PORTLAND - Visitors to Portland walking along the Eastern Promenade pathway this summer will notice more small, snappy sailboats cruising around with the orange-and-blue emblem of Maine’s largest community sailing program.

The impressive new fleet of a dozen J-22s purchased this year by Sail Maine, Portland’s 10-year-old community sailing center, comes at a time that the nonprofit is offering a rent-a-boat service and more sailing lessons than ever before.

“The J-22s are a game-changer. We’re trying to provide access to a sport that traditionally has not had access. We’re trying to keep up with the demand,” said Jeff Cumming, Sail Maine’s executive director who helped start the program in 2004.

The J-22s came to Portland by way of Sail Newport, Rhode Island’s 30-year-old public sailing center and New England’s largest. The second-hand boats were offered for $180,000, a ready-made used fleet that’s tough to come by, Cumming said.

Sail Maine went into fundraising mode and within a year brought the boats up to Maine.

Since it was founded in 2004, Sail Maine has never slowed down, not during the recession or after. Starting with a staff of just two part-time operators, Sail Maine now has five full-time staff and 40 seasonal paid instructors in the summer.

And what these ocean ambassadors pass on to locals, youth and visitors here is hard to match: The beauty, peace and unique natural energy of the Maine coast.

“There was one couple from out West who came here in an RV. They stopped in Portland and wanted to learn to sail. They were in their mid-60s and had never been on the ocean before. That was really exciting to see,” said instructor Jamie Carlson.

Today Sail Maine teaches some 300 youth to sail in the summer, and both youth and adult programs fill up quickly. But the new J-22s will help Sail Maine do more.

Boosting Sail Maine’s fleet to 150 sailboats, the easy-to-handle boats add a lot to the new rental program, offered for the first full season this year. Certified sailors now can enjoy the ocean for a few hours at a cost of $80 without having to own or store their own boat.

Sail Maine program director Alicia Mooradian said the rental program should provide ocean access to many Mainers, since the cost of simply storing and keeping a sailboat can run as much as $5,000.

“Maine has 3,500 miles of coastline and everyone should have access to it,” Mooradian said.

Mason Saltz, a 17-year-old sailor who competes on Sail Maine’s southern Maine team, said he enjoys the community appeal of the program.

“Sailing always seems to be a rich sport and only for the wealthy kids. But I don’t have the perception when I’m here that it’s a wealthy sport. Probably the biggest change I’ve seen is how many come out for the youth team. My first year there were 14. Last year there were 30,” said Saltz, a senior at Waynflete in Portland.

At Sail Maine’s open house last weekend, live music played and visitors strolled through the harborfront stone patio where picnic tables and benches afforded an ocean view while brightly painted 6-foot-long skiffs sat at the ready. And Cumming said Sail Maine will continue to grow.

“About 60 percent of our revenue comes from our programs. It’s something I’m very proud of. We are a program for the people by the people,” Cumming said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com