The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on both our working and recreational lives.
As we slowly return to some sort of normality – the fabled ‘new normal‘ – we will see many changes to our lives, not just working from home, the new travel and shopping habits, but a change to the way we access recreational activities.
While these changing social trends have been building for some years, the typically conservative sailing club has been content to follow an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it‘ policy, until their aging membership profile began to effect their on-water activities.
The RYA also came to this realisation, and launched the ‘Future of Sailing’ webinar series which addressed current trends affecting boating and water sports, aimed at clubs, class associations and anyone who has an interest in the future of sailing.
The Coronavirus pandemic has possibly fast tracked many of the changes highlighted in those webinars, with a growing demand for the ‘pay and play‘ concept and more clubs looking to digitise their membership and race systems inline with modern expectations.
For sailing the coronavirus restrictions put in place by the government to fight the spread of Covoid-19 meant the sudden closure of sailing facilities just as a new season was about to start.
This delayed the traditional opening of the sailing season in late March and meant that all early season open meetings were cancelled or postponed to later in the year, or as in the case of the Olympics . . . to next year.
A sailing/yacht club can range from a small lock-up club run by the members to a large organisation with a wide range of facilities and a full-time staff.
For the small volunteer run clubs this has not been a case of survival, more an extension to the closed winter period.
For the larger clubs, many of which have bars, restaurants, accommodation and training facilities which rely on regular footfall, the loss of income from shut down can dramatically affect the club budget just as it would on any other business.
Nearly four months later we are slowly seeing the lifting of restrictions and mothballed sailing clubs slowly coming back to life.
While clubs are still not fully functional and many restrictive rules have to be considered, the latest stage of this process has recently seen a return of organised dinghy racing at club level in the UK.
Two quite different clubs that have been working hard to restart sailing and racing activities are the Queen Mary SC near London and Hayling Island SC on the south coast of England. These well-established clubs operate in vastly different locations and have quite different operating models.
Both clubs have been shut down during the pandemic, with their employees furloughed. As the lockdown restrictions have been eased, they were able to introduce some general sailing and recently started organised racing.
HISC is a traditional annual membership style coastal dinghy/keelboat sailing club soon to celebrate its centenary.
Operating from a modern clubhouse at the entrance to Chichester Harbour, it provides regular dinghy and keelboat racing in the Harbour and the Solent.
While the club office and facilities, including Bar, restaurant, and accommodation, are run by professional staff, the extensive sailing activities, including National and World Championships are run by member volunteers.
In a season HISC will host 20 or more open sailing events, and these events produce a significant income stream to the club. To date eight have been cancelled including two national championships and the extremely popular Chichester Harbour Race week.
The club was shut down and most staff furloughed. The delayed launching of the members cruisers took place in mid-June and the site has gradually been opened to social sailing, with the clubhouse facilities closed.
This month has seen the start of a reduced dinghy race programme, and the weekend opening of the Bar and Snack bar after they were adapted to allow for the various coronavirus restrictions.
In contrast QMSC is an inland water based club, founded in 1972 on the 704 acre Queen Mary Reservoir located just on the edge of London.
While providing regular club dinghy racing and a number of open meetings, the club is most well-known for the Bloody Mary pursuit race, first held in January 1974 on the first Saturday of the London Boat Show.
The Bloody Mary event has gone on to outlive its ‘raison d’etre’ and become the premier dinghy winter race event, attracting up to 300 entries and the centrepiece of a vibrant winter UK race circuit.
QMSC is a professional run club with forms of membership tailored to different user requirements.
The traditional form of annual (Standard) membership does not require involvement in the club race organisation as is normally expected at most sailing clubs.
A second unique form of membership is a gym style, monthly hire (Select) membership, allowing you to sail dinghies or windsurfers without the time and costs involved in owning your own equipment.
Thirdly there is a day membership for those who want the flexibility of being able to come up to the Club and use the facilities on an occasional basis.
In addition, the club offers boat and board hire, and has a thriving Sailing School.
Tony Bishop, Secretary of QMSC, feels that what initially looked to be a major headache – when they had to shut the club – furlough 40 employees, including himself, and just maintained security, has seen them come through in good shape.
They have still to fully open the clubhouse and the franchised cafe, as it is not profitable to do so until the restrictions allow more access, but the erecting of three large marques has allowed them to restart their coaching and training programmes.
QMSC saw more members social sailing this June than last year, and their early investment in the website and digital booking has proved a major element in maintaining their Sailing School and gym style membership. With the bonus of allowing them to adapt it to a booking system for launching spots for the restart of racing.
This trend towards ‘on demand‘ sailing has been a growing feature of the dinghy sailing scene as regular club racing drops in popularity for a more relaxed recreational attitude, without taking on boat ownership and fixed programmes, and many clubs have added hire fleets to cater for this.
While we are long familiar with computerisation in the workplace and in purchasing online, it is often a very basic version that we see at the sailing recreational level, with many ‘homebuilt’ systems maintaining membership and payment details, with security levels that would not trouble the most basic hacker.
Unfortunately, it has taken a major pandemic to highlight the problems.
And while hopefully not as many sailing clubs will go under as retail businesses, many will need to look closely at their business plans and see if they can survive in the ‘new normal‘ world.