A community that runs deep at the waters edge
It is a few minutes before the starting horn of the Portland Yacht Club’s Thursday night race. In a light breeze, sailboats of various shapes and sizes glide across the sheltered, island-strewn waters of Casco Bay off Falmouth Foreside. The start of a sailing race has a drama that might be missed by an untrained eye. The boats cannot post themselves on the starting line, ready to burst forward at the sound of the gun. Instead, they maneuver behind and around the invisible line between the anchored “committee boat” and an orange buoy, attempting to cross at full speed at the very moment the race starts. The countdown lasts minutes, not seconds, and as it progresses the boats appear to dance haphazardly around one another. The racers, however, see the water organized by a network of imaginary lines: the wind direction and the starting line; the zig-zag trajectory of each boat; the shadow cast by each sail, depriving leeward boats of wind. When the horn sounds, the fleet will suddenly fall into formation, heading on parallel courses toward the first mark.
I am a guest on More Cowbell, a 30-foot Etchells class racer owned by the Morin family of Falmouth. Chris Morin, who runs the club’s junior sailing program, is at the helm, nudging the boat into position as the seconds tick past. In his day job, Morin is the special education coordinator for the Falmouth school district. Becki Morin, a nurse practitioner at Maine Medical Center, and their daughter Audrey, who is going into her sophomore year at Falmouth High School, hold the jib sheets, adjusting the small front sail to make use of each puff of air. (Seventeen-year-old Anna, normally a crew member, is babysitting tonight.) Chris is a lifelong sailor, and Audrey, a member of the race teams at both PYC and FHS, is on her way to becoming one. Becki, on the other hand, sees herself as “learning.” “I grew up in Millinocket!” she tells me. “I’m here because my family is here.” “Can you tighten up that jib, Becks,” Chris calls from the helm, and she gives me a look that says, “See?”
The Thursday night race series at PYC is a casual one, in which boats of different specifications and speeds race against one another. (It is a race type known nationally as Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, or PHRF, or, affectionately, as “beer can races.”) In contrast, the club hosts fleet race series on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in which boats of the same design sail head-to-head, and the beers are left in the coolers until the finish line is crossed. Those races, I am told, get competitive. “People will be yelling and screaming on the water,” Chris Morin says, “but when they come back to land, they’re buddies. They might be yelling at their crew, but then they’re having a sandwich, having a beer.”
The members I meet at Portland Yacht Club recount, in different ways, the same story: what makes this place special is the combination of serious dedication with an atmosphere of casual, welcoming camaraderie. “I’ve been in yacht clubs all around the world,” says Cuyler Morris. He is a lifelong sailor, the second-generation president of famed sailboat builders Morris Yachts, and is having dinner with his family and a tableful of friends at the club. “This is the prettiest, most unpretentious club I’ve ever been in.” Another club member says that she doesn’t have a boat; her family were members of the club when she was a child, and as an adult she joined in order to take part in the social life. Nevertheless, the members are quick to note that they are a boating club, “not a fork-and-knife club;” they are gathered here in this cozy dining room because they love the ocean and the vessels that let them explore it.
Portland Yacht Club is, several members tell me, the country’s third-oldest continuously-operating yacht club, founded in 1869. For many years it was located on Portland’s Merchant’s Wharf, keeping its doors open through the wars and Depression that temporarily closed many of the club’s competitors in the field of longevity. In the 1940s, PYC merged with Foreside Yacht Club and moved to its current location, a former summer cottage in Falmouth Foreside. The heavy wooden door of the original clubhouse now hangs on the side of the building that faces the ocean. This, according to the club’s commodore, Kristen King, is the front door.
The Portland Yacht Club dockhouse
Throughout its long history PYC has modeled, in various ways, an inclusiveness that is seldom evoked by the words yacht club. The original dues were $1 per year; they have increased, markedly, but the club has made efforts to remain within the means of many middle-class families. “We’re working families,” King tells me; she is the owner of a small insurance business. “You don’t have to be independently wealthy. You prioritize what you want to do with your money. When you’re working all week, the time you can spend on your boat is so precious.” The club offers a lower-cost senior membership, and has recently introduced modified fees to help younger adults become members. “A lot of members don’t take fancy vacations, we don’t have a second home,” Morin tells me. “Our summer home is the boat.”
King’s leadership is another mark of the club’s character. She is the third woman to occupy the position of commodore at Portland Yacht Club, and one of only a handful in the country. “The board was very progressive early on about fostering women in leadership,” says Maria Chambers, a member of 15 years who currently serves as membership officer. Yacht clubs are traditionally organized in naval fashion, headed by “flag officers”—commodore, vice commodore, rear commodore, and so on—who are honored with flags that are hoisted when they arrive at the club and set on their tables when they dine. Leigh Palmer, who was elected the club’s first female commodore in 2001, told Larry Woodward of the Portland Press Herald that her inclusion among the flag officers had “amazed” members at other clubs. The Press Herald story about Palmer’s election cites the grumbling of older PYC members about women in leadership positions. “One was overheard to say that he would resign if the club ever elected a woman commodore. He didn’t live to see the day,” Woodward wrote.
Woodward’s implied eulogy for sex discrimination may have been premature for the wider boating world, which remains dominated by men. At the PYC, however, applications for new memberships are evenly divided between the genders, according to Chambers, who notes that “we are seeing more single moms join—women who want to pass their love of sailing onto their kids.” In general, she continues, the club attempts “to strike a nice balance between the traditions of sailing and being very welcoming.” On the traditional side of the balance are customs that stretch back centuries, trophies and plaques inscribed with names from the nineteenth century to the present. It is clear to me that the members value the space the club creates for old-fashioned rules and respect as much as they enjoy its casual atmosphere. Every day at sunset, the flag is lowered in a color ceremony, King tells me. “The sound in the dining room can be deafening, total cacophony, and the gun will go off—and there will be silence.” The members rise from their seats, many of them with hands on hearts, and pause respectfully until the ceremony’s end.
Sails billowing in the wind
On the water, too, there are codes that can be bewildering for the uninitiated but, once learned, provide the comfort of structure and the efficiency of common knowledge, along with some amount of delight in arcana. There are the right-of-way rules, designed for safety but, like all rules of play, used by savvy racers to manipulate opponents. There is superstition (you are asking for trouble if you change the name of a boat, or paint it blue, or whistle), and there are bits of knowledge wrapped up in lore (“red sky at morning, sailors take warning”). Nautical flags are used to signal information for races, and allow cruising boats to communicate with one another (raising the blue-and-white checkered November along with the blue, white, and red Charlie form the international signal for distress). While every locality has its own quirks, boating knowledge and etiquette constitute a lingua franca that allows mariners to be at home up and down the coasts and across the seas.
Travelling by boat—a boat big enough to sleep on—means moving within an alternate world, where limits are set by winds and tides, and unknown perspectives open around each point of shoreline. “We feel like this is a gift to our families, to our kids, to be able to experience Maine in this very special way,” says King. “People couldn’t be more welcoming. I remember as a kid pulling in to these hardcore fishing villages. Someone would come over, tell you how to get to town, and say ‘take my truck.’ The keys would be right in it.” The club organizes a variety of cruising trips, in which a group of boats rendezvous at predetermined points. This adds to the cruise both sociability and security, putting help close at hand for a broken radar, a stalled engine, or what Chambers calls “an unplanned swim,” recalling a time when her boat got caught on a lobster buoy. “My kids are growing up on my boat. They are learning the survival skills, the respect for the ocean. It’s a gift.”
King was once one of the children growing up at the club (her father was installed as commodore almost exactly 30 years before she was), and emphasizes the club’s openness to families. She gestures to the front lawn (the one facing the ocean, that is); on a summer evening, she says, it is overrun with children enjoying themselves. The club members keep a collective eye on them, allowing parents to eat and socialize. “It’s heaven,” says Chambers, a single parent. The junior sailing program headed by Morin ranges from six-year-old “Peanuts” to teenaged 420 racers, who compete at yacht clubs throughout the Northeast. Its students gain prodigious skill in sailing, but it seems to me that the children here get something that may be more important and is certainly more rare: a place to spend time with their families as well as their friends, adults and children of all ages sharing a social world.
At the other end of the spectrum are the senior members, those who have relinquished their waterfront privileges but continue to take part in club life. Dave Fenderson, a member of 44 years, tells me that he gave up his sailboat in 1976. He still comes to the club four or five nights a week; his daughter, who came up through the junior program, is now a member. In the winter, he says, there is a “seniors’ coffee,” which he defines as “a group that comes in to tell sea stories and see who can lie the most;” other seniors gather regularly for bridge, meals, or drinks. Fenderson, a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy and veteran of the Navy and the oil industry, remains connected to the younger members of the club. For 25 years he has played Santa at the annual Christmas party; he was the Easter Bunny once, but “my friends kept pulling my whiskers, and that’s the last time I did that.” This summer, as in past years, he coordinated with MMA to bring their historic schooner, the Bowdoin, to the club in order to “get kids exposed to some Maine history.” They are also, it’s clear, exposed to people like Fenderson, elders ready to share their time, their knowledge, and their ”sea stories.”
“People are gaining on us, Dad!” calls a young boy, peering back over the transom of a good-sized cruiser. The assorted fleet of boats now closing in on the starting line is peopled by equally diverse groups: bare-bones crews of two or three; cheerful parties toasting one another on the gunwales, oblivious to the tense focus of their skippers; sailors who have made a life on the water and those who are just learning to enjoy it. At this moment they are all moving together, taking different approaches toward the same goals: a starting line and a windward mark and finally, beyond the finish line, the warm welcome of the clubhouse.
From the committee boat there is a long blast of the horn. The Blue Peter (blue background, white square) is lowered: one minute to go. The race is about to start.