FALMOUTH – Some sailors run a straight course, called a rhumb line, directly to Monhegan Island.

Others turn inshore or off, searching for a favorable wind or current.

The goal is the same: to race under sail for 103 nautical miles on a course that leads to Monhegan and back.

The 77th annual Monhegan Race kicked off a few minutes after 1 p.m. Friday, when 36 sailboats in six divisions crossed the start line in Hussey Sound near Falmouth. Minutes later the boats passed south of Long Island and headed into the open Atlantic.

There were 1-to-2-foot seas as the boats departed and the wind blew light from the southwest, conditions that could mean slow sailing for the fleet.

“It will be challenging to keep the boats going,” said skipper Peter Price while prepping the boat Big Dog Party at the Portland Yacht Club in Falmouth before the race.

“We’ll average 5 to 6 knots,” said Price, whose boat has a 70-foot mast and a nine-member crew.

Eleven boats in three divisions –vessels with names like Arbacia, Resolute, Go Dog Go and Country Girl — are competing in the Monhegan run.

The course takes the boats south from Hussey Sound to near Biddeford Pool, then northeast to Monhegan and back to Casco Bay.

Other vessels in different divisions are competing in shorter runs. Some are racing in an 83-nautical-mile run that also reaches Monhegan, while others will sail 67 nautical miles to Seguin Island off Popham Beach State Park.

The race is one in a series coordinated by the Gulf of Maine Ocean Racing Association.

The boats will sail overnight and, if the wind cooperates, will likely complete the race in about 20 hours. If the boats hit doldrums, however, the trip could take much longer.

Veteran sailors describe the Monhegan Race as a legendary event — a throwback to the heyday of long-distance sailboat races.

“This race epitomizes the earlier era,” said Geoff Emanuel, who skippers Arbacia, a Nordic 40 sailboat. “This is the granddaddy of them all.”

Emanuel said racers these days tend to prefer shorter runs, which is one reason the number of boats in the event has dropped from 110 in the 1970s to this year’s 36.

“Racing is down,” he said. “It’s time, not money. No one wants to commit a whole weekend.”

Only a handful of other long-distance races remain, including the 360-nautical-mile Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race, the Chicago Yacht Club’s 333-mile Race to Mackinac, and the mythic 635-mile Newport Bermuda Race. There’s also the 100-mile Northeast Harbor Race on Aug. 26 from Portland to Mount Desert Island.

Sailors say the demands of the open-ocean Monhegan Race keep them in the game.

“The most challenging part is the weather,” said Price, noting that the crew must constantly adjust to changes in the speed and direction of the wind and current.

Sometimes sailors hug the coast in search of a stronger breeze. All use the tide to their advantage.

“The current can be hard to predict. It can make or break a race,” said Richard Stevenson, who won last year’s race and is skipper of Buzz.

And overnight sailing can be exhilarating. With no city light, the ocean can be pitch-black.

“Sometimes you spot a mast light, but usually you don’t see other boats,” said Price’s 19-year-old daughter and crew member Eliza Price.

Other times, the Milky Way reflects off the sea, Emanuel said, adding that crews form unique bonds on long-distance trips.

“There’s nothing like putting 10 people on a boat, which is a pretty confined space, for 24 or 36 hours,” he said. “The conversations, the jokes, the stories — you just can’t do that ashore.”

The Monhegan boats are expected to cross the finish line near Hussey Sound sometime tomorrow, but because each boat has a different handicap, crews don’t know who is leading until the race ends.

Winners receive a trophy — there is no cash prize.

But Emanuel called the thrill of victory the ultimate award.

“The exhilaration is impossible to describe,” he said.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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