Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Five Characteristics of Highly Successful Fleets

Fleets come and fleets go, but racing still remains. I suppose the evolution of fleets is an organic process where some die and others are born, some shrink while others grow. In many fleets, there is a continual ebb and flow between the enthusiasts and the forces that can kill the fleet. One of the tasks of the enthusiasts is to promote the things that foster a healthy fleet and watch out for the danger signs that can kill it.

1. The fleet maintains critical mass. Critical mass is having enough boats, enough members, and enough regular racers so that everyone knows that if racing is scheduled there will be enough participants to make the racing fun. Both “enough” and “fun” are highly subjective and are defined by the racers themselves on a continual basis. “Enough” for our local laser fleet might mean 5-7 racers, while “enough” for the Newport frostbite fleet might mean 30 - 40 boats on a typical day. When individuals perceive that their thresholds of “enough” and “fun” are regularly met, they make their schedules work, go sailing (even in bad weather), and end the day knowing they made the right choice. When they cannot count on their thresholds being met, there is always something else to do, some less than ideal condition that keeps them at home, or they take up golf. Their decision not to sail impacts the definition of “enough” for others and in turn, keeps them away as well. Not “enough” diminishes “fun.”

Sad to say – I belong to two laser fleets – summer and winter – that both struggle on the edge. The enthusiasts work hard, but just a few more regulars would make so much more fun.

2. The fleet has sailors of various ages. Although there can be great camaraderie among sailors of the same age, getting old together has its limitations. There are many fleets where the most active and enthusiastic sailors are the older ones, but fleets with nothing but geezers are on the way out. Here at Lake Minipiddle, the Town Class died from this condition, and another fleet seems to be gasping. As older sailors trickle out of a fleet, there is a point where there are just not “enough,” and the downward spiral can begin. New, young blood is essential to the health of any fleet. Conversely, a fleet that depends too heavily on young members (pre-college graduation) is subject to the loss of members as kids enter “real” life and get busy with other things. A mix of all ages works best- senior enthusiasts encouraging the others and a continuous supply of new blood from all age groups. Both regional and national laser sailing events are great in this respect. I get beat by 60 somethings and teenagers in the same regatta. Locally, we could some use some more sailors in the middle.

3. The class of boat is popular with local sailors. Local custom, the interests and needs of the sailors, and long term quality of the boat all play a role in a class of boat becoming highly desirable. It seems that every club and every area has their favorite boats, and those fleets thrive despite obvious limitations of the boat (e.g. Interclubs – Even the frostbite diehards can’t imagine taking an Interclub out for a pleasure sail.).

Boats have their own personalities and make different demands on their sailors, and the boats and the sailors need to be compatible. A boat that is fun to sail for one person may be boring or miserable for another. Un-athletic people won’t like lasers or 49’ers, and unsociable people will not like J24’s. Twenty somethings are unlikely to sail Hereshofs, and not many fifty year olds sail trapeze boats. Our local young people find Sunfishes boring and Flying Scots too bulky and inaccessible; Lasers, however, are a perfect fit for them. And for those of us who were tired of scrounging for a crew, Lasers have spawned a second wave of sailing enthusiasm.

Boats also need to last a long time while remaining competitive. Only rarely are fleets built by wide scale purchasing of new boats. It takes time to build fleets. Durable old boats provide a welcome, lower cost way of growing and maintaining a fleet. Healthy fleets routinely have an old boat or two at the top of the standings.

4. The boat has a vibrant class and fleet organization. The support of regional and national organizations is also important. Being able to get replacement parts with a phone call or a few mouse clicks keeps you sailing the boat rather than repairing it. Belonging to a class where a large number of boats have been made allows prospective sailors to acquire boats and expand the fleet. Having regional and national regattas gives you a chance to broaden the sailing experience. Strict one design rules keep new and old boats competitive, and they prevent spending and boat redesigning competitions. Having a class forum promotes communication with other boat owners with similar concerns. Additionally, strong fleets have enthusiastic leaders who tirelessly promote the class, participation in the fleet, and even help procure boats. Fleets where this does not happen are more likely to disappear; fleets where this does happen thrive in spite of limitations. It is easier to love a boat with a large support group.

5. The race organizers must meet the needs of the racers. The racing format needs to fit expectations of the fleet. Even in my limited inland lake-centric experience, I have raced in several formats. Races have been designed to last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and a half. There has been as few as one race a day to as many as 10. Time on the water has varied from 1 hour to 8 hours. Some race committees are slow and methodical, and others start the next race as the last boat finishes. Racers gravitate toward the formats they like best, and often sailors within each fleet have similar preferences. When fleets grow or shrink or change members, race organizers need to reassess and keep up with the changing expectations of the group. Racers, particularly the much sought after new blood, can be pretty quick to decide that the racing is not as much fun as they would like or as it should be, and then they find other venues. But when the race organizers adapt formats depending on the fleet and its members, things stay fresh and vital, and the fleet attracts more sailors.


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