One Club’s Efforts to Grow

Published on January 8th, 2015

by Andy Grootendorst and Jim Schrager
At one time, racing was simple with just one rating rule, written by the Cruising Club of America. Early in the 1970s the International Offshore Rule came along and then we had two types of boats: CCA boats, which were shallow, with moderate beam and short rigs, and IOR boats which were wide and deep, with big rigs.

Most clubs had separate sections for these different boats to allow for fairer racing. The older boats had folks who often sailed on a budget and didn’t want to organize the large crews IOR boats demanded. Then IMS, IRC, ORC, ORR, and other rules scattered fleets, some into One-Designs and many into PHRF.

At one time, everyone raced Spinnaker. Beginner or expert, you used the big sails. Now, many fleets have Jib and Main (JaM) sections and even big races, like the Tri-State and the Chicago-Mackinac, have JaM and/or Cruising Spinnaker divisions. The need for these sections are a result of the staggering drop in sailors since the peak of 1979.

So how does the St. Joseph River Yacht Club (SJRYC), based in a small Michigan town with a small municipal harbor, grow its race program even as new racers dwindle? A look at who is coming and going reveals an interesting story.

SJRYC races under PHRF, which seems to be a requirement for smaller – and most larger – clubs. The boats are split into Spinnaker and JaM sections, which provides one section for those with newer/racy boats, big crews and big budgets, and one for older boats and more modest budgets (of both time and money).

Our Spinnaker fleet is the place where our most intense sailors go, and indeed, they are an intense lot. When our Spinnaker sailors venture outside of ‘St. Joe’, they do very well in races around the Lakes.

Our JaM fleet, as with every other harbor, has lost the smaller boats which aren’t as serious about racing. Six years ago we had eight older cruising-type boats under 30 feet. At the start of the 2014 season we had four. Yet our JaM section is back up to eight boats and has never been more competitive. Out of the most recent seven awards for JaM Boat of the Year, we’ve had five different winners. But in the seven years prior, we just had two winners, one of whom won Boat of the Year six out of the seven times.

How has JaM maintained its size and upped its intensity? Mostly by appealing to a different kind of JaM sailor.

The JaM boats that have joined us in the last few years tend to be bigger – 32, 34, 37, and 41 feet – with older (25 years plus) production boats or newer, true cruising designs, raced by skippers who are good or very good sailors. These racers have made the call to keep it simple, with smaller crews, less cost, and fewer sails.

These boats have upped the level of competition and attracted sailors interested in a ‘half-way’ spot between the all-out warfare that exists in our Spinnaker section and the original ‘beginners only’ JaM section.

So where are these new JaM sailors coming from?
– Good sailors where the kids moved away and now would prefer not to develop a big crew to handle spinnakers and sail changes.
– Skippers with a family to teach how to race and realize it’s best to start without spinnakers.
– People coming back to sailing after being away for a while.
– Folks interested in racing an older, heavier boat.

This ‘top end’ of the JaM fleet (four boats from 32 to 41 feet) has reinvigorated what would have been a very small section of just 4 boats 30 feet and under at the start of the 2014 season, and as happened in years’ past, a noncompetitive place as well. Yet in the last two years in JaM (2012 and 2013), Boat of the Year was won by a single race margin after an entire season. It can’t get much closer than that.

In the old days, you were in the JaM section at SJRYC only long enough to learn the ropes then you moved up to the Spinnaker section. But those days are gone. The new skippers coming into JaM are of a different type and character from the old days. Some will want to move into the Spinnaker section one day, but others find the work load of JaM (and yes, sailing does require work) and the expense of JaM (and yes, racing costs money) all they want to handle. In addition, they find the pleasure of having real competition in JaM lots of fun.

And for the beginners? We offer them a way to be battle tested to be ready to handle the rigors of our Spinnaker section if that’s where they are headed. And if they stay in JaM, we offer the chance to become better racers, rather than a status quo series where a single boat wins the championship by default year after year.

The world of big boat racing we knew when we were growing up has changed. Fun and games is a great way to get boats on the water, but if you want a growing racing program, a competitive JaM section is worth considering. Even though most of our current JaM boats would be utterly noncompetitive against the hot hardware we have in our Spinnaker section – the JaM boats are simply too heavy and too old (typically 25+ years old)-the JaM section today has real racing taking place. This is where we can grow the sport.

Competitive intensity and the opportunity to improve skills are what racers desire. We certainly provide that in the Spinnaker section, and when we can do that in JaM, it makes that section all the more appealing and likely to attract new entrants.

Our secret is there is no secret. Racers like real competition, not a backwater. By attracting good sailors with older racer-cruiser or cruising-type boats into JaM, everyone wins.

Note: Andy Grootendorst is the long-time skipper of Cynthia, a Morgan 41, racing PHRF Spinnaker at SJRYC with multiple wins in the Mackinac Race and other venues around Lake Michigan; Jim Schrager sails Carrera, a Cayenne 41 in PHRF JaM at SJRYC.

Story courtesy of the Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation January 2015 newsletter

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