The course of sailboat racing on Merriconeag Sound was charted more than a century ago through the prescient vision of a Harvard-educated orthopedic surgeon from St. Louis.
Dr. Roland Otto Meisenbach, forever known as RoRo, was fascinated by sailing from the time of his first trip to Harpswell during the summer of 1900. An enthusiastic member of the Harvard Yacht Club during his medical school years, RoRo connected on later visits with Harpswell fishermen, hardworking skippers who predated widespread recreational sailing. As these relationships grew, so did RoRo’s foresight of the potential for recreational sailing in Harpswell. The Merriconeag Yachting Association, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, is the living embodiment of RoRo’s dream.
Following a winter sledding injury immediately prior to American involvement in World War I, RoRo took time to recuperate at a Harpswell cottage. According to his grandson, Harpswell resident and current Merriconeag Yachting Association Commodore Rick Meisenbach, RoRo encountered another seasonal resident also coping with a walking impairment. Ultimately, he offered his surgical skills and operated on this woman with an excellent outcome. Delighted with the result, the woman offered RoRo favorable terms on her Harpswell property, in which none of her family had any interest. This property established the land roots from which the association would grow.
Informal racing occurred during the century’s second decade but was suspended for the duration of World War I. By the summer of 1921, a committee of prominent seasonal residents assembled, formalizing both the association and its summer racing series.
Marion Vinal Meisenbach, RoRo’s wife and ardent sailing partner, drew on her nautical heritage gathered while growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, serving as an officer and meticulous statistician of the nascent association. Annual dues were deliberately kept minimal.
Sarah Brendler, of Harpswell and Brunswick, whose parents, Ralph and Sally Childs, were part of the earliest days of the association, recalled the critical distinction between yachting “association” and “club.”
“It was an association of sailors who just wanted to race,” Brendler said.
Rick Meisenbach remarked that even today, at $40, annual dues remain low.
By the end of the 1930s, the Merriconeag Yachting Association was regularly hosting the Casco Bay Interclub Race Series, which, according to contemporaneous logs, might have seen more than 100 boats from Portland, South Portland and Mere Point competing on Merriconeag Sound. These popular races were a precursor to the expansion of activity the association was poised to achieve after laying low for the duration of World War II.
A Merriconeag Yachting Association race start in the 1930s. The association continues to organize a racing series today.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Merriconeag Yachting Association reflected the emergence of young families and the larger boats, dominant during the early years, were increasingly offset by various classes of smaller boats, including Turnabouts, Small Points, and Lightnings. A board of proprietors was formed to own and manage the association property, by then firmly established as its seasonal gathering place.
The wind fully shifted toward youth as the 1960s took hold. The proprietors duly adjusted the association’s sails with the appointment of seasonal stewards charged with caring for the property and floats, as well as overseeing sailing education. Sarah Brendler, mother of the first steward, Chaz Brendler, recalled baby boomers (then tweens and teenagers) eager to get their hands on the tiller under her son’s watchful eyes.
“There were definitely more young sailors,” said one of them, Beth (Dunlap) Muldoon. Her sister, Sally (Dunlap) Moulton, added, “It was our life during the summer and we spent every day on the water learning to race.”
The association also became more prominent in the larger coastal Maine sailing community. Over the full decade, during which 10 stewards served, it was their job to ferry sailors in for a shower and, needless to say, often a cocktail or two.
Moulton, who served as the association’s steward and sailing instructor during the 1970 season, recalled one special visitor.
“A nice old ketch entered our harbor,” recalled Moulton. Standing on the starboard rail near the helm was a “gray-haired, extremely polite gentleman” to whom she introduced herself by calling out her name.
“He said, ‘I’m Walter Cronkite,’ in a very matter-of-fact way,” laughed Moulton.
And that’s the way it was that warm July evening as someone else held down the CBS anchor desk while Cronkite dropped a different anchor and enjoyed some Merriconeag Yachting Association hospitality.
The ability to adjust to shifting winds and seas has always been the association’s strength. As the 1970s unfolded, the young sailors, who fueled the vitality of sailing education and multiple racing classes on all those August Saturdays, were growing older.
The proprietors “didn’t see a future for the youth sailing program,” Muldoon said, and they ultimately decided to sell the association property.
But property is not spirit. And it’s the spirit of sailing, racing and, perhaps most importantly, being together with friends during the summer in Harpswell that has always held the association on its course. “What motivated MYA was sailing and racing,” Muldoon said. “It was never about having a fancy clubhouse.”
Now in its second century, sailing, racing and friendship continue to guide the Merriconeag Yachting Association. Currently, the association has more than 70 active members.
The annual racing season begins in late July and extends through the end of August. A Skipper’s Chowder Lunch precedes the starting gun of the first race and an end-of-season potluck accompanies the awarding of trophies to racing series winners.
Rick Meisenbach, the commodore, sees the association in another transition, waters it has navigated before. He points to new members joining each year and has strong faith in the association’s future. “The longevity of MYA is unique,” he said.
And somewhere RoRo is smiling!
Bill Muldoon, of Harpswell, is a photographer and serves on several nonprofit boards. He’s reachable at email@example.com.