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'The original charity regatta': MS Harborfest participants share cookies, good cheer

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'The original charity regatta': MS Harborfest participants share cookies, good cheer

FALMOUTH — The heavy rains and stormy weather that pounded southern Maine on Friday night and into the next morning cleared up in time for the country’s oldest charity regatta Saturday.

In fact, it cleared up a little too much.

Participants in the 31st annual MS Harborfest Regatta waited an extra hour before starting the race in hopes of seeing the wind pick up from dead stillness. And when the competitors got underway, the lead boats battled to reach 5 or 6 knots.

But for those passionate about the event, it’s less about speed and winning than about raising awareness and money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and its Greater New England Chapter.

“This is the original charity regatta,” said Bill Newberry, principal race officer. “There are other ones in the country now, but this was the first.”

The race was founded in 1982 by Merle Hallett of Falmouth-based Handy Boat and Dan Wellehan of Sebago Inc. It has raised more than $2 million for the cause since its inception.

“When this race was in its early days, people in their 30s and 40s were coming down with this debilitating disease, but not a lot of people were aware of it,” Newberry said. “This event really put MS on the radar of a lot of people in the sailing and corporate communities. Over the years, it expanded to include tugboats, lobster boats and other activities – like a 5K road race this year – and spread awareness to an even wider population.”

The goal of raising money and awareness takes center stage during more than two days of Harborfest events, so for racers, it’s a low-pressure regatta even in high-pressure weather systems like the one that stalled them Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a charity race so it’s a fun race,” said John Bensley, part of the crew of the Apparition of Newport, R.I.

Bensley said the Apparition competes in 10 to 12 races each year, but the Portland Harbor event is the only one in which he pulls up alongside competing boats and tosses in bags of handmade cookies from sponsor Dancing Deer Baking Co.

“We’re not here for competition – we’re here for a good cause and good company,” he said.

So while Saturday’s weather took the wind out of their sails in a literal sense, it didn’t figuratively do so.

“We just love the water,” said Michele Cloutier, who was on the crew of the Bandito for about a decade’s worth of Harborfest regattas before the boat was retired. “The weather’s unpredictable, but it can be really exciting, and it’s a really good charity.”

On Saturday, Cloutier motored members of the media around the racing boats in her 27-foot boat Tax Break while her partner, David, joined the crew of the Tamarack, captained by Bob Kellogg and sponsored by the Falmouth and Old Port Sea Grill restaurants.

The regatta included 59 participants, a turnout event organizers said is a reflection of the recovery from a poor economy and bad weather reports in the days leading up to the race. Newberry said the most participants the regatta ever has attracted was nearly 120 in 2000.

MS Harborfest began Friday night with a captains’ meeting and benefit auction held at the Portland Company on Fore Street in Portland. Sunday’s events included a tugboat muster and races, as well as lobster boat races.