CASTINE — Last Saturday was a glorious day for sailing.
It was pleasantly warm out on the water but not steamy, a welcome relief from the high humidity and baking sun that blanketed Maine for days last week.
On Blue Hill Bay, the one-design fleets from Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club — Atlantic class sloops, Herreshoff 12 1/2s and Bullseyes, Lasers — continued their summer racing series for the KYC Cup.
To the eastward, racers from the Northeast Harbor Fleet were busy too, as International One Design sloop sailors continued their pursuit of the August Series Taormina Cup.
In Castine Harbor, where the Bagaduce River opens out into Penobscot Bay, though, things were strangely quiet, despite activities at the Castine Yacht Club.
For decades past, the third Saturday in August has been set aside for the annual Maine Retired Skippers Race and, since 1960, Maine Maritime Academy has hosted the event.
Last Saturday would have marked the 69th edition of a race that began as more or less a grudge match between Deer Isle and Bucksport but grew into one of the highlights on Maine’s summer yacht racing scene.
The race was open to sailboats at least 25 feet long and of any age, and there was no limit on the number or age of the crew members. But, as its name implies, the Retired Skippers Race was designed to give older sailors a chance to show off their sailing skills. The skipper of each vessel has to be at least 65 years of age and those older captains often sailed with at least some crew of similar age.
With that demographic in mind, and the COVID-19 pandemic raging, the race organizers announced last month that there would be no Retired Skippers Race this year. While the notice of cancellation ended on a hopeful note looking forward to next year, the future of the race is open to question. Last year, just 14 boats came to the starting line off the Castine bell buoy. Two years ago, the fleet was a scant dozen boats.
The race also has been dominated over the past several years by one boat, Bob Scott’s New York 32 sloop Falcon. The Sparkman & Stephens-designed boat launched in 1936 at the Henry B. Nevins yard on City Island in New York City won last year and the year before as well. Falcon also won in 2008, 2009 and 2014 with the late Castine artist and ship model builder John Gardner at the helm.
The race has changed considerably since it began as a duel between two retired shipmasters in the autumn of 1952.
The first race was sailed on Eggemoggin Reach and featured two genuine retired blue-water skippers, each taking the helm of identical Controversy sloops designed by naval architect Cy Hamlin and E. Farnham Butler and built at Butler’s Mount Desert Yacht Yard. Captain Frank Delano, sailing Controversy, represented Bucksport. Captain Phillip Haskell sailed for Deer Isle in Consequence.
Haskell won that first race, and presented Delano with a clam hod, “so that he could earn his living digging clams,” as a consolation prize. Haskell himself won the Captain Henry Whitney Challenge Cup. To this day, the Whitney Cup and the clam hod remain, respectively, the prizes for the first-place and last-place skippers in the race.
In the race’s earliest days, skippers had to not only be at least 65 but also had to have been born in Maine or at least to have lived in the Pine Tree State for several decades. The passage of time took a toll on the number of sailors who could meet all those qualifications, so now being old enough to qualify for Social Security is the only requirement.
There have still been a few genuine “old salts” at the helm in recent years.
Gardner was in his 80s when he sailed Falcon to victory a few years ago. In 2014, retired Adm. Ted Rodgers, former superintendent of Maine Maritime Academy, sailed in his 50th consecutive Retired Skippers Race at the age of 98.
The first few races were sailed at different venues — on Eggemoggin Reach or Blue Hill Bay and off Mount Desert Island. Since 1960, the race has been sailed on Penobscot Bay, starting in Castine and hosted by Maine Maritime Academy.