Successive hurricanes and floods pummeled coastal Texas in the early 2000s, dealing a crippling blow to the many one-design fleets long rooted in the region. Recovery was slow, and while it took the better part of two decades for dinghy and keelboat fleets to flourish once again, youth sailing, particularly at Lakewood, needed more young sailors among its ranks.
Ten years of building a strong youth program led them to ask the very same question posed in yacht clubs across the nation: How do they get those same young sailors back and active? “From a membership perspective, the level of growth wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” says Lakewood’s past commodore Ash Walker.
Younger members, who are building careers and families, want team and match racing as well as social activity, Walker says, but they don’t want—or can’t afford—to own and campaign private boats. It was time for the club to step up and smash those the barriers, which began with an exhaustive three-year evaluation process and led to 12 new RS21 keelboats, commissioned at the club in late February.
The process provides a road map for other clubs with the initiative and wherewithal to do the same: They first reached out to progressive peers around the country to determine what type of programming was working best. Then came the boat: J/22s were attractive, Walker says, because it was the dominant fleet in the area already, but trying to find a dozen of them was problematic. “We wanted boats to be virtually identical for the racing we wanted to do,” Walker says. “We then talked about the J/70, and looked at it pretty hard, but cost and boat draft was a factor there. They looked at Sonars, but again, sourcing a matched set was a concern. Then came the arrival of the RS21, from English builder RS Sailing. As a sporty new and unproven design, Walker and his committee, which included local RS dealer and club member Mark McNamara, owner of KO Sailing, found that the 21-footer was an even tougher sell to those with the purse strings.
Cost was a big concern, but the club had recently sold real estate it owned, an off-site facility with declining use by the club membership. “We had the good fortune to sell that property and reinvest for the good of the club,” Walker says. They also partnered with a local sailing foundation, Bay Access, which “gave us some flexibility and an additional source of capital to help offset the costs.”
“I was keen on the RS21 from the beginning,” McNamara says. “RS really thinks through their boats. Early on, I tied in the factory with the club’s decision-makers to ensure it was a partnership, that RS understands our goals.” As fleet manager, McNamara’s KO Sailing now oversees the concierge service. “The goal is to remove every barrier to get members out on the boats, and then back on land and straight into the club bar or restaurant,” he says.
Walker, McNamara and a small Texan entourage chartered an RS21 for one regatta in 2019 (“We had a great time,” they say, with a chuckle, when pressed on their results) and confirmed that it “hit all the buttons,” Walker says. “It’s a new, good-looking boat, and can be used for adult learn-to-sail classes, twilight club racing, as well as youth and match racing. It’s very versatile and very stable. Being able to sail in both Clear Lake and Galveston Bay 12 months out of the year, we’re happy with the choice. Costwise it’s a great fit.”
Plus, the members are now jazzed with the sight of a dozen of them, now sitting in lifts, adorned with colorful decals and bow numbers.
When the first container arrived at Lakewood’s facilities on Clear Lake, a handful of members rolled up their sleeves to help assemble—screwing on cleats, stepping rigs and slotting keels. “You can only imagine what it takes to organize a fleet like this, and the headaches we ran into were very, very small,” McNamara says, lauding RS for its help—including one of the company’s principles flying in from England to help assemble the boats.
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“Looking back, it was important to have a lot of communication with the members, to sell them on the idea that this is the future,” Walker says. “Selling them on the idea of buying 12 sailboats was a challenge, but when we showed that it would bring in new members, they jumped on the wagon.”
When the board approved the plan, and the funding in late 2019, membership jumped immediately—”double digits,” Walker says. “Including younger family members and a couple of well‑known sailors who sold their J/22s.”
To facilitate management of the fleet and member usage, Lakewood also retained KO Sailing, which built an online reservation system. Every member who wants to charter is vetted, and those in need of remedial skills go to a coaching session with the club’s waterfront director, Terry Flynn. A custom microsite for Lakewood allows them to register for weeknight local races and day sails. “People show up, and the boat is on the dock ready to go,” McNamara says. “It’s a very simple process.”
Where there was once not a single club-owned fleet on Galveston Bay, Lakewood’s lead might quickly change that, says Walker, who hopes other nearby clubs follow suit because, as everyone knows, Texans only go big.