Life on the Maine Maritime Academy varsity sailing team can be lonely.

There are no stands full of cheering fans to watch the action, which may take place miles offshore. Their coach is stuck back on land, requiring a lot of on-the-spot self-coaching. And there are no funds from the National Collegiate Athletic Association to help defray their costs.

“It is hard for others to understand what we do,” said John Joseph, a senior from Northeast Harbor.

Joseph and seven others on the Mariners’ big boat offshore sailing team are slated to compete for the top spot among the world’s best college sailing teams this fall in France.

The team sailed away with the U.S. championship for big boat offshore racing last fall, winning the prestigious Kennedy Cup at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and a spot at the Student Yachting World Cup in La Trinite-sur-Mer in October.

The 31-year annual event is organized by the students of the Ecole Technologie, a French engineering school. The only U.S. team to win the world cup was the University of Rhode Island in 1990. England, Switzerland and France are consistent winners.

Now the Mariners sailors are trying to raise $50,000, which will allow the team and coach Tom Brown to make the trip to south Brittany for the weeklong competition against 16 teams from 15 other nations.

Big boat racing in the U.S. is usually confined to big colleges and universities with hefty endowments that can cover the cost of maintaining a fleet of keeled racing sloops and dinghies large enough to accommodate visiting sailing teams, and sending their own teams to regattas up and down the East and West coasts.

The NCAA, which underwrites the costs of athletic teams on a championship track, doesn’t recognize sailing as an athletic activity.

“So not only did this little school win what is in essence as big a competition as it gets in terms of intercollegiate sailing, we also won the right to raise the money to send eight students to France,” said William Brenner, president of the Castine maritime academy.

While some of the Mariners sailors grew up racing off the coast of Maine, some of them never raced until they enrolled at Maine Maritime. More important than experience, the members said, is teamwork that allows the crew to respond to split-second changes.

John Joseph, a senior from Northeast Harbor who skippered the team to its victory in Annapolis last fall, said the team starts out with a game plan that is geared toward prevailing conditions. But those can change quickly.

“It takes all eight people to do everything,” said Joseph.

Zach Vickers, a senior from Coopers Mills, is the team’s bowman. He perches at the front of the boat traveling at 12 knots or so, running the spinnaker sail and yelling out the times and distances of other boats.

“There is a lot of loud communication because the wind makes it hard to hear,” said Vickers.

Chris Poole, a senior from Falmouth who will be skippering in October, said much of the stress happens before the race starts, as the boats jockey for the best position at the line when the starting gun goes off.

“You are in a very expensive boat. You don’t want to collide,” said Poole.

Poole, who raced at the Portland Yacht Club growing up, spent the summer perfecting his skills as one of six interns at the Chicago Match Race Center. His sister, Holly, an incoming freshman, is on the team headed for France. Others on the world championship team include Mainers Jake Newton of Georgetown, Rowan Fraley of Mount Desert, Molly Howe of Winterport and Matt Butcka of Colchester, Conn.

During the race the skipper, also known as the helmsman, depends on input from a tactician, but often decisions are based on the skipper’s own gut response.

“It can throw everyone for a loop, so they have to be on their toes to respond to any maneuver,” said Poole.

Vickers said the language between crews on competing boats racing past one another with just inches to spare can get colorful at times. Mariner crew members described racing as addictive and thrilling.

“It has been the highlight of my college career,” said Vickers.

About 40 students sail for the co-ed Mariner team annually — about 15 race offshore on big boats and the rest on dinghies. The team’s fleet includes two 46-foot sloops, nine 26-foot sloops, all considered big boats, and 20 14-foot dinghies.

When Maine Maritime hosts a regatta, the 46-footers are used for offshore practice and put into service with handicaps to race alongside the 26-footers in big boat events.

The sailing program’s annual budget is about $50,000.

“We run on fumes,” said Tim Leach, academy waterfront director.

Bowdoin College in Brunswick has the only other varsity sailing team in Maine, named one of the top 20 sailing teams in the country in 2006 by Sailing World magazine. University of Southern Maine is in the process of hiring a coach and will restart a sailing program this fall, said Al Bean, athletic director.

In France, the Mariners will be racing in 30-foot French-built racing boats. Brown said part of their fundraising is aimed at obtaining a similar boat to practice in during the weeks leading up to the world cup.

Brown, two-time sailing medal winner in the Paralympics, said the team needs equipment, time to break in the boat when they get to France and foul-weather gear.

“It’s really cold out there,” said Brown.

The Mariners say that although their school may be small compared with its competitors — the entire Maine Maritime Academy student body of 940 doesn’t even match the incoming 1,200-person freshman class at the U.S. Naval Academy — their attitude is big.

“It is all about having the right crew,” said Poole.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]