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Tom Ehman, Jr: Making Fleet Racing More Fun

Most important for those interested in improving one-design sailing is to remember that most people race to socialize as well as compete. They want to have fun – party, party, party. Where sailing is social and fun, fleets are alive and healthy. (Or is the converse true? I think not.) Here is a string of ideas to make racing more social and fun:

• Have a potluck dinner after the race. Move it around from one fleet member’s house to another. BYO drinks and protein. Hosts (or co-hosts) provide salad and dessert. This concept was singularly responsible for rejuvenating the J/24 fleet in Newport, RI a few years back. The party is fun for those who win (they can savor their victory in public), and a salve for those who don’t.

• Every now and then have a fleet “theme party”: Ha­waiian luau, M*A*S*H party, toga party… all the standard stuff. Invite non-sailors (prospects) and those from other “fringe” fleets.

• Do a regular fleet newsletter announcing results of recent races and regattas – and announcing who won the parties. Keep it simple and light, and don’t be afraid to poke some gentle fun... People love the recognition.

• Have lots of short races. The more races you have, the more likely it is that the regulars will beat the rock stars. Starting on a reach off the yacht club dock, and finishing back there 25 minutes later IS FUN. Then do it again. Someone else is bound to win. No, don’t run the districts or nationals that way; but for club racing, it’s great.

• Give out crew awards equal to those given to skippers. The prize giving should not be “In first place, Ken Read and crew.” Every member of the crew should be recognized by name and awarded a trophy the same as the skipper. Recognize crews as well as skippers and everyone will have more fun; and it will make it easier for skippers to get crews.

• Use US SAILING’s Rules-In-Brief card instead of the rulebook. It’s simple, easy to understand, and makes it easier for a novice to have fun. Have oral protests. No forms, no formalities. Require that a protest flag is flown, and the other party is notified of the incident and the rule. Then have the hearing immediately, and get it over with like we do at most college regattas. Then people can get back to socializing.

• Don’t let people cheat (on kinetics, class rules, etc.). If they do, protest them. If they persist, invite them to leave the fleet.

• Invite novices (skippers and crews) to sail with the experts in the fleet. It is still the best way to help newcomers learn to become good sailors quickly.

• Keep it light on the water. Hail “good job” when some­one gets you on the race course; make a big deal about a novice doing well on a leg, or in a race, by giving them a big cheer on the water. Encourage the race committee to be helpful.

• DON’T race when the weather is cold, rainy, or extremely rough and windy. Have a seminar and party on shore instead.

• DO race when there isn’t much wind. This is when the novices are most likely to do well, and have fun. So what if it’s a crapshoot? As long as it’s an even shorter than usual course, and as long as it isn’t broiling hot, it’s fun.

• Keep a good fleet captain on. Don’t change fleet captains every year or two just because “you should pass it around.” Most good fleet captains are good because they like to do it. Most bad ones are bad because they don‘t want to do it. If you have a good one who’s willing to stay – keep ’em! Only change when someone wants out, or isn’t very good.

• Find something to do for spouses and kids who don’t like to race. Lots of spouses love to do race committee work, but don’t like to sail. Then you’ll be in­cluding the whole family.

• Get some publicity. Make the necessary arrangements with the local paper for the results to be published, if only as a box score, after each race. Recognition turns everybody on and brings in new fleet members.

• Do a charity regatta or cruise. It’s amazing how this brings the fleet together! Everyone rallies around a cause. Collect the entry fees and give them to the local heart fund, cancer drive, or whatever. Gets good ink for the fleet and club, too. Or have a public sailing day where members of the fleet take anyone who comes down to the docks out sailing, in return for a small donation to a local charity. That’ll get great ink as a dual public service, and it is a good way to interest newcomers. But most important, it is social – and fun. That’s what makes one-design sailing fun, and it’s what will make any fleet grow.

Article excerpted from Sailing World, February 1987.

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