Outside the rambling Portland Company complex, jazz seeped into the chilled night air and the windows in the second-floor function room glowed with blue and red light. While this building, which is home to Portland Yacht Services, has a labyrinthine layout, guests only needed to follow the music of Swing Shift to find the SailMaine Soiree.

The party, held Oct. 16, was intended to take place after the Leafer’s Last Leg Regatta, however high winds forced the cancellation of the race. But this didn’t stop more than 200 sailors from swapping their foul weather gear for cocktail party clothes and showing up at the fundraiser.

While many people at the event were lifelong sailors, the nonprofit SailMaine aims to spread the love of racing and cruising in Casco Bay to a much wider audience.

The program started in 1996 and since then has accumulated 100 boats and serves five high school sailing teams, USM’s sailing team, Special Olympics teams and adults and kids who want to learn to sail.

“It’s a prohibitively expensive sport for some people,” executive director Jeff Cumming told me. “The whole principle is to take expensive pieces of equipment and use them by many people.”

The sailing program’s boats do take a break in January and February, but you can spot participants out in the bay even in frigid months, such as December and March.

Cumming is a good example of the type of people SailMaine is trying to reach. He didn’t grow up sailing, but when he was attending USM he joined the sailing team and learned to sail through SailMaine.

“It helped me get through school,” Cumming told me. “It kept me coming back. My dad used to say I was majoring in sailing, and in some ways it was true. I want to motivate others in the same way.”

Sailor Jeff Smith, who skippers a J24, told me he could have benefited from a program like SailMaine when he was younger.

“I wish I’d learned to sail a dingy,” Smith said, in reference to the Cape Cod Frosties that the program’s 8- and 9-year-olds use to learn to sail.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for the kids,” Smith added. “Instead of playing their Game Boys, they can come down and sail.”

When I caught up with board president and lifelong sailor Chris Robinson, who made a brief appearance at the party with his wife, Maggie Robinson, before they went to see the Bill Cosby show, he didn’t want to take any credit for his role in founding SailMaine.

“This organization is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” he told me.

Robinson said the impetus for creating the organization was the lack of public access to the water.

As the party’s silent auction was winding to a close, program director Sarah Helming took to the mic to hand out the regatta’s trophies as door prizes. She also encouraged guests to take advantage of the on-site photo booth.

“You can do whatever you want behind that black curtain,” Helming said. “We’ll only put it up on the website if you don’t donate to SailMaine.”

She then added, “I’m only kind of kidding.”

When Cumming followed her on the stage, he offered a side-by-side comparison of SailMaine and the much larger Courageous Sailing of Boston. In number of locations (4 vs. 1), number of full time staff (5 vs. 2), and budget ($1 million vs. $250,000), the Boston center has SailMaine beat. But there was one statistic where we surpassed our Beantown brethren: the number of volunteer hours.

The Boston outfit logged 30,000 volunteer hours last year and SailMaine recorded 30,123.

Emily Kalkstein, who moved to Maine from Boston a couple years ago and now serves on SailMaine’s advisory board and coaches Special Olympics sailors, said “Community sailing in Boston is you come in and rent a boat. Here it has much more emphasis on instruction.”

Kalkstein also served on the party committee, along with Kelly Franklin, Leah Halsey, Jess Harris, Carlie McLean, Tara Studley and Ilse Teeters-Trumpy.

Their collective efforts raised close to $13,000 for SailMaine, which will help get more newbie sailors out on the sea.

The banner that greeted guests when they arrived read: “With almost 3,500 miles of coastline, shouldn’t the people of Maine be sailors?”

The answer, it’s clear, is yes. 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]