To the casual observer, the scene at the starting line of the MS Harborfest Regatta was total mayhem.

Sailboats of all shapes and sizes waiting for the signal jibed between fishing boats, lobster pots and kayakers as the official committee boat let off an incomprehensible series of cannon shots and horn blasts.

But in the end, about 60 sailboats tacked their way gracefully Saturday afternoon down Portland Harbor, sails illuminated by sunlight, as they made a dash for a buoy off Portland Head Light and then back toward the finish line off the Portland waterfront.

The race is one of the highlights of the MS Harborfest, a three-day festival to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In its 34th year, the festival kicked off with an auction and reception Friday and continues at 10 a.m. Sunday with lobster boat races that start in front of Portland Yacht Services on Fore Street and tugboat races at noon at the Portland Ocean Terminal/Maine State Pier.

The annual event raises about $100,000 for the society, which helps about 4,000 Mainers who have been diagnosed with MS, a disease of the central nervous system.

Many of the sailboats in Saturday’s race were sponsored by service organizations.

There is a friendly competition among Rotary clubs to sponsor a winning boat, said Gus Karlsen, a member of the Portland Rotary Club, which has won the service club regatta trophy for seven out of the last 10 years.

Karlsen and his wife, Ann, were passengers on the Sadie A, the official regatta media boat, owned by Jack and Gerda Eaton of Otisfield.

The biggest boat in the regatta this year was an 80-foot ketch, the Too Elusive, which spends the summer in Camden and the winter in Wilmington, Delaware. The boat, which has won the MS Harborfest Regatta several times in the past, was captained by Kitt Watson, whose Watson Family Foundation is a major benefactor of the regatta. Watson said he keeps coming back because the regatta is for a good cause.

“We have a great crew on board, but it’s not about winning or losing,” Watson said.

Merle Hallett, co-founder of the regatta and a crew member on the Too Elusive, agreed.

“We are here to raise as much money as we can because there are a lot of people in Maine with MS who need help,” he said.

Fred Forsley, co-founder and president of Shipyard Brewing Co. and another Too Elusive crew member, said his personal experience with MS got him involved in the regatta. His mother developed MS in her early 40s and now his brother has the disease.

“My mother led a full life. She didn’t let it slow her down and stayed as mobile as you can,” Forsley said.

He said the money raised during the regatta will enable the MS society to improve the lives of people living with MS through programs, services and research.