Go Gosport Regatta!
NH’s iconic sailing race electrifies Star Island
Among the things that exemplify the Granite State’s proud heritage — Mount Washington, the White Mountains, Lake Winnipesaukee — include the Gosport Regatta, which this year marks its 149th anniversary.
New Hampshire’s small-but-mighty 18-mile coastline hosts one of the largest sailboat race events in New England. On Sept. 17, 2023 as many as 50 sailing vessels of different sizes will race from Portsmouth to Star Island as 300 spectators watch from the decks of the M/V Thomas Laighton — the flagship vessel of the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company — and, later on, Star Island.
“We did it last year after a two-year hiatus,” says Joe Watts, CEO of the Star Island Corporation in Portsmouth — which, as a nonprofit, runs the event and serves as caretaker and steward of Star Island. “This year, we are looking to bring it back in full effect.”
The waters between Portsmouth and Star Island will display a colorful array of sails powered by the offshore winds. The participating sailboats compete at staggered times, one at a time, Watts says.
Their aim is to use their skill and seamanship to follow a specific course marked by buoys and display their proficiency and speed. Different classes of vessels based on the types and sizes of the boats will compete — some with small crews, others with large ones.
What separates the Gosport Regatta from other sailing races is its inclusivity and accessibility. “It’s open to the general public,” Watts says. “You don’t have to know a lot about sailing to enjoy it.”
Spectators and racers alike can purchase tickets. For spectators, the price of admission includes a few hours onboard the M/V Thomas Laighton to watch the race and several hours on Star Island, where they can enjoy live music, kite flying and a barbecue meal. Additionally, they’re invited to attend the awards ceremony held at the Star Island Oceanic Hotel after the racers arrive.
Spectators are encouraged to explore the island, learn where artist Celia Thaxter created her paintings and enjoy lime rickey cocktails on the hotel’s sweeping veranda. At the end of the day, the M/V Thomas Laighton transports spectators back to Portsmouth.
The Gosport Regatta underscores how the Star Island Corporation endeavors to make the island as open to the public as possible.
“It’s a great opportunity for locals if they’ve never been out to Star Island before,” Watts says.
The Gosport Regatta serves as one of two major fundraisers for Star Island Corporation, raising money to support the nonprofit group and its partner, the Piscataqua Sailing Association. Watts says the two groups have staged the race each year since 2009. It was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic and returned with 175 spectators and about 40 sail boats in 2022.
According to the Star Island Corporation, the first Gosport Regatta was held in July 1874. Organized by John Poor, president of the Stickney & Poor Spice Trading Co., the inaugural race was thrown to celebrate the grand opening of his Star Island Oceanic Hotel.
Now, nearly 150 years later, Watts says Star Island visitors feel like they’re stepping into the mists of time on race day. And as nonprofit caretakers of the island, Watts and the Star Island Corporation team work to preserve those historic airs. “Star Island is always evolving,” Watts says. “We do all of the changes within the content of preserving the history and timeless quality of the island.”
Now that Star Island is operating back to where it was pre-pandemic, Watts says registrations for their summer programs are very strong. “People are just very excited about being able to spend time here again,” he says. Watts calls Star Island “a summer camp for people of all ages.”
“Our theme this year is kindness,” he says. “We just want to get to that place as a people where we need to be kind to each other. Star is an anecdote to the ills we’re facing as a society.”
With events like the Gosport Regatta, Watts hopes to attract first-time visitors to Star Island from all over New Hampshire and beyond. The island, after all, is a unique spot — one that deserves to have its own definitive place in the Granite State lexicon.
“We want people to think about Star Island the same way they think of Mount Washington,” Watts says. “As a New Hampshire treasure and a New Hampshire icon.”