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Forgotten boats are now the rock stars

Published on November 10th, 2019

Jess Gregory shares this success story in how his club is increasing interest in sailing and membership.

While healthy financially with a steady membership of about 230 individuals and families, and 120 boats in the anchorage, Keyport Yacht Club (Keyport, New Jersey) recognized that something was missing.

We had two categories of members — split about evenly. We had those who had boats and liked to sail and those without boats who are great supporters of the club’s social agenda and may race regularly on other members’ boats.

Like many clubs these days, the age of our members in both categories had been climbing for years and we wanted to attract younger members and more people interested in sailing. We had a membership opportunity gap — people who have a desire to sail, but not as a boat owner.

The challenge was to devise ways to attract this strategically important category of new members. Our target was people who are intrigued with sailing (including young singles and couples), but not ready to make the financial and maintenance commitments of ownership, or those who would like to sample the experience before making an investment in a boat – Sailing aspirants.

The Keyport Yacht Club spent about five years offering sailing lessons to the public on three club owned 17-foot O’Days. In addition to use for small boat adult sailing classes, they were also available to members, but rarely used because the boats are quite tender and challenging for inexperienced sailors, especially when wind and seas increase. Capsizes were common.

An overhaul of our program was required if we wanted to encourage new sailors without scaring or dunking them. The plan was changed to acquire larger keelboats more suitable for teaching, forgiving to novices, and easier to sail by our boat-less members.

Our first acquisition was Pygmalion, a J/24 donated in 2018 by a member after the boat had spent several years on the hard in a nearby local marina. Even though not in perfect condition, we did manage one successful adult sailing class for three students during the summer of 2018.

In late 2018, we applied for and received accreditation as an American Sailing Association School Affiliate. For 2019 we decided to offer five popular certification courses: ASA 101 Basic Keelboat Sailing, 111 Sailing Review, 103 Basic Coastal Cruising, 104 Bareboat Cruising and 105 Coastal Navigation.

At first, with just one certified instructor and 10 other KYC members ready to be trained as certified instructors, classes were scheduled with intentions to use Pygmalion for what we thought would be a modest response from the public. Well, we certainly underestimated demand.

Inquiries poured in and as of September 2019, we have ‘trained’ over 50 sailors. The American Sailing Association’s national website generated significant interest and provided most of our students while the Keyport Yacht Club Sailing School webpage supplied the rest. We did not spend any money for advertising.

The unexpected demand started us looking for more boats to have enough supply for the class demand. Fortunately, another member, and owner of the local marina, decided to help us with the donation of his former race boat, SKOL, a Hunter 25 with tiller and outboard.

Both SKOL and Pygmalion actually had impressive race records at KYC in years past. SKOL, having spent about nine years on the hard, needed a lot of cleaning, painting, lifelines, and minor repairs. Fortunately, all was accomplished by KYC members who donated their time in return for anticipated ‘free’ use of the boats.

Just as we were hoping to find a larger boat with wheel and diesel engine for use in more advanced classes, and for students wishing to start large, a former member agreed to sell us an Ericson 26 for exactly what his tax deduction would be if donated to a charity. Having already made a small profit from classes conducted, we agreed to purchase Uptown Girl after she just finished 10 years on the hard!

The engine was high and dry but the cabin had nearly two feet of slimy green water and tons of mold and growing mushrooms. Fortunately, a member’s profession included mold remediation. After a heavy duty clean up by a half dozen members, electrical checkout and repair by another member, work on through hulls, wiring, engine maintenance, paint, and a ton of minor repairs, what resulted was a fabulous addition to our ‘Abandoned Boat Fleet’.

Through the 2019 spring and summer, KYC club volunteers worked feverishly to renovate the boats and take them for sailing shakedowns in anticipation of getting sailing time.

With so much interest and support from the members, it was decided to expand the availability of our ‘Abandoned Boat Fleet’ to all members under a new program now called the Boat Share Program. These club-owned, maintained, and equipped sailboats are available to KYC members without the need to purchase, insure, or deal with all the many maintenance tasks associated with owning a sailboat.

As a registered Skipper in the program, members can bring friends and family guests along to share in the fun of sailing on Raritan Bay.

One of the most popular aspects of the Boat Share Program is that our Boat Share members, experienced club members, and paid professionals cooperatively maintain the boats. This combination is exactly the arrangement that appeals to our originally under-served target market as they get access to a boat, personal experience with maintaining it, and time on the water sailing.

An added bonus is that current members, who never sailed the O’Days, are now out on the bay racing and daysailing our boat share yachts. We forecast this renewed enthusiasm will be great for membership retention and expansion.

Every Sailing class now includes an explanation of the Keyport Yacht Club Boat Share Program while aboard a Boat Share boat! This has resulted in a tremendous interest in joining our club because Boat Share is only available to KYC members. Even though Boat Share was only promoted since the end of July, so far this year, we have already added three new members who came from our Sailing School but joined because of Boat Share.

Almost a dozen more people have indicated they plan to join soon, so that they can be Boat Share participants in 2020. Enthusiasm is palpable. Only a few weeks after being elected aboard KYC, a new member and his wife could be seen at the club making repairs to Uptown Girl – the boat he has been racing with one of our instructors since she was splashed.

Our successful Sailing School is the financial support for our Boat Share program. This year we spent less than $5,000 acquiring, repairing, maintaining, and improving our Abandoned Boat Fleet, and that includes $2,000 for the purchase of Uptown Girl! Next year we hope to add an even larger boat, 31- to 35-feet, for advanced classes and to afford an even greater learning experience for the Boat Share participants.

If our experience is any example, clubs looking for ways to attract highly valued sailing aspirant members may not have to look any further than the nearest boat graveyard!

The Keyport Yacht Club is located in historic Keyport, New Jersey on the southwest shore of Raritan Bay. The bay is a boater’s dream. Open to Atlantic Ocean breezes, but guarded by a natural breakwater, Sandy Hook National Park. Founded in 1908, the club has been providing memorable boating experiences and wonderful club amenities for over 100 years.

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