Recruiting new members with Junior Sailing


Part 2 of Becoming Sustainable

By Thomas Alley & others

In part one of this two-part series, we looked at how New York’s Seneca Sail & Power Squadron/6 began teaching America’s Boating Course for youth as a way to attract younger members and their families. In part two, we will look at how the squadron plans to retain these members.

Seneca Sail & Power Squadron’s America’s Boating Course for youth has the potential to draw in family memberships and flatten out the age distribution of our membership, but how do we retain our new, younger members?

As we wrapped up our pilot class, we learned that a local high school senior wanted to organize a sailing club. His vision was to rescue abandoned sailboats, fix them up and make them available for club members to sign out and take sailing. Squadron members met the student when he started looking for people who could teach the members how to fix, equip and sail the boats.

Although this sounded like a neat idea on the surface, the squadron had to address several issues and challenges. We’ll cover two of the more significant ones.

First, our entire educational program was geared toward teaching (as opposed to mentoring or coaching) motivated, mature students. Second, the sailing club vision would involve large investments of time, talent and treasure to get it off the ground and a similar investment to keep the ball rolling. Not to mention the potential liability.

We teach. It’s what we do. Maybe if we changed the way we teach some things, a workable structure would emerge?

We put the idea on the back burner, but it wouldn’t go away. We just had to figure out a way to package the program so that we could deliver it successfully.

We teach. It’s what we do. Maybe if we changed the way we teach some things, a workable structure would emerge? Instead of a classroom with books and tests, what if we created an apprenticeship program? Instead of fitting the program into an established curriculum, what if we created our own syllabus? Instead of focusing on theory, we could focus on practical on-the-deck training, supplemented, when needed, with handouts, chalk talks, or sit-down discussions in the cockpit.

We realized that in some places a similar program, Junior Sailing, already exists. So we named our new pilot program Seneca Junior Sailing. With no similar programs in the local area, we could build our program from the ground up with squadron objectives in mind. The potential students had no prior common experiences, so we could start with the basics and go from there. A vision began to emerge.

We would first need to teach our junior crews to get a sailboat moving in a reasonably consistent manner. Then we could add additional challenges to keep things interesting. We chose sailboat racing because of its educational potential and the lure of competition. Once the local racecourse became routine, we could look at other sailing challenges.

To get started, we needed boats and coaches for our potential students, so we asked our members for help. The offer was simple: Want to sail regularly this summer? We can supply you with an energetic crew if you are willing to share your knowledge and enthusiasm with them.

The squadron also approached a local yacht club with which we have close ties and a large overlap in membership so that we could participate in its existing sail racing program. The local racers love anything that makes the race fleet larger and welcomed our youth with open arms.

Next, we had to structure the training program using incentives to manage student expectations:

When not racing, we explored the fun side of sailing and allowed the crews to take swim breaks on the warmer days. During the swim breaks, the crews got hands-on practice with a LifeSling device so they could appreciate the seriousness of a crew-overboard situation.

  • During practice sessions where instruction was taking place, students rotated through as many positions as possible to gain familiarity and learn about vessel operation. During scheduled events such as races and cruises, we imposed limitations.
  • All students became qualified as deckhands upon entering the program.
  • Students who completed America’s Boating Course and obtained their state boater safety card could serve as helmsmen during scheduled events.
  • Students completing Seamanship could become officers of the deck, allowing them to make decisions on vessel operation, such as sail trim and race tactics.
  • Students completing both Seamanship and Piloting could become watch captains, allowing them to lead a watch and make basic navigational decisions.

About five years ago, USPS addressed on-the-water liability and began providing coverage for USPS members during squadron-sanctioned events. Unfortunately, full membership in USPS isn’t budget-friendly for teenagers wanting to get out on the water; however, they can join as apprentice members.

Junior Sailing Pilot Results

With a program outline, a small fleet of boats and coaches willing to give it a try, and a willing squadron commander, we pitched our idea to the high school student who had spoken with us earlier and got an enthusiastic response. Without any advertising or promotion, we had 12 students sign up from three area high schools.

We kicked off the program with an orientation session that parents or legal guardians were required to attend. We needed both parental permission and parental involvement.

During the orientation session, we handed out a booklet explaining the program, its goals and its expectations. Besides introducing parents and participants to the program, we also wanted to give everyone the opportunity to meet the coaches, tour the boats and ask questions.

Following the orientation session, we divided the group into two crews and spent June getting them acclimated to their respective boats and coaches.

By July the crews handled the vessels dock to dock with the coaches rarely (if ever) taking the helm. As their confidence grew, we introduced them to basic racing tactics. After doing mock starts and some tacking duels, we conducted a practice race between the junior sailing crews. (We limited the program to main and jib racing only, saving the potential excitement of spinnaker flying for a future season.)

When not racing, we explored the fun side of sailing and allowed the crews to take swim breaks on the warmer days. During the swim breaks, the crews got hands-on practice with a LifeSling device so they could appreciate the seriousness of a crew-overboard situation. Throughout the training phase, we conducted unannounced emergency drills. By the end of July, one of the crews retrieved Oscar (our dummy) in under 30 seconds without any coaching.

Competitive racing with the local yacht club fleet started in August and continued through September, with the crews competing in four races and being well-received by the club fleet.

Having youth pilot a 35-foot sailboat in and out of a harbor on a regular basis gets people’s attention. Two of our junior sailors were invited to help deliver a sailboat through the canal and locks connecting Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in central New York. One student was also asked to help crew aboard a 36-foot sailboat on a two-week cruise on Lake Ontario.

Next Steps

With the foundation of a new program set, we looked at what we could add to the program to allow the junior sailors to develop their skills and expand their horizons. We wanted to expose them not just to sailing but also to the full spectrum of boat ownership, including planning, routing, provisioning and vessel maintenance.

Every September, the Seneca Yacht Club in Geneva, New York, organizes its annual Barge Race, a 24-nautical mile course on Seneca Lake from the yacht club to a permanently moored former Navy barge and back. The yacht club is 30 nautical miles from Watkins Glen, where Seneca Junior Sailing is based. The event could be an excellent way to introduce students to the total cruising experience with a race thrown in for good measure. Fall also provides an opportunity for crews to gain experience with challenging weather. We invited three of the more advanced junior sailors to participate in the event in 2014 to see if it would work as a future activity.

[pullquote type=”left” style=”font-size: 20px; padding-left: 30px;”]We wanted to expose [the junior sailors] not just to sailing but also to the full spectrum of boat ownership, including planning, routing, provisioning and vessel maintenance.[/pullquote]

We involved the students in voyage planning, navigation, provisioning, and execution. We stocked the boat prior to departure, and the crew lived aboard for the next three days. In addition to running the vessel, students also helped with cooking and clean up after meals.

Race day provided its own excitement with low gray skies, a persistent drizzle, and a brisk northwest wind from a passing cold front. A bent forestay extrusion on another boat accompanying our team provided some real-life validation to the statement that cruising is “repairing your boat in exotic locations” and provided some insight on how skippers and boat owners attack problems with limited tools and resources. (We got the extrusion fixed before the race started.)

Once the race started, the wind began to build, and reefs had to be taken in. A short time later, the mainsail track separated from the mast, and the crew got its first taste of responding to the unexpected and handling repairs while underway. By midafternoon, air temperatures hovered around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds estimated at a steady 35 knots with much higher gusts. (We later learned that shore stations reported sustained gusts of 50 knots.) Despite a fetch of less than 2 miles in the direction of the wind, a chop of 3 to 4 feet developed, giving the crew a real heavy weather experience. By then, half the race fleet had dropped out, mostly due to mechanical problems.

What did the students think? Here’s a text conversation between one of the students and her mother, an avid sailor herself:

Mom: How is it?
Maggie: Insane
Mom: Tell me
Maggie: Over 35 knot winds with 3½-foot swells and the main sail broke away from the mast and we had to take it down and then hoist a different one up and then I got so wet it was like I jumped in the water.
Maggie: In other words, IT WAS AWESOME!

After sailing 24 miles, the junior sailors finished in third place a couple hundred yards behind the first two boats.

Do cruising adventures have a place in future junior sailing plans? The kids have already said they will kill me if they’re not invited back for more!


Although the squadron saw a slight financial loss during the inaugural year of the Junior Sailing pilot program, we can remedy this situation in future years with our more thorough understanding of the program. Having a formal agenda will allow us to make better promises to parents and students. Even with higher fees, our Seneca Junior Sailing program is far less expensive than similar programs offered elsewhere thanks to our staff of unpaid volunteers.

What happened to our students? Of the 12 students in our pilot program, the six graduating seniors left for college before the program was completed in late September. Of the remaining six underclassmen (all freshmen), four received their safety cards. Of those four, two are pursuing advanced grades through USPS: One completed Seamanship and Cruise Planning and enrolled in Piloting, and the other completed Cruise Planning and Advanced Piloting.

At least two students have been bitten by the bug and form the basis of Seneca’s new Young Mariners Committee to focus on youth- and family-oriented activities.

What about our staff of coaches and instructors? As mentioned earlier, the biggest roadblock to getting the program off the ground was recruiting coaches and boats. In the end, we had three boats and four coaches, but because of scheduling constraints, only two boats were active on any given day. Initially, owners were reluctant to invite a bunch of teenagers aboard their vessels and to commit so much of their time during our short boating season. But when asked, they all wanted to come back, and their positive comments have helped recruit several more coaches and boat owners for the 2015 season. The primary motivator among the coaches was the fulfillment they received in passing on their lifelong love of sailing to a new generation.

How did the program help squadron sustainability? It’s a bit early to tell. The squadron certainly has many more apprentice members, but the number of parents joining hasn’t been significant. We’re focusing on this issue in 2015 as we expand Junior Sailing to include activities in which parents are encouraged to attend.


To be sustainable, we need to establish a critical mass by growing the Junior Sailing program a bit more. First, we need to recruit more coaches and boat owners, which ties in with developing a larger pool of instructors and retaining them. A particularly vexing problem is how to recognize contributions made by instructors. We’re still working on this one.

How can we make the squadron more interesting for the parents of apprentice members? One idea is to introduce social aspects to the program that will include parents.

Integrating boat maintenance into the Junior Sailing curriculum would also prepare students for the reality of boat ownership, instill the etiquette of helping with boat maintenance when crewing for others, build skills needed for self-sufficiency when underway, and provide experience that enables them to better manage unexpected events at sea.

The squadron executed many more ideas as part of its strategic plan for squadron sustainability. Some were successful, some were not, and still others are in the wait-and-see category.

The Junior Sailing program has the potential to tie together the three components of the USPS triangle: education, fellowship and civic service. By sharing our experience, we hope to allow others to steal shamelessly those ideas that work and to share refinements and improvements that we might have overlooked in our initial implementation.

Lt/C Tom Alley, SN, of Seneca Sail & Power Squadron/6, has been a USPS member since the late ’80s when he got serious about sailing. He served as squadron educational officer for both Niagara and Seneca squadrons. Tom and his family sail a 1965 Alberg 35 sloop, Tomfoolery, and are active racers and cruisers with the Finger Lakes Yacht Club in Watkins Glen, New York. This article was written with significant input from Seneca members P/C Charles Fausold, SN; 1st/Lt Jim
McGinnis, P; Kathryn Alley, P; and Rolf Lewis, AP.

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