One-Design Survey Says The Tide Is High, But We're Moving On

US SAILING/Sailing World's annual one-design class survey reveals that many centerboard classes are gaining strength, but is this misleading?

Survey Cover

Dave Reed

I'll be the first to admit that I have no love for numbers; my eyes glaze over when I see pages of statistics, survey data and spreadsheets. But the results of the 2006 US SAILING/Sailing World One-Design Survey actually got me excited. The deeper I looked into the results of this annual membership count, the more I understood about what was going on outside the classes and fleets I sail with here at home in Newport, R.I.

The complete survey (click here for condensed) is filled with reported gains and losses, and with each I instantly wondered what the story was behind the number. Where did those 100 or so Etchells members go while the little known Y Flyer class picked up seven? Did the Flyer folks find a creative way to get people on the water and sailing, or did they just push a little harder to get members to make good on their dues? One can always count on an explanation, and behind each explanation lie the important lessons from which we can learn and apply to own fleets, our own, classes, and even to ourselves.

A quick note on the methodology: More than 200 class representatives were asked to complete an online survey, hosted by US SAILING. The survey mainly asked about current membership and regatta participation, but also sought recommendations on how US SAILING could better serve the one-design class community. In early January, the data was compiled in-house at Sailing World and presented for the first time at the symposium.

If you've taken the time to review the data, I'm sure there are more than a few raised eyebrows and questions already. If not, you're not looking closely enough (or stopped once you found your class). So before we go any further with this, I'd like to put two caveats on the table. No. 1: It's a small slice of the one-design pie. With 68 of more than 150 classes responding, we really do have a small piece of the big picture. Our goal for 2007 is to double the response rate, so we'll be making a harder push for better participation.

Garbage in, garbage out. That's caveat No. 2, and it's an important that's of any unscientific survey. Each year we rely on classes to voluntarily provide their numbers, and as you're well aware, the survey's output is only as accurate as the data we're given. There are many different means of record keeping and reporting among the classes, as well as membership categories, but we've carefully reviewed the data we have, and in many cases followed up and investigated irregular numbers.

OK, so with that said, lets take a look at what happened in 2006. The pie chart at left plots the survey question that asked whether one's class was growing, holding even, or shrinking. Of the respondents who answered this question (and not all did), 44 percent reported growth, 39 reported holding even, and 10 percent reported a reduction. The rest were unsure. There's more green than red on that pie, and that's something we like to see in this discussion.

Let's now take a deeper look into survey for some interesting themes, starting with the top-10 biggest classes. As anyone could have predicted, there were no surprises in the top 10, with the U.S. Optimist dinghy contingent sharing the apex of the table despite a significant slide in its memberships, which we'll get to momentarily. The Laser class is one of those holding even, and look at that-the Lightning class is making a turnaround from its previous drop in 2005. Let's check in with these three to what's going on.

A Small Drop in the Optimist Bucket
My first call to get the story behind the 550-member hit in the Optimist class report is to the USODA, specifically class administrator, Chuck Maschal. Worldwide, he tells me, the Optimist class has surpassed the 16,000 sail number mark, demonstrating that it remains the most prevalent entry-level junior sailing trainer and raceboat out there. Plus, he tells me, more than 1,000 new boats were registered with the class last year, and attendance at its major regattas was in the triple digits. That's great news.

Of all one-design classes, the Optimist class is used to a high drop out rate with sailors, aging, sizing, or maturing out the boat. So, despite this, and with such strength in numbers, how could they possibly be reporting a 550-member drop? I was told the USODA's board has discussed it at length, but is unable to pinpoint a cause.
So what to do? Maschal is of the opinion that the class, which mainly focuses on the racers, needs to do a better job selling to the kids who don't participate beyond their summer programs. They're discussing initiatives and programs, recognizing the need to embrace the class's recreational sailors, too.

The King of the Status Quo
And what of the Laser, the world's most prolific one-design?
At the local fleet level, Laser sailing is booming; I've seen it firsthand in my own local Fleet 413. The same appears to be true at the junior level as well, with the growth of Radial and 4.7 sailing across the country. Aging sailors are getting in on the act, too, with masters racing taking off.

But the 2,400 counted U.S. members still makes up a small part of the larger Laser sailing community. The Laser class is fortunate to have the professional assistance of Sherri Campbell and Jerelyn Biehl's One-Design Management, of San Diego, which I'm told will be making a concerted effort to boost membership this year.

Biehl, a veteran of class administration, says this push is a two-prong approach. Dispatching Campbell to key underserved district events, not just the grand-prix, which are heavily attended by card-holding members already, has helped put a face to the class administration, and has allowed her to interact with and better serve the members. Laser sailors can expect more of this. The second prong is an aggressive renewal system, which includes multiple reminders, and this year a new online renewal system.
Biehl's advice to other class officers is to find as many ways a possible to serve the members-the more you can offer the better, but whatever you do, don't stay stagnant.

Lightnings, On the Rise
After taking a hit in 2005, the Lightning class underwent a change of leadership in the class office, and under the helm of Jan Davis, started making a turnaround. This, she tells me, comes only come from diligence and hard work. No secret there. The key to her immediate success says Davis, was better serving her district representatives. One approach she took was sending each district rep an updated list of unpaid members, which facilitated the push for membership at the local level. Giving them the tools to simplify the process is important, she says.

The goal for 2007 is to continue build strong relationships all the way do the fleet level, empowering those at the fleet level by creating goodwill from the top down and the giving the members the sense they're being served.

How Now, E Scows
So there's some cursory insight into the top three on the survey, but before wrapping up I'd be remiss in hitting on a few All-Stars, and addressing a few red flags. From the centerboard group, I call out the E Scow, which boosted its membership by 168.
To get to the bottom of this, I checked in with Tom Burton, the E Scow class's executive director, who tells me the increase was due to a combinations of factors, namely hosting the National Championship in Minnetonka, a popular Scow sailing venue, which precipitated a significant bump by those attending.

Another contributing factor was a heated proposal to change the boat's scantlings to allow asymmetric spinnakers. Only regular class members can cast votes on such an issue, says Burton, and this one really got people to join so they could vote for or against it. They wanted to be heard and they came off the fence. The scantling change, by the way, didn't pass by the required majority vote, but the class will embrace A-sail sporting Es.

A Club 420 Exodus?
One of the most staggering drop-offs in the survey you'll note is in the Club 420 class, which by visual observation here in the Northeast and at the many US Sailing Junior Olympic events, continues to be the preeminent junior doublehanded junior boat in most parts of the country. But how did 1,000 members simply vanish?

John Lambert, president of the newly reorganized Club 420 class, tells me they're there and sailing, but they're simply not accounted for. Previous membership reports were inflated, he says, and with a new fledgling organization in place, they're working on the membership data they inherited, but feel 800 is a realistic representation of actual members to report in the survey.

That said, and with so many sailors unaccounted for on the books, the group faces monumental challenges in building the 420 class's community. Historically, while there is plenty of 420 racing happening at the local level, the only class-specific events requiring membership were the North Americans and Midwinters. Last year they started resurrecting events, starting with the Atlantic Coast Championships, and this year they'll add a National championship in Wayzata. They'll push forward with membership drive. This year, says Lambert, is see where it gets them by year's end.

The Reigning King of the Keelboats
The perennial biggie of the keelboat group is the J/24 class, and this 30-year-old design continued holding its own against waves of newer, sportier boats-the reason is simple, the racing is always good. But J/24 class executive director Eric Faust is a realist, and doesn't get too excited when he sees a 131-member jump; he knows too well the cyclical nature of this one-design class membership. In 2006, despite a decline in U.S. membership, a boost came from south of the border, with Mexico hosting the 2008 Worlds in Puerto Vallarta.

In continuing to serve its members in many different ways, Faust says the class does have incentive programs in place with retailers, and has tried packaging and pricing schemes, which help. But ultimately, he says, what keeps his numbers where they are is ensuring J/24 racers get the quality racing they expect. Their primary motivation for them joining the class is to race, and so long they continue to provide the core with that, it will remain intact, regardless of where the big events take place.

When it was all said and done, time spent with this years survey and in talking with another of class officers, there are three clear themes standing as an undercurrent to the state of one-design sailing. Whether your class is growing, shrinking, or holding, consider the following three observations. Make membership an incentive to belong rather than a requirement-this all comes down to customer service. Organization at the top can be infectious all the way to the bottom. Stagnation will lull a membership into complacency; change will spark it into action.