PORTLAND – Sandra Heilshorn of Portland spent the day before her 13th birthday with 307 other kids racing a sailboat slightly larger than a bathtub in the waters between the Eastern Prom and Mackworth Island.

Heilshorn competed Thursday in one of 36 individual races that made up the three-day U.S. Optimist Dinghy Association 2013 New England Championship, which began Tuesday.

The series of races, or regatta, was hosted by the nonprofit SailMaine and drew young sailors from around the United States, as well as Canada, Bermuda and the Virgin Islands. The annual event takes place in a different New England location each year, and was last hosted by Portland in 2003.

Those who finish at the top of the regatta might score a spot in the tryouts for the U.S. Optimist National Team. Several former team members have gone on to sail for the U.S. in the Olympics.

The level of competition was a little nerve-wracking for Heilshorn, who has been sailing since she was 8 years old but has only been racing for about a year.

“I’m really nervous, I don’t want the Z flag to go up,” she said before the race, referring to a penalty flag signaling that a boat in the racing fleet has crossed the start line too early. “I’m hoping to finish somewhere mid-fleet. This is my first year doing racing so I’m not as experienced as some of the other people.”

Heilshorn’s coach, Sean Ross, called her over to his boat so he could give her some tips for her upcoming race. She tied up her boat to the powerboat hull, stepped inside and listened attentively as her coach made sure she had eaten her lunch and was ready for the race.

“Sandy has the potential to be really good,” said Ross, a coach with the Portland Yacht Club. “There are kids here from all over the country that get to sail all year-round, whereas here you can sail maybe three months out of the year.”

The young Portland Yacht Club sailors have been practicing five days a week, eight hours a day to prepare for the three-day regatta, Ross said. “It really is like a full-time job for them.”

The championship consisted of flights, or groups, of about 74 children ages 8 to 15 years old racing Optimist dinghies for bragging rights and trophies.

An Optimist dinghy, or “opti” for short, is a boxy sailboat measuring a mere 7 feet 9 inches long by 3 feet 8 inches wide, with a pentagonal sail.

Optis are beginner boats, and are usually sailed by one child under the age of 16 years old.

All the optis in the championship have the same measurements and design, but some sailors decorated them with stickers, paint or creative names.

Prices for Optis start at around $1,700. The cost to register for the regatta was $135.

Heilshorn’s boat is named Rainbow Chaser, but she said the optimistic opti moniker came with the craft when her family bought it used.

“If I had a new one, I probably wouldn’t have named it that,” Heilshorn said, glancing at her craft with her number, USA 7950, emblazoned in blue on the sail.

When Heilshorn’s fleet was up to race, Ross told her to go get in position at the starting line. She jumped in Rainbow Chaser and started working the rudder, ducking under the sail as she swung it around to catch the light breeze.

When the starting horn blew, Heilshorn jockeyed to stay in front of as many competitors as she could. The child sailors weaved their optis through the waves, sometimes leaning off the side of the boat to keep it level.

The race course consisted of a start line, two orange markers sailors had to navigate around and a finish line. On the outside of the course, six judges on powerboats kept their eyes peeled for violations while spectators and coaches observed from their own crafts.

Heilshorn crossed the finish line 58th out of 74 sailors in her fleet, putting her in 236th place out of 291.

After the regatta, said she will probably be out sailing her opti after not too long of a break.

“I like being out on the water because it’s relaxing,” Heilshorn said. “Not the races, but other times, just sailing is very leisurely and calming.” 

Karen Antonacci can be contacted at 791-6377 or at:

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