Club Racing Revival

A focus on the simplicity of dinghy sailing, combined with more convenient racing schedules, is bringing sailors back. From Sailing World, October 1996

In the early ’90s, a series of articles and reports appeared in the news media bemoaning a widespread decrease in Americans’ leisure time and disposable income. Interestingly, at roughly the same time, dinghy manufacturers were successfully introducing new doublehanded, one-design boats like the JY 15, Vanguard 15, and Johnson 18. And singlehanders, like the Laser and Sunfish, continued strong in their popularity.

Taking their cue from the success of these fleets, a number of yacht clubs turned their focus to inexpensive, low-maintenance dinghies. They recognized that maintenance-intensive boats, with heavy crew requirements and busy regatta travel schedules, were falling to the ends of sailors’ priority lists and therefore creating uncomfortably big holes in many membership rosters. Instead, the organizations have used the dinghies to tailor racing to reinvigorate club racing. By doing so, they have maintained the club’s role as an integral part of the racing scene and made local, summer sailing a fun, competitive option for everyone.

These new one-designs are easy to rig and maintain, take little time to learn to sail (yet provide a full range of competitive levels) and can be purchased for a relatively low price. What is more, the preferred racing style mirrors the boats’ simplicity. Short courses allow for several races a day, bringing the fun of frostbiting to summer. And, with simple main and jib configurations (only the Johnson 18 has a spinnaker), the new doublehanded dinghies allow family members or new sailors who want to race to join in the fun by crewing. “Keep it affordable, keep it fun,” says Gil Samuelson, JY Sailboats’ regional representative for the fast-growing Southeast, and he’s right.

Four years ago, after noticing an alarming decline in the club’s membership, the Lake Bluff YC in Lake Bluff, Ill., formed a committee to develop a strategic vision for the club. At the time, most of the sailing done at Lake Bluff was in Sunfish. Membership had gone from a high of 100 in the early ’80s down to 60 in the late ’80s, and the average age was between 45 and 50. As John Simons, a committee member and current membership chairman, explains, “there was a lot of pressure on the club to expand into other classes, but through the visionary process we decided that our real strength was to stay with one fleet and generate the critical mass for good racing.”

The committee drew up a mission statement: “The Lake Bluff YC is a not-for-profit organization that promotes the sailing of Sunfish sailboats on Lake Michigan. Our mission is to be a world-class Sunfish sailing club providing the highest quality sailing programs, including racing instruction, family participation, social activities and community involvement.”

The board also decided to focus on recruiting new junior members. The club contacted the Lake Bluff Park District and set up a joint summer junior sailing program. Lake Bluff YC provides the boats (eight club-owned Sunfish and two committee boats), the Park District lines up the instructors and handles insurance, and lessons are open to the public. Memorial Day through October, the club also hosts a series of Sunday afternoon races that now attract 15 to 25 boats, including a number of juniors. To race you must be a club member, and to qualify for the series you need sail in only 20 percent of the races. Forty percent of these races then count toward your score, giving everyone plenty of time for summer vacations and sailing.

Today, the junior program has a steady enrollment of 10 to 15 youngsters, the club membership has increased to 120 families (the only type of membership), and there are 85 boats in the storage compound on the beach. While the relationship with the Park District has been successful, Simons attributes much of the club’s recent growth to a “good blend between social and sailing activities.” To keep everyone informed, the club set up a telephone hotline with a message listing the sailing and social events for the week. They’ve also developed a color brochure and created a web page (http://hamlet.lfc.edu/labyrinth/lbyc/). While few club members travel to national events, the club has not forgotten its pledge to be a “world-class Sunfish sailing club” and hosted the 1995 Midwest Sunfish Championships and the 1996 Sunfish Women’s Nationals.

At Cedar Point YC in Westport, Conn., the addition of a new Vanguard 15 fleet has sparked a similar racing revival. Traditionally a dinghy racing organization, the club’s parking lot contains Thistles, Lightnings and Stars that are raced regularly. Despite the continued success of these fleets, Cedar Point YC’s long range planning committee felt a need for a fleet that would be easy and fun to sail, inexpensive, could be sailed with a crew and would attract the local dinghy sailors to the club during the week and between other class championships. In the fall of 1994 the club set out to research new fleets. By the end of the following summer, Cedar Point YC had a fleet of 24 Vanguard 15s, 18 privately owned and six club-owned.

As Phil Lotz (a past long-range planning committee chair and current vice commodore and fleet captain) explains, “The whole thing was to design a product from soup to nuts that would fit the club and the local dinghy sailors.” In making its decision, the committee considered everything from the boat to the racing schedule and the social aspects that would go along with it. Boats were tested on the water, and committee members investigated each class’ growth rate, geographical concentration of fleets, leadership structure, rules and regatta schedules, and associations with sailmakers, as well as the stability of the builders.

At the same time, Cedar Point YC also designed a new membership category for non-boat owners (“racing associate”), with dues set at a lower rate. The club then committed to purchasing six boats which all members could sail at no charge. At the end of the year, the club sells its six boats to fleet members at a small discount, then buys new ones in the spring. While the club boats serve a purpose, Lotz is quick to point out that the focus is on individual ownership. “We didn’t want club boats being the backbone of the fleet,” says Lotz. “We wanted them to supplement the privately owned fleet.”

The Cedar Point YC program drew over 20 people to the club in its first two years. Lotz estimates that approximately 25 people sailed the club boats last summer, and guesses that the boats saw 95-percent usage with minimal overlap and waiting periods.

Like Lake Bluff YC, Cedar Point YC realized the need for critical mass and coordinated a group purchase of boats. This reduced the price a bit, and created an immediate fleet. “If you have 30 boats in the lot, you’ll get between 50 and 60 percent on the line,” reasons Lotz. The club runs two separate series, Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. You need to sail 60 percent of the races to qualify, and in ’95 they averaged 18 boats on Thursday and 15 boats on Sunday. Interestingly, the sailors’ ages average out in the early 30s, but only roughly 25 percent of the fleet travels to big regattas. In ’95, Cedar Point YC’s goal was a fleet of 30 boats, and it got 25. By spring ’96, the fleet consisted of 34 boats.

At the same time that Cedar Point YC was investigating a new fleet, Noroton YC was also in the market. Noroton YC, a family-oriented club also in Connecticut, had established J/24, Sonar, Ensign and Cat Boat fleets and a large junior program. Like Cedar Point YC, it conducted an extensive evaluation of members’ needs and boats that would suit those needs. As Nancy Pearson, chairman of the search committee and current fleet captain explains it, the committee felt there was a “huge drop in people who stay in sailing -- from age 14 to 18 right through 40.”

In the process of its search, Noroton YC came up with five goals for the new fleet. The boat needed to be: 1. affordable and fun for the post-college group; 2. provide close tactical racing for experienced sailors in the 20- and 30-year-old age range; 3. be a good vessel for intermediate-level sailors with larger boats to develop their racing skills; 4. be suitable for match racing and team racing and 5. attract new younger members and be fun for junior sailors who didn’t necessarily aspire to be national champions. “We had our goals,” says Pearson, “but there was only one rule, and that was ‘the fun factor.’” Pearson also points out that the club’s focus was more on bridging gaps in the sailing population than on building the club’s membership, but admits that the club has five new members, all in the post-college to late 30s range, as a direct result of introducing the new fleet.

Realizing that Noroton YC’s needs would be addressed more effectively if members could sail with and against nearby clubs, the search committee worked with Cedar Point YC and decided to go in on a bulk purchase of Vanguard 15s with Lotz’s group. By the summer of 1995, Noroton YC had 14 privately owned Vanguards, and 21 in 1996.

Noroton YC raced the Vanguards Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons in ’95 but, because of the many multiple-boat owners, has cut its schedule back to Thursday nights (averaging 12 boats each week) and major club events for ’96. They also have a five-week-long fall frostbiting series. A typical Noroton YC member, Pearson insists her experience with the dinghies is common: “It’s supplementing [my Sonar and J/35 racing] to help me develop my skills.” And, on top of that, the boats are family friendly. Some are used as daysailers, and Thursday nights draw large spectator fleets.

Likewise, at East Greenwich YC in Rhode Island, JY 15s have been introduced to supplement the club’s traditional PHRF racing. Explains Steve Olson, local fleet captain, “Three years ago the club found that participation in PHRF racing was declining...after a number of meetings, we decided to think about the introduction of one-design racing to complement the PHRF divisions.” A survey and several brainstorming sessions later, the club was in negotiation with the Greenwich Bay Sailing Association, a non-profit organization that operates its junior sailing program in JY 15s out of East Greenwich YC. The club purchased new sails for the JYs and donated them to GBSA, and East Greenwich YC members leased all 10 of the boats the first summer (1995). Charterers, who must be members of East Greenwich YC, keep the new sails for the season, and have the use of the boats for a Wednesday night series, the East Greenwich YC Open Regatta, a four-Sunday spring series, a four-Saturday/Sunday fall series, and a new frostbiting series. With the Wednesday night series open to all JY sailors (cost is $25/season for members, $30 for non-members), the club averaged 11 JYs on the line. For ’96, East Greenwich planned to open up the one-design circle to local Sunfish and Laser sailors as well.

According to Olson, the club's membership was attracted to the JY atmosphere -- couples sailing, parent/child combinations, and all the fun that goes along with it. The average age of the dinghy sailors racing out of East Greenwich YC is 34, and Olson cites six husband/wife or boyfriend/ girlfriend combos and three parent/child pairings. While the program has yet to directly increase the club's membership, Olson notes that a lot of the PHRF crew (who also sail on Wednesdays) are taking a second look at the smaller craft and, with five members recently buying boats, he expects to see his full roster of 16 JYs on the line on Wednesday nights.
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Virginia Verney is a Sailing World contributing editor, based in Telluride, Colorado.

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Copyright © 1996 by Cruising World Publications. All rights reserved.