Building Your Fleet

In the Racecourse section of the March issue we talk about some of the things that clubs and fleets have done to build participation. Things like Richmond Yacht Club’s Sail A Small Boat Day on San Francisco Bay or the steps taken to revitalize the Islander 36 fleet.

Here’s more on the subject, and let’s take Islanders first. They succeeded in cranking up participation in a fleet of aging but still attractive, fairly large boats. Their steps were:

Simplification: On San Francisco Bay, the Islander 36 fleet “de-turboed” in order to get more boats out racing. Islander 36s have been a fixture since Alan Gurney designed them in the 1970’s—Northern California alone has more than 150 of them—but the racing fleet dwindled as people with the skill sets to handle spinnakers in a big breeze moved on to newer, hotter boats. Eliminating spinnakers and big jibs was a shot in the arm for the fleet last year. Twenty boats turned out for the 2004 season opener, the Vallejo Race, making Islander 36s the biggest one design fleet in the event.

Melges 24s don’t have to think this way. But in 1974, neither did people who sailed Islander 36s.

Skill building: In 2004 the Islander 36 fleet held race seminars, a day of starting practice, and an adopt-a-skipper day that did wonders to transfer skills vertically through the fleet. SAIL’s West Coast Editor read off starting-line countdowns over the radio (an efficient way to get these things done), and there was a huge difference in the way the fleet formed between start number one and start number five. People don’t get this kind of experience unless you make it happen. Better yet, none of it was a one-shot, one-day deal. One of the fleet mentors was a crack sailor named Chris Boome, and one of the features of racing in the fleet for the rest of the year was hearing Boome’s voice over the water (in the middle of a race) telling someone on another boat to “Pull in your mainsheet” or “Move the jib leads forward”! (The subtext being that he did not perceive that boat to be an immediate threat.)

Community: It’s face time. People may choose a boat for the boat, but they stay in a fleet for the people. If you want a viable class or club, it has to be a community. The Islander 36 fleet on San Francisco Bay has overlap between members who race and members who show up for fleet cruises, but for the overall health of this group, it’s vital to have events that are devoted to families and non-racers. Togetherness goes a long way.

The web site is the new fireside. There the community gathers. It takes a huge commitment to keep a web site working, but the dotcom is the place to get news, share news, manage sign-ups, and show your bacon. As in—when the West Coast Editor was asked if he’d write a story about the revitalization of the Islander 36 class, he said, “Show me the bacon.” Hoo boy. Did they ever.


Sail A Small Boat Day

This is another thing that I know about because it happens in my home town. But while we’re on the subject, SAIL would like to know what your fleet or club does to encourage participation. To reach the West Coast Editor and provide some enlightenment, just   CLICK HERE.

Richmond Yacht Club has a special place as a small boat club on San Francisco Bay. Richmond is not limited to small boats. Quite the contrary. But with its sheltered location in the East Bay, the waters off Point Richmond tend to be flatter, quieter, less windy than the parts of San Francisco Bay exposed directly to the “wind slot” of the Golden Gate. It’s a great place to grow young sailors and a delightful place for anyone to sail a boat, small or otherwise. The club is also a place that thrives on being informal, hands-on, member-driven.

The origins of Sail A Small Boat Day are lost in the mists of time (as in, roughly 10 years ago), when the International Canoe fleet decided to pitch itself to new prospects by offering people the chance to come on down and go for a sail. The club had nothing to lose, so it gave its blessing, and the gambit seemed to work. In just a few years people got together to add more fleets and turn this into an event that would happen twice a year, on Saturday before the fall midwinters and again on Saturday before the spring midwinters. For 2005, think March 5-6.

The result? “All the fleets have picked up members,” says Byte sailor and Richmond YC staff commodore Gail Yando. “It’s an opportunity for people who already sail small boats to see what’s happening in the fleet next door, and it’s an opportunity for people who aren’t in the game to kick the tires and watch them roll.”

Fifteen to twenty boats would be a typical turnout, some of them from fleets that bring out two examples because they believe in the value. Individual skippers offer their own boats and their own time. They’re in charge of who gets to ride. Commercial operators have tried to come through the door, but the club has kept the event strictly fleet-oriented, sailor to sailor.

As a participant, you can sign up for two boats. Most rides are about 15 minutes long. If there’s no pressure you might get to sail longer than that, but if you’re there at peak hours and you want a speed burn on a 29er, you’ll have to settle for a short, hot candle. (Not to worry. If you belong in a 29er, even a few short minutes are the right minutes.)

“The idea is not to teach people how to sail,” Yando says. “It’s about exposing people to boats they don’t already know. But we do a little advertising, and given a sunny day we might draw a hundred people or so. Perhaps half of them will be strong sailors and the rest will be curious. We always have a few boats, Snipes, for example, where people can just ride along. We’ve learned to have clothes and life jackets on hand for the people who come unprepared.”

The club supplies a support boat. Waivers must be signed. And for some of the people who show up, it’s a treat just to hang around a yacht club for a day, be part of the action in the boat yard, and breathe the air around sailors. Anyone who falls into that category, by the way, is a very good prospect for becoming a sailor.

“People come back and tell us that’s how they got hooked,” Yando says. “We’ve picked up people in the Byte fleet. So have the Snipes; even the 14s; I think everybody has. It’s not just about the boats. It’s also a chance to get to know the people in a new fleet and learn what they’re all about.”

Another benefit? Juniors in the Richmond Yacht Club have a chance, twice a year, to try out whatever looks good.

So what’s working in your club or your fleet? Let us know.

—Kimball Livingston

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