Sustainable Fleet

If you have been racing sailboats for any length of time, you know how difficult it is to maintain a fleet. If you are a member of a yacht club, you know that fleets come and go on a regular basis. If you own a boat and your fleet disappears, you are understandably frustrated and discouraged. If you are thinking about buying a boat, you may be wondering in the back of your mind how long the fleet will last. You may find yourself caught between trying to not to be negative, yet realizing that you have to be realistic at the same time.

So, you take the plunge and buy a boat. Then, you discover that either you don’t enjoy racing the boat, don’t like the people in your fleet, or don’t have as much time as you thought to race the boat. Rather than selling the boat right away, you may keep the boat at the club and hope that things will change. If enough people do this, word gets around that the fleet is in trouble. Unfortunately, unless the situation changes, the fleet dies.

The boat owners are not the only losers. The yacht club is also a loser. The whole purpose of a yacht club is to promote yachting, of which sailboat racing is a big part. When a yacht club cannot maintain stable fleets, it reflects poorly on the club. Even though most members are aware that fleets come and go, when a fleet dies, it hurts club morale. The club can wind up with a fair number of boats in the yard which are not being raced, and attendance drops at club regattas.

Given their precarious nature, what does it take to make a fleet sustainable? The members of USITA Long Beach think they have the answer. In brief, the fleet uses the following strategy:

Eliminate any difference in speed of the boats as a factor in determining who wins

Encourage every sailor to improve their racing skills

Make sure the boats are actively raced

Schedule social events for the entire family

Make the fleet an integral part of the yacht club

Skippers and crew are awarded trophies of equal value

Eliminating Boat Speed as a Factor

We start with a core group of six, identically-rigged Tempests, which have sails of about the same age from the same sailmaker. The boats are owned by the fleet, not by individual owners. The boats are chartered for one year at a time to sailors who want to actively race them. At the end of the year, the sailor who finishes at the bottom of the standings gets first pick of the boats for the coming year. The sailor who finishes next-to-last gets second choice, and the process continues until the most successful sailor finds out which boat no one wants.

Naturally, the sailor who is the fleet champion will then want to work hard in the coming year to show everyone that he or she wins races because of their skill, not because the boat is faster than the others. This makes for a lively competition, and any difference in speed between boats is not a major factor in determining who wins. More importantly, the fleet is taking concrete steps to make sure that everyone has an equal chance of winning.

If you sailed competitively in college, you participated in intramural regattas where skippers rotated boats after every race. Ideally, there were enough races so that at the end of the regatta, each team had sailed every boat at least once, thereby eliminating the difference in speed between boats as a factor in determining who won the regatta. This is the model that USITA Long Beach is using to make sure the competition is fair, every sailor really believes they have an equal chance to win, and the fleet stays in business.

Everyone Gets a Chance to Improve Their Racing Skills

So what happens when you eliminate boat speed as a factor in deciding who wins, but some sailors are still not doing as well as they would like? The answer is you provide as much help as the sailor wants. The fleet is committed to the concept that the best racing occurs when everyone is racing at their best. Ideally, the fleet would start and finish as a group, with the lead constantly swapping hands until the end of the race. In more practical terms, if the fleet is too spread out at when the first boat finishes, the fleet has a problem that should be fixed.

As noted in other areas of this website, the fleet offers classes in:

  • Boat-handling skills
  • Sail trim and mast bending
  • Racing tactics and strategy
  • Racing rules

The classes are typically given by fleet members who are good in a specific area. A fleet member who has mastered the racing rules will give the seminar on racing rules. Another member who is particularly good at starts will give a class on getting a good start. These classes are open to the entire yacht club, not just members of the fleet. This makes the fleet an integral part of the club and attracts future members.

Making Sure the Boats are Actively Raced

As noted, the core of five, identically-rigged Tempests are owned by the fleet, not individual sailors. The boats are chartered for a period for no longer than a year. If a sailor is not able to actively race the boat, he is not allowed to renew his charter, and the boat is chartered to someone else. This process makes sure the boats are actively raced, everyone sees the fleet is alive and well, and only the truly enthusiastic are racing the boats. If anyone is not happy with this approach, all they have to do is buy their own boat.

Getting the Whole Family Involved

Whenever only one member of the family is racing, this can put a strain on the family. The other family member may resent the time and commitment that their spouse is putting into an activity in which they are not involved. To counter this, the fleet schedules events which involve the entire family. These events include dinners during two-day regattas, special award ceremonies, or participating in running the races. The non-sailing spouse can help set marks, record scores and calculate the results, make videos of the racing, help to maintain the fleet website, select trophies, make T-shirts for the fleet, and help maintain the boats or plan social events.

Making the Fleet an Integral Part of the Yacht Club

This is often overlooked by fleets. The fleet cannot exist without the yacht club, so the fleet must fully support the club. This support can take many forms.

  • First, all classes given by fleet members should be open to all members of the club, not just fleet members. This has the additional benefit of attracting new members to the fleet.
  • Secondly, fleet members should volunteer to help run club regattas. This makes sure fleet members understand how regattas are run and improves their ability to run their own fleet races, which are open to fleet members only.
  • Third, the boats should be available to club members who would like to know what it is like to sail a Tempest. This is probably the most important tool the fleet has in attracting new members, and it must be used often.
  • Fourth, all fleet members must be members of the yacht club. If anyone hears about the fleet and wants to charter a boat, they must first join the yacht club. In this way, the fleet becomes a magnet for new members, and the club benefits.

Awarding Trophies of Equal Value to Skipper and Crew

Sailboat racing requires teamwork. The best way to recognize this teamwork is to award trophies of equal value to both skipper and crew. To make sure this happens at club-sponsored regattas, every member of the fleet must pay a higher entry fee. The additional fee is worth it. Just imagine what will happen at the awards ceremony following the regatta. All winners in the Tempest class will be awarded two, identical trophies. Every other class will get one. This presents a very positive image for the class.

So, there you have the winning formula to running a sustainable fleet. Look around. How many fleets do you see using this approach? The answer is not too many. Perhaps this is why fleets come and go so quickly.

Table Compares Sustainable Fleet Program to Conventional Fleet

Because the Sustainable Fleet Program is new, and it is difficult to understand all the differences between this new program and a conventional fleet, we have prepared the following table.


Community OutreachSustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Reaching out to new or experienced sailors who want to race sailboats.Sailors who graduate from a City of Long Beach sailing-education program or other local sailing program and are interested in racing are welcome to join the fleet. College graduates, who are living in the area and sailed in high school or college but cannot afford to purchase a boat and join a yacht club, are especially welcome.Typically, potential fleet members are invited to crew on or skipper a fleet-member’s boat. If they like the boat and want to skipper, they are generally encouraged to purchase their own boat.
Reducing the cost of racing a sailboat.There is no charge for crewing. A skipper must pay an annual fee which is based on their ability to pay. Typically, sailors with full-time work pay a minimum of $3,000 per year. Two sailors can form a partnership to reduce the cost to $1,500 per sailor per year.Typical costs include: - Initial cost of purchasing the boat - Annual boat and trailer maintenance cost - Cost of new sails and rigging - Cost of boat and trailer registration and insurance - Cost of boat storage at the club
Fleet StabilitySustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Protecting the size of the fleet.The nonprofit owns all of the boats in the fleet. When a sailor leaves the program, or loses their right to skipper a boat because they do not participate in fleet races, the boat becomes immediately available for someone else to skipper. The number of boats in the fleet is not reduced because a skipper becomes inactive or leaves the club.Individual fleet members own the boats in the fleet. If an owner becomes inactive, or leaves the club, their boat is usually no longer available to the fleet.
Maintaining fleet activity and energy level.When a sailor has the experience and knowledge needed to race and take care of a boat, they are encouraged to leave the fleet and buy their own boat. This makes a boat available to a new, energetic sailor, which helps to maintain a high level of energy and participation in the fleet.Sailors are encouraged to stay forever. This can lead to stagnation and diminished activity. It often becomes difficult to find volunteers who want to run the fleet. If the same individuals run the fleet year after year, they may get burned out and leave the fleet. Once they leave, it may be difficult for the fleet to survive.
Reducing the Influence of Money on Boat PerformanceSustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Avoiding differences in how boats are rigged and maintained because this will affect boat speed.All boats are owned by the nonprofit and are rigged and maintained in the same way. This helps to keep the boats equally competitive.Normally, owners rig and maintain their own boat. Each boat is different, and the differences are based on the age of the boat and the time and money the owner devotes to rigging and maintaining his boat. This can lead to significant speed differences between boats.
Avoiding differences in the quality of sails because this also affects boat speed.All sails are owned by the nonprofit and are purchased at the same time for all boats. This helps to keep the boats equally competitive.Each owner purchases their own sails. Sailors who can afford to buy new sails at any time often have a speed advantage. To prevent this, some fleets limit how frequently an owner can purchase new sails.
Reducing the Learning CurveSustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Rotating boats helps struggling sailors.At the end of each sailing season, the skipper with the poorest racing results gets first pick of the boats for the coming year. The skipper with the next-poorest results gets second choice, etc.Rotation of boats is voluntary. Typically, the only boat an owner sails is their own. This makes it difficult for a sailor to figure out why they are not doing better. Is the problem related to the skipper or the boat?
Fleet SafetySustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Dealing responsibly with racing accidents and possible injuries.The nonprofit purchases substantial property and liability insurance for the entire fleet.Each owner is responsible for purchasing their own insurance. Some owners have no insurance. If insurance is purchased, the limits and types of insurance are based on personal preference.
Safe launching and retrieving boats using crane.All skippers must attend safety classes provided by the nonprofit. Club rules for using the crane are part of the class.Each boat owner learns by watching others or by teaching themselves, usually by seeing what works and does not work.
Wearing life jackets (PFDs).Everyone has to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD to use a boat on the water.Wearing a PFD is voluntary. Hopefully, each boat will follow club rules on when to wear a life jacket.
Promoting Yacht Club MembershipSustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Promoting yacht club membership for fleet members.Crews are guests of the fleet and do not need to be club members. Skippers must be club members.Crews do not need to be club members. Only skippers who want to store their boat at the club need to be club members. However, all nonmembers who want to sail or race at the club must be accompanied by a club member whenever they are at the club, unless they are attending an invitational regatta sponsored by the club.
Working with ABYC to promote club membership for younger sailors.Experienced sailors in their mid 20s with limited financial resources are offered a way to maintain their yacht club membership and continue racing without purchasing a boat. Typically, these younger sailors have graduated from college and are just getting started in life. Generally speaking, they cannot afford to buy a boat and join a yacht club, even if they love racing sailboats. Fortunately, ABYC is very accommodating to this age group, making it easy for them to be a yacht club member.Conventional fleets are structured to support the purchase and racing of a particular type of boat in a social setting, typically at a yacht club.
Classes and TrainingSustainable Fleet ProgramConventional Fleet
Providing training classes for fleet members.Classes are an integral part of fleet activities because the goal is to provide fleet members with the skills needed to graduate and successfully maintain and race their own boat. Classes are provided in the following areas:
- Learning the racing rules of sailing
- Developing racing tactics and strategy
- Understanding and preventing corrosion
- Repairing fiberglass
- Installing and maintaining sailboat fittings
- Picking the correct rope for each control line
- Surveying your boat to identify items needing repair
- Locating and designing control systems
In active fleets, the sailors who do well in fleet races provide clinics on how to improve boat speed.
Using fleet website and Facebook page to provide instruction and training for everyone, including non-fleet members and reach out to a wide range of sailors.The fleet website provides detailed information on the classes listed above, including numerous photos and technical information.Most fleets use a regional or national website to advertise regattas and social activities. The better websites provide tuning tips and advice on improving your racing skills.