(Re)Buiding a Fleet

by Phil Grotheer

Phil Grotheer, a Lightning fanatic, has resurected fleet 329 in Annpolis, MD. In fact he has been so successful, the Lightning Class has granted his fleet the priveledge of holding the 2000 North Americans, probably their largest regatta of the year. Because the Lightning and the Snipe have a similar heritage, I feel this really speaks to the Snipe Class as well.

Key phrase for Fleet Builders: "To be inspired to perform a job is more important - for the work itself is the easy part"
Some drunk guy in a bar last summer...

This is why many fleets either maintain their numbers or decline over the years, due to lack of inspiration and being content about the way things are. What attracts sailors to a particular fleet? A complex question but a very valid one. There are many types of people that sail Lightnings, with varying reasons for buying boats and joining clubs; There are the hardcore sailors like those heading to the Southern Circuit next week, the hardcore sailor wannabe's or sailors wishing they had more free time, there's the family guy that just wants to get his kids into sailing, the club racer that doesn't have tags on his trailer, the "belongers" that just want to be part of a cool crowd that has good parties and fun people, there's even the guy that would rather crew on his own boat than steer. I think there is one recipe consisting of two main ingredients which will eventually draw all these types to buy a boat and join your fleet; 1) The strong will of one or more persons and 2) the persistent efforts of several people over the long course. I also believe the prior ingredient is the more difficult to acquire.

What does the common Fleet Captain want out of his fleet? That's simple, a 100 boat Lightning fleet with club races every weekend of 50 boats or more. Wishing this was achievable in today's fast paced career/family driven world, most will settle for a fleet with 10 to 15 boats at weekend regattas. I guess for many fleets the question is: how can we boost our fleet from 5 boats to 20? I think the answer lies in the motivation of one person to start the process. Finding twenty people in each town who can afford a Lightning who also enjoy the water is no doubt achievable anywhere in the country. If your fleet is in need of repair then it is up to you as Fleet Captain and a sailor to chose one of the following options and follow through with it:

  1. Continue sailing in your local Lightning Fleet which has minimal activity.
  2. Convert to another class, currently with good activity like J-24, PHRF or whatever Sailing World dubs new "Best Boat of the Year" - this year the new fangled "Plastic-Disposable-One-Design-20", or PDOD-20
  3. Take up a new sport altogether, maybe a "couch-sport"
  4. Create a new local Lightning Fleet with over 15 boats by investing some hard work, then enjoy the rewards in years to come.
I think everyone that has ever read an issue of the Lightning Flashes will cringe at option 2, some may already be an "option 3" guy. Most will prefer option 4 but lack the inspiration and fear the work. What may help for many of you is to be in the same situation Annapolis Fleet 329 was in 4 years ago ... when only 2 boats showed up at a fall regatta at my home club Severn Sailing Association. It's almost embarrassing admitting that this happened but it's the truth. As we sat in the parking lot feeling sorry for ourselves and blaming all the regular fleet guys that didn't show up, I had a revelation! Like the church scene in the Blues Brother's Movie when Jake and Elwood were asked by Reverend Cleophus "do you see the light?". For me it was this simple, either make a difference by creating a new fleet or chose options 1, 2 or 3 and accept the demise of our Lightning fleet. I would get so infuriated thinking about all those other active fleets out there not half as worthy as the Lightning. After all, Lightning sailors are truly blessed to have a boat with such great lines and grace, one with such a great International organization, great people, great competitors and great history. It was just our local fleet that needed the help. And what did all those other stupid boats out there have that we didn't? Better marketing strategies? Better local organizers? Or just better luck? I truly realized what I wanted more than anything was for the Lightning to overcome this town of Annapolis until all the stupid boats went away and all that's left are Lightnings. This is a bit extreme but it's nice to have dreams of revenge in such a competitive sailing town. It all starts with the clear motivation of one person, who inspires another, then another. You must see your fleet as a "new entity," not the dying remnant from someone else's hard work years ago. Every word spoken about your "new fleet" must be released with a certain level of excitement, which will fire up another key member in the fleet. Then the two of you can start figuring out the next step that will work within your club and your surroundings. Remember that the hard part was seeing the light yourself and realizing that this is what you want, and it was a decision that you made. Others will soon take on your goal as their own and the work will eventually be distributed. When you lose your motivation from time to time, think back to that moment of shame, or whatever it was that first inspired you.

Then the rest is all hard work - simple but hard work. And again - when you get tired of making phone calls, writing articles, or attending meetings think of all the other stupid boats that don't deserve to be out there. The rest is simply executing the mechanics of fleet building: Develop a method of bringing new boats into your area (ILCA ads). Get used to working with prospective buyers and find them boats within their budget. Get sales literature from our builders (Allen and Nickels) to give to others with a ballpark price. All it takes is a phone call and a deposit check to order a new boat.

  1. Advertise - Write articles in your club newsletter about your fleet, put fleet flyers in your local bagel shop, put an ad in your regional US Sailing publication (our CBYRA), go to big boat parties and recruit people. Be a salesperson and see your commission as that extra boat on the line.
  2. Re-assign boats in the lot that don't get used. Ask owners to sell their boat if they are not sailing regularly, and don't apologize for offending as it's their duty as a Lightning owner to keep the circle going. It's also a good way to inspire them to sail more.
  3. Restructure your regatta schedule to accommodate the few members you have while considering new members. Don't put too many weekend regattas on the schedule if they will be poorly attended at first. If this happens you will immediately lose the guy's interest who was considering joining your ranks. Work on a few good regattas first and allow for "secondary" type sailing - like Wednesdays or Sundays. It's been our experience that excited new members want to sail more so you want to have something to sell to them.
  4. Get owners to lend their boats to other excited sailors. Even if you only have one guy in the fleet who doesn't mind lending his boat, take advantage of his generosity to get that boat on the starting line.
  5. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls
  6. Email, email, email - start a list if possible so members can communicate with each other without your help.
  7. Webpage, webpage, webpage - the best way to get that pile of info that resides in your file cabinet out in public domain where everyone has access to it (email addresses, schedule, phone numbers, articles, digital pictures etc.). I don't think the webpage itself creates members but it frees up your time so you can make more phone calls and emails.
Always remember the original cause for your inspiration. Whether it was options 1 thru 3, or maybe an annoying flattering comment someone made about the new "PDOD-20" that's in the new spring issue. It's the fuel that you will use from week to week to get you through the season. Remember that the Lightning is "your class" and whenever you speak about it refer to it in the highest regard. Anyone who knows about sailboats knows about the Lightning Class and will respect you for it. And they will extend that respect when they talk to the next person. Good luck,

Phil Grotheer

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