rice is a freelance writer in Maine. She can be contacted at:

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