How a Sailing Club Saved Itself
Published on June 3rd, 2015
by Rick Lenard
How do we get new people into sailing? Tell me you haven’t heard this question discussed at the club bar? Well, there’s a program going on in Buffalo, NY on the eastern shores of Lake Erie that has added over 100 new members to the roster and those numbers are growing! These new members are adding to the crews and slowly buying their own boats to join in the fun for future generations.
First, let me explain the club. The Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club is a nonprofit-501C3 sailing club, founded in 1977. They own no clubhouse, restaurant or facilities. They are a paper yacht club or flag pole club so to speak. The ranks at one time in the 1980’s were over 140 boats and 500 paid members, with racing members for this year now at 106 and 350 members total. Membership is $175 per year for a boat owner and $50 per year for general or crew members. The member boats dock at different marinas in and around the Buffalo Harbor.
During each week of the summer, there are three series of five races each. At 6pm, they all converge at an outer harbor buoy and watch the committee boat transom and listen on VHF for the courses for the night. The club also holds J/22 races on Monday, Ladies only (25 boats) and novice racing on Tuesday and all fleet racing on Wednesdays. The boats range in size from J/22, Catalina 27, Cal 25’s and C&C 26 to Farr 40, J/120 and J/111 with J/35’s and Beneteau 36.7’s mixed in. It’s quite a diverse group with windward leeward and triangle racing all going on at the same time!
The boats are divided up by M&J or spinnaker into fleets of similar size and PHRF ratings. Each fleet has its own starting time and they try to have it all finish at the same time – a good photo op from shore with all the spinnakers up. The club also holds four weekend regattas each year and a large awards banquet in the fall.
There is a volunteer race committee boat and crew (Grand Banks 36) for Wednesday and a 30-foot lobster boat for the other nights with a different volunteer race committee crew. Other than the lobster boat and drop marks, the club owns nothing else to keep the costs down.
As far as the club knows, it is the largest weekly racing fleet in the country with over 75 or more boats on the racecourse every single week of the summer! The wind is consistent on Lake Erie and the water temperature in summer is over 75 degrees. Boats go in mid-April and come out by the end of October. The sailors here make use of every day before the snow flies again.
Now onto the program; the name is Discover Buffalo Sailing. In 2012, due to dwindling numbers like every other sailing organization, club member volunteers came up with the idea of promoting sailing in the area by offering an introduction to sailing program. Education is in the club by-laws as part of the non-profit status, so the idea was to give people a taste of what it’s like to sail so they could determine if it was something they may want to do more of.
The premise was that our club members volunteered their boats for five weeks where the students would have an hour of on-shore classroom study and then three hours of on-the-water training with the boat owner or skipper, along with two mentors (also club members) who would go out to teach the basics of sailing. The onshore lessons are augmented with mid-week video clips and pop quizzes to keep the participants minds engaged!
The number of students that were accepted was determined by the number of volunteer boats. A step-by-step lesson plan (written by a high school teacher member) guided the students and mentors each week. There is shore-side support on the VHF radio should there be a problem on the water along with hourly
The mentors teach safety first and then technique, but most importantly showed how to have fun while on the water. Not only have the students found placement on different boats for regular racing, but the skippers and mentors also met new people and enjoyed the program just as much as the students. After the last session there was big party where the participants could relate their stories to one another. It is all great fun and educational, and it led to the ranks of new members significantly growing.
The only requirement for participation is basic club membership of $50, a $10 materials fee, signing a liability waiver and were responsible for their own sailing gear including lifejackets (mandatory).
There were 52 that signed up the first year, of which 33 renewed their membership in 2013. There were 65 sign-ups in 2014, and this year we have had 64 people. Now there is always a waiting list, with those left on the list from the previous year getting contacted the following January and offered first placement for the upcoming season.
The program has had some new tweaks from feedback of the participants for improvements, and now has and now has been shortened to four weeks and limited to 60 students. This year there are 33 women and 27 men signed up. The target age demographic the first year was 25-30 but has since increased to 35-45 which better fits the age of potential boat buyers.
The overall success of Discover Buffalo Sailing has raised eyebrows for clubs around the country. The success of the program rests solely on the generosity of the members to share their equipment and time, and through the efforts of the Club’s Board of Directors and the many, many volunteers to put it all together. Sure there are some that realize that it’s not for them and that was expected.
Overall, the program is a huge success. If it worked here, it can work anywhere! The future of sailing and sailboat racing is totally up to those who are willing to pass it on and volunteer their boats, knowledge, time and passion to the next generation. RCR Yachts Buffalo Marina, the local sailboat dealer in the area, supplies the meeting facilities for the seminars each week. I am a mentor and volunteer my boat for the program as well. It is great fun each week to see all the smiling new faces!
Note: Rick is a 2 time past commodore of the BHSC and the Yacht Broker with RCR Yachts in Buffalo.