It was a race.

And then again, it wasn’t.

Nineteen schooners of various size, age, color and speed cut across the waters of Rockland Harbor at midday Friday on their way to West Penobscot Bay and the finish line in Camden during the 36th annual Great Schooner Race.

Since 1977, any traditionally rigged schooner along the Eastern Seaboard has been welcome to participate in the race, which is always held in midcoast Maine.

With a reputation as “an extremely informal and friendly competition,” the race ordinarily hasn’t been set for an exact date or time until a few days before the competition. Maine Windjammer Association captains have established those details with the blessing of fickle winds and weather and the course of the tides.

But no more.

For the first time in 15 years, the association, which hosts the race, pre-set the date and course for the race from the Rockland Breakwater to Camden Harbor. Start and finish times remained iffy, largely at the whim of the wind.

The competition — if you could call it that, since the emphasis was on having a good time and as many winners as possible — drew ship captains from as near as the shores along which they sailed and as far as Palatka, Fla., in a daylong event that was more camaraderie than contest, more remembrance than rivalry.

“We’re trying to resurrect an older tradition of racing from port to port,” said Meg Maiden, marketing director for the windjammer association.

In their heyday, schooners were popular for commerce that required speed and windward ability, particularly in such ventures as offshore fishing and the hauling of granite, logs and other heavy materials.

Usually two-masted sailing ships (though they could have more), they were capable of great speed and navigability and were a common choice for pirates, slave traders and privateers — mercenaries on the high seas.

“At that time, you wanted to be first; you wanted to be fast,” said Maiden. “This,” she said, with a sweeping arc over the boats and across the waters, “is for fun. It’s a loose race.”

The schooners vied in four classes — flying jib, coaster, leeward and windward — most fitting to the size and speed of each boat.

Variously known as rigs or sloops, they sliced across the horizon on a picture-perfect day for sailing off the Maine coast — all blue skies, rolling white clouds near the horizon and billowing sails.

The finish line, which took between three and four hours to reach, was Camden Inner Harbor, about “eight miles as the gull flies,” said Brenda Thomas of Rockland, captain of the Isaac H. Evans, a 65-foot restored “coaster” schooner, with its highest mast reaching nearly 100 feet into the clear, bright air.

Built in 1886, it was purchased by Thomas in 1999 and is used as a charter boat for tourists who want a taste of the sea.

“The appeal (of the race) is getting the boats all together and recreating a scene that people might have seen a hundred years ago,” said Thomas, the only female captain in the race.

She led a crew of four and hosted 21 paying guests in a voyage that ran four days and nights and included the sailing competition and gentler pleasures, like a lobster bake on a remote island, food prepped by the ship’s chef, a berth and the chance to live aboard a rig and “learn the ropes.”

The novice sailors experienced firsthand the tasks of hoisting and lowering sails, tacking, navigating and steering.

“There are lots of different approaches” to the race, said Thomas, acknowledging that even in such a casual atmosphere, competitive sailing is hard work. “My strategy is to have fun.”

Her secret boils down to safety and comfort for those on board.

“The more relaxed you are (as captain), the more relaxed they are,” she said.

“I have a love of the sea,” said Thomas, who worked as a teller and then in the consumer lending department of Camden National Bank until one unforgettable, fateful evening: Aug. 13, 1993.

Following in the wake of so many ship captains before her, Thomas earned her first voyage through a traded negotiation. She bartered her bookkeeping skills for a one-night sail.

And never looked back.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she said.

By the next year, she was working aboard a boat. Within five years, she had become a captain and was restoring “these glorious old wooden boats.”

She met her husband, Brian, while working with the ships.

She’s now on the water from Memorial Day to Columbus Day each year, conducting charters and loving every minute of it.

The Isaac H. Evans has become a soulful familiar for Thomas. “I know her intimately,” she said. “She’s as much a person to me as a friend. She’s taught me; she’s been patient; she’s challenged me.

“I know we anthropomorphize” these boats, she acknowledged. “They’re like women — all beautiful in their own way.”

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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