Lightning Fleet Development – will you be ‘Plus One’ this year?

Bill Cabrall
#15315
Fleet 488 Fleet Captain
Denver, Colorado

Now that Spring is here, and your boats are ready for a new season, it’s time to get your fleet ready for the 2016 season.

That’s right, get your fleet ready.

Your local fleet organizes and conducts local racing, seminars and regattas. Groups of fleets banded together become yacht/sailing clubs, ILCA districts and regions, and ultimately the Class itself. Growth at the fleet level is crucial to the growth of the class. Now is the perfect time to plan and organize the activities that will ensure your fleet, club, and the class grows this year.

Allan Terhune once told me that the key to fleet growth was all about the back half of the fleet. Fleets grow or die there, he said. The people in the front are dedicated, and will always show up, always sail the big events, but those in the back half are not as motivated and have many other options to choose from.

Our job as Fleet officers is to make sure those people stick with Lightning’s. A fleet with the courage to discover why the last two or three people left might be able to make some simple changes and get them back. A Lightning lab, post race de-brief sessions (like we do at the Circuit or NAs), or arranging local experts to jump in the boats at the back for an evening or two could be very effective here.

Often, the addition or subtraction of only a single boat per year, year over year, will make or break a fleet. Like football’s turnover ratio, it is a lot better to be ‘Plus One’ rather than ‘Minus One’ at the end of a game/season. Our experience in Colorado has been that fleets that are ‘Minus One’ for more than a year or two are gone shortly after that. Now is the perfect time to do the planning to make sure that your fleet is ‘Plus One’ this year…and next year, and the year after that.

For example, have you found that it has gotten harder and harder to attract and keep sailors with young families active in your fleet? Do you know how old their kids are, and what activities are competing for their attention? Your fleet may have raced every Thursday night for generations, but if youth soccer in your community holds their games that evening, you are competing against every middle school in your community. Racing on Wednesday might be a much better option. 

Now is the time to do the research needed to figure out such things, to schedule a Lightning Lab, to establish a fleet level ‘boat grant’ program, to talk to your juniors about going to the WJMs next summer, and to do all of the other things that make your fleet a special place to be in your community.

Making some decent but older boats available is also a good idea. The newest member of our fleet, for example, is a high school student that just bought his first boat. Yes, it needs a little elbow grease, but it was cheap and he has the time and a huge smile on his face! We are delighted to see him sailing with us. If you know where the boats that are no longer active in your fleet have gone, and why they have faded away, then you will be able to find ways to bring them back or get them passed on to active sailors.

I have noticed editorials in the sailing press lately concerning the lack of places for young people to go when they exit the highly structured and coached world of junior programs, high school and college sailing. Suddenly, they are on their own, and don’t know where to go. I have read that many are lost to the sport at this juncture, which is a shame.

When the NA’s were on Barnegat Bay a couple of years ago, we towed out one morning past 4 clubs that each had well over 50 opti’s on the water.  That was over 200 junior sailors! We put tremendous effort into these kids when they are young. When the “pipeline” ultimately spits them out as college graduates, it is important that our fleets are ready to welcome them into Lightning sailing.

A fleet that coordinated activities with the coached programs in their area might find a ready source of new, very competitive sailors right in their back yard.  A ‘Boat Grant’ program at the fleet level might be a successful idea for reaching this group. The program at the ILCA level requires a commitment to attend multiple regattas, but a fleet level program might work well for all concerned if the requirement was for participation in the local fleet racing. I have heard that several fleets already do this, and hope to acquire and publish the details of how their programs work soon.

Additionally, at the class level, we are working on a ‘College Program’ designed to reach graduating seniors with information about the ILCA and how to find their local Lightning Fleet as they transition into new lives in different communities. An hour or two this Spring discussing how to welcome a new sailor to your city, club, and fleet as they move to their first post-college job could reward you with another skipper for a lifetime. That is a great deal for the investment of a beer or a meal at your club bar, some information about housing, or what makes your city is a fantastic place to be, and the use of a boat for an evening race or two.

At my lake, for example, we are also beginning to work with the local community sailing organization to build a bridge between the end of their activities and the beginning of ours. In 2016 we plan to have a Lightning Fleet member appear at the final class of every junior and adult class, armed with a fleet and sailing club flyer, to talk about our evening racing program, and to point out that the row of boats parked right across the parking lot (right OVER THERE!) are called Lightning’s, are fantastic family boats, race every Thursday night, and that 3 are currently for sale and 2 others are looking for crew this week.

If I can arrange it, we also hope to have Lightning’s in the water at the right moments to take the parents out to watch their kids sail in their classes, or race with the junior race team.

Young sailors are not the only potential source of new Lightning sailor’s. Bill Mauk mentioned something at the BCC last summer I found extremely interesting. He suggested we spend some effort recruiting 35-40 year olds. This age group is more established than college sailors, have more resources, their kids are old enough to crew, and they still have 30-40 years of active Lightning sailing to enjoy. It would be a mistake to ignore them. A fleet that made the effort to ensure that at least one good used boat was available for sale might find it easy to attract this demographic.

Successful businesses have long term strategies for growth. Your fleet should not be any different. There are a lot of interesting things you can do to strengthen your fleet. Some ideas take time, some require resources, others may take a little cash (perhaps a group in your fleet could band together and share the cost). Now is the perfect time to plan and coordinate these activities, analyze the challenges at your fleet, and to lay the foundations for growth in 2016. Getting as many of your members involved as possible will lighten the load and keep everyone involved.

Here’s a list of online resources I found while researching material for this article:

On the ILCA Website, go to the ‘resources/fleet development’ tab. You will find articles on:

  1. Lightning Fleet Sailing

  2. Happ’inin’ Fleets

  3. The Riverton Yacht Club program after the first 9 years

  4. Fleet Building 101

On the US Sailing Website at www.ussailing.org  I found:

  1. A 39 page Fleet Captains Manual

  2. A Fleet Activity List

  3. 20 Coaching Strategies for Getting Bigger Fleets, by Greg Fisher & Tom Hubbell

  4. A Successful Fleet Checklist, by Jack Finefrock (of the Thistle Class)

Good Luck!