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Turbulent Piscataqua is home to close-knit sailing community

By Laurie Fullerton
For nearly three centuries, Portsmouth has been an active maritime port, but the gentler sight of sailboats racing around the buoys - the motif for any summertime destination along the New England coast - has often eluded this harbor.

Portsmouth enjoys an incomparable maritime legacy. But those who choose to sail here must compete with the Piscataqua River, renowned for being the second-swiftest navigable current in North America.

Facing 12-foot tides as well as six knots of current when trying to race discourages sailors who prefer the level playing field of open water on a large bay.

Furthermore, the experienced sailors and boat owners who want to sail and race here must get in line. There is currently a 20-year waiting list for a mooring permit.

Despite the odds, the Seacoast remains a vital place for a devoted and small community of area competitors who find innovative ways to keep the sport alive and growing.

"I have been sailing here and around the world all my life," said John McCormack, a Portsmouth native and director of the Seacoast Sailing School at the Kittery Point Yacht Club in New Castle. "When I was young, my parents took us sailing around the world, and so I have remained a dedicated sailor.

"What is great about the sport is that you can start to do it when you are a child and can continue to sail even after you are in a wheelchair. I know people from this city who have been sailing forever, but this is not a really great venue for us for competition, although we share a high degree of camaraderie."

Organizations that help keep the sport going on the Seacoast include the Kittery Point Yacht Club (KPYC), the Portsmouth Yacht Club (PYC), the Wentworth Marina, and the Piscataqua Sailing Association (PSA).

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard also has a small yacht club but, according to Keith Brown, treasurer of the KPYC, "the yacht club is more like a bit of land with a tent on it. But the measure of the sailing area should not be judged by the size of the club. It is more about the commitment to sailing."

While the obstacles for sailors remain, the sailing community manages to stay connected through a social network that links those looking to sail with boat owners. Gaining experience on the water is always crucial for competitive sailors, and the sailing community here has devised a very democratic system for people who want to take part.

"About eight years ago, some friends of mine gave me sailing lessons as a gift," said Steven Borne, commodore of the Piscataqua Sailing Association and a resident of Portsmouth. "I spent a number of years after that trying to get on a boat here. Sometimes I was a substitute on a team, but I found it difficult to meet people and get on boats."

Borne then found his way to the PSA and the network of fellow sailors. While the organization has no clubhouse and holds meetings at pubs in the city, its main mission is to get people out racing and into sailing.

"It is hard to get an unknown person onto an established boat, so we hold social gatherings at local pubs where people meet the skippers and crews currently sailing," Borne explained. "In fact, we have buttons for the boat owners to wear that say, "Want to crew?"

"Also, we have started a program this year where any sailboat owner can request experienced sailors to come aboard and help race. This really helps get more boat owners who might be short-handed out racing."

The PSA runs its summer races on Tuesday and Thursday evenings where the most dominant fleet remains the J24, a keelboat that can hold up to six people. While the PSA used to run weekend regattas, the move toward weeknights seems to suit the membership.

"There is nothing like getting out on the water, but many of us canít get the time on weekends because of family commitments," Borne said.

But sailing in the evenings cannot fully compare to a full-day or weekend-long regatta where the distance races test a sailorís skills. So regattas, although few and far between, remain a key part of the sailing experience here.

"In addition to being socially important, the regattas put the focus on the sport of sailing," Brown said. "They involve kids in sailing, and it is important for the region of Portsmouth to use our natural surroundings.

"The regattas give us a chance to hone our skills and also enjoy the view of our city from the water."

For a decade, the Redhook Brewery has sponsored the Redhook Regatta held the third weekend of August.

"The great thing about the Redhook Regatta is that we get a lot of out-of-town sailors from Maine to Massachusetts. So the racing is pretty competitive with larger fleets and the different faces keep it fresh," said Ken Jennings, a competitive sailor and biologist for the Redhook Brewery. "It is a two-day regatta and it draws boats from throughout New England. We have two nights of social events and then an awards event at the Wentworth by the Sea. I would say it is our biggest sailing weekend of the year here."

Along with the Redhook Regatta where the race management is done by the Piscataqua Sailing Association, the yacht clubs here host an array of smaller regattas and cruising trips for members including a Downeast cruise with the PYC. For some, the single-handed challenge regatta is popular where the boat owners must sail their boats alone and unaided.

Additionally, the popular Lobster Regatta usually involves raising money for a local charity.

"What is special here is that we have established a balance with our working waterfront," Brown said. "It is a delicate balance between the Navy yard, the plants, the tankers and sailboats, but to find all these things together is quite rare.

"There arenít many towns where you have the blend of recreational boating, military/industrial installations and a working harbor, but these have always been a part of Portsmouth."

And while the entire boating community in Portsmouth is somewhat restricted by the lack of available moorings, there is a chance that the small-boat sailors might have an advantage if and when a mooring becomes available.

"It is true that we have some people who have been waiting for a mooring here since 1974," said Gino Marconi, director of N.H. Division of Ports and Harbors.

Marconi estimates there are currently 1,500 moorings in use in and around Portsmouth.

"We have almost 600 people on the waiting list," he said.

Marconi notes the Division of Ports and Harbors is looking into some areas of the Seacoast where it might be able to put additional moorings. For competitive sailors, whose boats tend to be smaller, this might be good news.

"When we look into available mooring space, it is an advantage to have a boat that is suited for shallow water, so the length of the boat is a factor," Marconi said. "Unfortunately, there is only so much room and yet we have a tremendous amount of recreational boating here."

Marconi, also a sailor, believes that the natural beauty of the New Hampshire coast is one of the things that draw people to this region.

"I grew up right here on the waterfront and spent time working on ships and have been to South America and Alaska, but I came home to roost," he said. "Here, you can sail out of the city, and within 10 miles you are at the Isles of Shoals where you can drop anchor and swim with the seals."

Although the sailors must navigate the notorious currents of the Piscataqua, scuba diver instructor Jay Gingrich notes that although Portsmouth harbor is one of the trickiest around and you must have a feel for the currents, it is a challenge you canít get anywhere else.

"I would take this place over any other in the world," Gingrich said.

And what is most unique about Portsmouth sailors is that through volunteering time to run races and encourage new and unknown people to come sailing, this community of sailors has helped dispel the myth that yachting is only for the wealthy.

"I always say you only need one rich person," Borne said. "Basically, if you have the means to own a boat, you still need crew to help you sail it. We have retired people with ample funds and folks without much money at all sailing every week. The common goal is to get out sailing and be on the water. There is nothing else like it."

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