Thoughts on Fleet Building

by Bill Symes Published on
Fleet building International Sailing Academy

Club racing fleets are like house plants: without care and nourishment, they wither away and die. We’ve all seen it. At Willamette Sailing Club (Portland, OR), where I’ve been sailing since the early ‘80s, I’ve watched a lot of one-design fleets come and go – Lasers, Tasars, Thistles, Lido 14s, Daysailors, Coronado 15s, C-Larks (to name just a few), all have gone through boom and bust periods. Some live to boom again; some are now extinct. The eternal question is, what separates the boomers from the dinosaurs? After nearly 40 years of observing this ebb and flow, I have some thoughts:


  • Every fleet needs an evangelist. Behind every thriving fleet, there’s one or two sparkplugs, people whose enthusiasm for sailing the boat is infectious, and who actively reach out to share it with others. They organize demo days for new prospects, clinics and training sessions to help newbies get up to speed, parties and other get-togethers where fleet members can meet and bond onshore. They write fleet reports for the club newsletter and bring beer to the après sailing de-briefs. When they move on, someone needs to pick up the torch, or else that fleet’s happy days are numbered.


  • Roll out the welcome mat. Jumping into an unfamiliar boat in a competitive fleet can be intimidating. It’s really important for the old-timers to reach out to the newcomers to make them feel comfortable and welcome. This can be as simple as extending a friendly greeting to new arrivals, or going to the extra effort of partnering them with a mentor to guide and support them through their initiation phase. Note: be courteous, and even a bit forgiving, on the race course. Nothing turns off a newbie faster than getting screamed at at the windward mark rounding.


  • Let them try before they buy. When LauraLee and I were shopping for a double-handed boat to sail together, the local Tasar fleet invited us to sail their loaner boat. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (for us personally as well as the Tasar fleet). The idea of a fleet loaner boat has been adopted with great success by, among others, the RS Aeros in Seattle and the Daysailors and Lido 14s in Portland. Note: The fundraising and restoration work usually required to put a “rescue boat” into service also make great fleet projects.


  • Help losers become winners. Sailboat racing is fun, but winning sailboat races is more fun. In a competitive fleet, it can be a steep climb to the winners’ circle. Novices get this and will usually tolerate a season or two back in the peloton. But nobody likes to lose forever. They need to see progress, or they’ll bail. The best fleets are the ones where ideas are freely shared, winners are generous with advice and coaching support, and take an active part in lifting up the back of the fleet. A good example of this is the Seattle Aero fleet, whose leaders host an informal de-brief at the end of every single racing day. Winners are grilled on settings, techniques and tactics. World champions and Olympic medalists share ideas with upcoming competitors. Every fleet member is continually learning, and the whole fleet is continually improving. In Portland, the Laser fleet hosts frequent half-day clinics covering boat set-up, boat handling, rules and tactics, local knowledge, and other topics by request. It’s always amazed me how many newbie problems can be resolved by one hour with an expert.


  • Make it fun. This is the sum total of the previous points: if you can attract sailors with a cool boat, welcome them into a friendly and supportive family of sailors, engage them on and off the water with positive experiences, and show them the way to improvement and success in their sailing, they will have fun. Keep it up, and you will have a strong fleet.

Bill Symes

One Response to “Thoughts on Fleet Building”

August 20, 2020 at 8:04 pm, Michael said:

Looking beyond successful classes of boat that have survived, in many countries sailing is in decline.

This article may be great advice for a particular boat type or a particular fleet and there are some great ideas in there to help class survival and some growth.

As an experienced sailor I would respond very positively to the approach of the Taser group in the above example. But I’m already part of the group of established sailors. What about everyone else – those that would make sailing grow?

It might make me stop or reduce sailing the type of boat I am sailing now and move to Tasers. In marketing terms this is “churn”. People moving around within an established segment. Class hopping (which is valuable for established sailors).

But the real problem is that all of us are truly unclear on how to retain new sailors after they do an introductory sailing course. In one way or another we put huge numbers of kids and adults through various sailing introduction programs, but largely our sport is in decline in many (if not most) countries.

My impression is that there are specific growth areas and they almost totally ignore club sailing. Some examples:

1/ Pure recreational sailing (who already have a boat chosen by scanning the internet and choosing something they like the look and price of. This is a huge group for anyone who looks at Craig’s List.
2/ and those doing home boatbuilding often stay well away from club sailing.

Turn up with the strange sailing dinghy they can afford or that they are interested in usually means uncertainty by both the club and the club members. The support that a boat class approach is not effective either on a social or sailng basis – they feel like orphans so go back to doing their own thing.

Many (most) clubs are really made up of groups of classes … the laser guys and gals hang out with laser guys and Gals, the Tasers with Tasers the 420s with 420s. A “class system” that misses the opportunities of a whole of club approach that can be more welcoming to beginners and sailors of boats that don’t quite fit in.

A more wholistic club approach breaking people out of their groups and being involved on the water and on shore would seem to be worthwhile approaches to capture more sailors … the incentive is clearly that the new participants at a club means a greater chance of classes gaining those new sailors, or their friends down the line as they gain experience.

It might also be enough to help get sailing get back into the Paralympics – not enough participants in the organised side of sailing in not enough countries.

Come to think of it … Yacht Clubs do this all the time – because the chances of having a fleet of yachts of the same type is much more rare. The bulk of memberships will be in varied boats which provide by far the bulk of membership.

Something that many dinghy clubs can learn from.

Other dinghy clubs are growing because they are reaching out – to the surrounding community, to women etc or with more recreationally based events within the program (round the island race, picnic race) or combining clubs for big mixed fleet racing on PY, regular class swapping races within the club, take a young sailor on your Laser race … the sky is the limit.

But the monoculture, class based promotion and training, while being great for creating champion level sailors, has not been so good at growing the sport.


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