BELFAST, Maine — On a perfect summer evening, the setting sun shone on Belfast Bay as the crew aboard the Selkie, a six-oar Cornish pilot gig, stroked across the water.
For the half-dozen folks who pulled their oars in rhythm aboard the boat — with a little help from the coxswain — the free experience might have been a great chance to get some exercise out on the water in the company of others.
But for Jim Bahoosh, the president of Come Boating! the 10-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to providing Mainers and tourists access to the water, it was about much more than that.
“To me, it feels totally revolutionary,” he said Monday. “What’s wonderful about Come Boating! is that it takes away the economic barriers to getting on the water. Boating activities can be elitist, because boats are expensive and waterfront access is difficult. Come Boating! takes away those barriers.”
Thanks to an active volunteer membership and the generosity of the city of Belfast, which has let the organization keep its two 32-foot pilot gigs and one sailboat on the waterfront, more and more people have been getting out on the water for free, Bahoosh said.
“You realize, hey, my backyard just got a whole lot bigger,” he said.
Last year, the Selkie and the Belle Fast each went out about 200 times, he said. With six people aboard each time, that represented 2,400 individual trips on the water.
Ted Elkins, who spends summers in the Northport neighborhood of Bayside, was one of those people. He said after a recent community row that he likes to row, but his ability to row single scull was curtailed by an eye problem.
“This is the next-best thing,” he said, adding that he loves being on the water.
This summer’s new community sailing program has been hugely popular, too, Bahoosh said. In that program, a qualified volunteer skipper takes four people who have signed up in advance for a sail. There’s no charge and no experience necessary for either the community rows or the community sails, which are open to the public.
“That is over-the-top successful,” he said of the community sailing program. “It’s been such an absolute feeding frenzy. We could definitely use more volunteer skippers.”
Everyone of every ability level is invited to Come Boating! Bahoosh said.
While new rowers in the community row program are likely to set a course up the Passagassawakeag River, those with more experience generally head out to the monument in Belfast Harbor.
“Not only can you get out and row, there are some excellent rowers in Come Boating!” Bahoosh said. “You can be rowing with some of the best rowers in the Northeast.”
The Cornish pilot gigs originally were designed to speedily transport a pilot to a sailing vessel, he said. They were used most in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall, he said.
“They’re made to be fast. The first person to get the pilot to the sailboat got the job,” Bahoosh said.
While the pilot gig’s long, wooden oars might look heavy and the act of sailing or rowing in sync with others may seem complicated, Bahoosh would like to extend a warm welcome to anyone who might be interested.
“Don’t be intimidated,” he said. “Anybody that wants to come, please do come. The coxes and volunteer skippers are all excellent. Don’t let your shyness stop you.”
For information on Come Boating! visit www.comeboating.org or call 338-3466. Participants should sign up ahead of time using the book at the boat shed, which is diagonally across from the harbor master’s office at the waterfront. Morning and evening rows are scheduled each week.