As I’ve visited yacht clubs around the country over the past year I’ve noticed an aging population of sailors. The age disparity between the number of older members and new, younger faces at these clubs seems to be greater than ever. In fact, two clubs to which I belong recently surveyed their memberships and were surprised to learn that the average age was over 60. This is a major issue at many yacht clubs that are finally realizing that in order to remain relevant in their communities the future is in recruiting young members. Consequently, many
yacht clubs are working on initiatives to bolster their membership rosters. If this is not happening at your club, it’s time to make it a priority.
There are many reasons for joining a yacht or sailing club, including access to the water, sailing, boating education, social activities, and service to the sport, but time constraints and financial obligations for younger sailors newly engaged in raising families or building careers makes it difficult for this important demographic to justify club membership.
Interestingly, in spite of the downturn in the economy, many clubs are reporting an increase in usage, primarily, they say, because current members are traveling less and staying closer to home when they have free time. For this reason alone, now is a good time for clubs to review their member services with the goal of engaging and attracting new, young members as well. It’s a perfect time for growth.
For the most part, many clubs are running successful junior programs for sailors under the age of 18. The challenge, however, is retaining these young sailors through and immediately after their collegiate years, which is when a vast majority of them disappear until they reach their 40s and beyond. I know of a number of clubs that have initiatives that are working. Of course, each club has its unique set of circumstances to consider, but there are many good ideas in these programs.
The American YC in Rye, N.Y., has long maintained a fleet of Ideal 18s for racing and instruction, but these boats are dated. In a concerted effort to invigorate the racing atmosphere at the club and attract post-collegiate sailors, AYC nurtured a fleet of 20 RS K6s as its club boat. The K6 is a 19-foot, 600-pound boat with a keel bulb and a generous sail plan that includes an asymmetric spinnaker. The American YC fleet is open to non-members to help build interest outside of its established constituency.
It’s a great strategy for growth, and Past Commodore Bill Ketcham is enthusiastic about the K6 and what it’s done in a short time to improve the club’s young membership base. “This is a very high-performance sportboat that has proved appealing across generations,” he says. “There are many family crews in the class.”
AYC has also radically altered its dues structure to attract younger members, allowing the sons and daughters of existing members to join at age 16.
Along similar lines, the Annapolis YC (Md.) purchased a fleet of 29ers this year, which has been a popular attraction for the area’s high-school sailors. Speed sells, extreme sports are very appealing to young people, and sailing should follow this trend. The Chicago YC, which has club-owned 420s and Optimists, is considering a new fleet for the club’s active racing sailors. Communications Director Christie Denson says the Laser SB3 and the Sonar are two designs under review.
Sailing instruction is another good way to attract young people to use a club. The South Carolina YC purchased three Harbor 20s for this purpose. “We saw an increase in adult sailing and lessons,” says Dana Cortes, the club’s general manager. “We are also in the process of forming a couple of high school sailing teams, and talking about building a storage rack for Lasers to encourage sailors to use the club.”
The New York YC has been working hard to attract young members as well. Dick Werdiger, chairman of the membership committee of the 3,300-member club says they’ve increased junior membership by having junior member social events for members and non-members. They’ve modified the dues and initiation fee schedule to make the club more affordable for young people, and they’ve initiated a packed team-racing program that appeals to recent college graduates. “NYYC junior membership is for people under the age of 40,” Werdiger points out. “Our young members introduce their friends to the club.”
John Grzinich, of Austin YC (Texas), says they now offer a substantial discount to those under the age of 30. “We find that centerboard boats attract younger sailors more than keel boats,” says Grzinich. “We also have FJs, Lasers, and Picos available for use.”
Bill Campbell, Rear Commodore of the San Diego YC, likes to highlight his club’s approach. “We do not require sailors under 30 to serve on committees, because their time is limited,” he says. “We try to make it easy for young people to join so that as they get older they will continue being members and become more active in club activities. We’ve seen an increase in club usage in recent months, but we are having more ‘cook-your-own’ barbeque events to hold down costs.”
The Buccaneer YC in Mobile, Ala., allows juniors to become members without having to be voted in, according to Commodore Tom Davis. “We host the University of Alabama Sailing Team,” says Davis. “They keep their boats at our club and host regattas here. We’ve had a few join the club after graduation.”
Buccaneer’s example of hosting a college sailing team is a win-win partnership. The same is true for high school sailing teams. It’s an excellent use of a club’s facilities in the offseason, and an even better way to build relationships with young sailors-your future members. If your club isn’t hosting a team, what’s stopping you from reaching out to the local schools?
America’s Cup winner and former Olympian Robbie Doyle, Vice Commodore of Eastern YC in Marblehead, Mass., says they are trying to invigorate the club’s sailing scene. “We have a sailing pro on staff that organizes team racing, does some coaching and teaching,” he says, “We want the post college group to join.”
As for dues, Doyle says the club is in the process of restructuring membership fees to lower the cost. There are no initiation fees for members younger than 25. “We are also discussing sailing-only memberships because we have expensive facilities here such as tennis courts, a pool, and dining rooms,” he says. “I personally, feel we need more team racing.”
One of the best ways to attract members is a recruiting effort. With a fleet available, a yacht club becomes a compelling sell. A club can start with a small fleet of boats, and build the number up over several years. The key is having a program for using the boats. The list for use includes basic instruction, racing clinics, informal fleet racing, day sailing, team racing, match racing, and taking potential members out sailing.
Clubs also need to have a strong maintenance plan in place for such club-owned boats. Some clubs ask members to pay for a boat and put it into the fleet for general use. As an incentive, the donor can name the boat, or use it at no cost. Long time Centerport YC member Bill Jorch is in charge of maintaining his club’s Ideal 18 fleet. “We use them for team racing and we have about 12 very enthusiastic young women who attend sailing instruction every Tuesday,” says Jorch. Centerport also has a fleet of Vanguard 15s that are used on weeknights and weekends, and are popular with recent college graduates.
Many U.S. clubs have too many different kinds of boats within their own fleet. I think this hurts participation, and I would urge clubs to have the courage to designate only a few classes. A modern sportboat is a good inducement for young people. Making it easy to join with reduced dues, few demands, and easy requirements are three easy ways to build a young membership base. Yacht clubs make good life-long organizations, and now is the perfect time for every club in this country to reassess its priorities so that they, and the sport, may continue to thrive long into the future.