On a typical spring day in Charleston harbor, observers are likely to see a few dozen sailboats making their stately way around the pale blue bowl bisected by the peninsula. But to those familiar with the harbor’s depths and reaches, the place where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean is an ever-changing watery palimpsest, where millions of years of geologic history — as well as the more recent variety — conspire to form a treacherous maritime playground dotted with familiar landmarks: Castle Pinckney, Waterfront Park, Fort Sumter, Patriots’ Point, the Port Terminal. But it’s also littered with sandbars, sunken hazards, swift currents, and other boats, and it’s populated by piers, docks, hidden estuaries, and a haphazard, scattered citizenry of 10,000 or so crab traps.

Sailors navigating the harbor, therefore, have good reason to move at a stately pace. Until this weekend, that is — when over 900 eager sailors will hit the harbor with only one goal in mind: to win their class in Charleston Race Week’s annual competition, the premier regatta on the Southeastern coast.

Founded in 1995 with fewer than 40 boats competing, Charleston Race Week has grown tremendously over the last 12 years.

“Our regatta is one of the largest in the nation. We have had over 150 boats register during the past two years — other regattas have only about 40 or 50 boats,” says Meghan Van Liew, director of marketing and public relations for the South Carolina Maritime Foundation, which organizes the event.

With more than 70 percent of its competitors arriving from out of town, last year’s race attracted a wide variety of sailors from places as far away as England, Canada, Michigan, and California. And the number is expected to grow even larger this year, due to Charleston Race Week’s merger with the Gulf Stream Series, a group of regattas that includes boats rated under the IRC format.

“This year we’re expecting over 150 boats, with competitors hailing from over 19 states and overseas. The competitors range from young 20-year-olds to 60-year-old salts. They definitely like to sail hard, and take it very seriously,” Van Liew says.

For three fun-filled, exhausting days, competitors will compete in a series of intense races, limited to boats 25 to 60 feet in length. But with Charleston’s unpredictable weather conditions, tides, currents, shoals, winds, and water hazards even the most experienced sailors and skippers will be challenged.

“That’s one of the reasons why competitors like our regatta,” Van Liew observes. “Charleston Harbor makes for tricky navigating and requires strategic racing from even the most experienced sailors; they have to manage a really professional racecourse.”

But it’s not all work and no play. Regatta organizers will host beach parties each night of the competition. Competitors are advised to sleep off their celebrating by the next morning’s race.

But what exactly is it that brings competitors from all over the world to our tiny marina in Mt. Pleasant?

“The sailors that come here definitely tell us that they love Charleston hospitality,” says Van Liew.

For more info on Charleston Race Week, visit www.charlestonraceweek.com or contact the South Carolina Maritime Foundation at 722-1030. Sailors interested in learning more about the Gulf Stream Series can get the skinny at www.us-irc.org.