Maintaining the balance for participation

Published on November 28th, 2023

John Burnham

When the topic is improving participation and satisfaction, there are plenty of examples to lean on. John Burnham, a noted marine journalist and leadership coach, shares his experience from Newport, RI:


In my experience as Shields Fleet 9 fleet captain from 2020-2022, I am a believer all over again in the importance of the telephone in connecting with sailors at whatever level they are and encouraging them to come on out and take the next step.

As for electronics, the Shields Class allows digital compasses (for old eyes) but none of the extra features, and in all other respects I count it, and the International One-Design Class, among the best analog classes in the digital age.

Having interviewed Dave Ullman for Sailing World in 1986, and watched and participated in the evolution of the sport ever since, I’m wide awake to the effects of professionalism. That’s probably why I choose to sail in classes that invite anyone to sail—but if you’re a Group 3 (professional) sailor, you must compete regularly, for fun, and not just at the big event at the end of the season.

It’s certainly a conundrum. I know many pro sailors who give back to the sport consistently. And on the rare occasion that I’ve had the opportunity to work with a coach (I can count them on one hand), I have always appreciated and benefited from the resulting skills and confidence boost.

Everyone wants to compete and improve; my conclusion is that it must remain up to the classes to decide how to play the game in their neighborhood, something the Shields Class takes seriously by requiring Group 3s to sail ten races on the boat if you want to be aboard the boat in the Nationals.

My friends here in Newport who are Group 3s often beat us because they are more talented and because they are sailing more days each season, but those of us who (right or wrong) think we’re up to the challenge of taking them on occasionally get our licks in—and when we do, it’s sweet.

With Mike Toppa (North Sails) as our fleet captain in Newport now, we’ve just increased our participation to 34 registered boats in 2023, and we’re not done yet. Not because size is all that matters, but because people matter, whether it’s 125 people out on a Wednesday night, a smaller group sailing non-spinnaker races on a Sunday afternoon, or nine of our teams showing up at the Nationals in Marion, MA.

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