Making Our Yacht Clubs Essential

With many big issues to tackle, many clubs are responding admirably

Over the winter I had a chance to visit 43 yacht clubs, often while lecturing. At every stop, talking with flag officers, junior sailors, managers, and active volunteers, I was struck by two things. First, how much everyone involved with a club aims to run their clubs better and, second, their deep curiosity about what other clubs around the country are doing to handle tough issues. What issues? Aging membership, declining participation on the water, growing regulatory restrictions, budget deficits, rising insurance premiums, the need to upgrade facilities, and policy questions like reciprocity or governance. It's enough to make your head spin; however, I was heartened to see many clubs taking on these and other projects with success. In a speech at the International Sailing Summit last fall, retiring ISAF President Paul Henderson observed that too many clubs are run by "knife and fork" managers who don't understand that the needs of yacht club members extend beyond the dining room. Henderson's point is valid, anda club's board of directors must regularly review the club's purpose. Their objective should be to make a yacht club essential to its membership and surrounding community. If your club hasn't evaluated itself against this criteria, a questionnaire is a helpful first step. Interviews of different constituents will give further guidance. Next, your club should develop a long range plan through a process with broad input. Town hall style meetings will help your LRP committee develop a point of view consistent with what members want, and an inclusive process will also make selling the final plan easier. After a mission statement is written and long-term goals are defined, the next stage is to list, in order, your club's priorities. At this point the LRP committee and finance officers should research the rough cost of these projects. The final plan needs to be presented thoughtfully to build momentum, keeping in mind that many members are passionate about their clubs. Many consider the club to be an extension of their family and home-so expect feedback and be ready to modify the plan as ideas surface. Once you have support from the members who care most, success is more likely. In working with the clubs to which I belong, I've seen that this planning process is important and takes time, but it's not the hardest part. What's really needed, as well, is critical thinking about your club's role in sailing and where you should focus the club's resources so it remains vital and growing. One of the more thoughtful sailors on the East Coast is David Elwell, a past commodore of American YC, in Rye, N.Y., and current rear commodore of the New York YC. Elwell says, "A yacht club needs to interact with its community. Public access is important. An example we've emphasized is cooperation with Sail Newport [a public sailing facility in Newport, R.I.], working together on major events and promoting sailing." After spending considerable time in New Zealand during the last two America's Cups, Elwell says, "New Zealand does this exceedingly well. Sailing is not elitist there; it's a public-access sport. We can learn from their example." Besides helping with the public-access side, clubs should look at their membership policies. Elwell says, "We need to create cost-efficient ways to get on the water. Inexpensive junior memberships are a good way to get young people involved." Young people often disappear after college for 10 to 15 years. A club-owned fleet allows sailing to take place during periods of a few hours or less. Clubs should work hard to keep this core age group involved, keeping dues low, promoting junior member social activities, and finding innovative ways to get them on the water. Elwell points to the Larchmont YC's fleet of JY 15s, which form the basis for a popular program of instruction and informal racing that attract many young people. Here are other examples of programs and improvements that leaders across the country have put in motion: Many clubs host high-school sailing teams, which are full of potential future members. In some cases, having teams on site makes it possible to retain sailing instructors on an annual basis to run youth programs. In fact several clubs have hired full-time employees to manage race programs for all members. Their job isn't to take the place of race committees, but to coordinate activities while providing the energy, expertise, and consistency to develop and improve programs year to year. A major question at many clubs is whether to upgrade or expand the facilities. I encouraged every club to make this a priority when I wrote about it last ("Taking on the Big Club Project," Sept. '03-see Waterfront property is precious and should be utilized to the maximum extent. Clubs should take on these projects sooner rather than later-every club I've seen improve its facilities is now thriving. At the same time, keep tradition in mind. Many clubs are more than 100 years old and there's something special about preserving old clubhouses, while updating them to be safe, comfortable, and efficient to run. Special attention should be paid to improving docks, floats, and moorings. Don't forget that good communication brings people together. Every club should publish a regularly scheduled newsletter. It's worth the money to hire an editor to collect information and produce a periodical. Ask members to write articles and print lots of results (people like to see their name in print). And don't forget to run plenty of pictures. Likewise, websites should be of high quality and regularly updated. Let anyone log on to the site to read about the club's mission, history, events, and race results. E-mails are an efficient way to promote happenings. Reminders are appreciated. I've been intrigued to find several clubs with significant libraries. The San Diego YC, Newport Harbor YC, and New York YC have among the best. You can build inventory by asking members to donate books and magazines. Race results, club records, contemporary readings, and reference books should be included. To be essential, clubs need to take leadership roles. One way is to create a signature regatta that builds pride and stature. An example is the Long Beach YC, in Calif., which hosts the Congressional Cup. Not only is this event one of the most important, longest-running match-race regattas in the world, it also pulls together more than 250 member volunteers. Clubs should also consider being leaders in reaching out to the community to gain water access, participating in meaningful fundraising events, developing handicap rules, and supporting American participation at international events like the Olympic Games. Working with their regional sailing associations and US SAILING, clubs should help manage and build the sport, sharing ideas and views with other clubs. As a side benefit, the more the members of a yacht club reach out to help others through these associations, the more they'll learn of other clubs' experiences and the better equipped they'll be to tackle their own complicated issues. This is all a lot of work for mostly volunteer organizations, but in the long run your local sailing activity will be far better off, and the alternative for your club-as long as the club patrons can support it-is a restaurant with dusty trophies and a water view.