Felpham get next generation of sailors afloat

Youth sailing is booming at Felpham Sailing Club / Picture by Tony Lord
Youth sailing is booming at Felpham Sailing Club / Picture by Tony Lord

Felpham Sailing Club are winning high praise for the way they encourage young people into the sport.

The next generation of sailing stars start out by attending OnBoard (OB) sessions and the club have run Friday Night Youth sessions for years.

Around 90 young sailors signed up to sail on Fridays in 2015. In this Q&A, FSC training principal Roger Belton explains how this side of the club has been transformed...

Sum up the impact OB and Friday Night Youth sessions have had.

They have been instrumental in turning around the club’s fortunes. In 2008 we faced a crisis with youth participation at an all-time low. There were just seven cadets and no specific youth sessions. With trepidation and some faith it would work, Friday Night Youth sessions were launched and we got involved in OB.

Initially we worked with two local primary schools to get things started. In the second year we doubled participation and have seen youth numbers double each successive year.

Younger siblings often see what their big sister or brother is doing and from very young it becomes a foregone conclusion they want to sail as soon as possible.

Roger Belton

Typically between 40 and 60 sail on Fridays. Word of mouth and local reputation has contributed to the growth and we no longer need to advertise. Our Friday nights are full and membership and club revenue are both up year-on-year.

How are Friday Night Youth sessions structured?

Generally sailors are split into racing and training groups. Friends want to sail together and care is taken to buddy up and maximise this element. The biggest decision at the start of a session is around wind, tide height and surf combination. This influences decisions on who is allowed to sail and permitted activity.

The racing group is led by experienced club racers, offering coaching around a course from the safety boat as needed, often using flags from a committee boat for a start line.

The training group is led by a qualified but lapsed SI and national class coach. Inexperienced children are buddied up so they start building confidence in crewing and understanding what it takes to leave the beach and return safely. Besides some specific training elements, the emphasis is on fun with games coming to the fore.

The sessions are run by Paul Miller, an RYA SI and windsurf instructor. Although not labelled RYA Training, having an SI in charge helps keep the activity as safe as possible.

Paul took over from John Breach, who started Youth Fridays and ran it for five years. Good succession planning was vital to ensuring its continued success.

It sounds pretty volunteer-heavy. How do you meet this challenge?

On a typical Friday there may be 15 volunteers with specific roles such as kitchen, beachmaster, registration, as well as safety boat roles. We’re on the coast with no shelter so having volunteers who know what they’re doing is essential. Refreshing the volunteer team to avoid burnout is critical to future success.

Currently we have 47 qualified and active RYA Instructors – more than ten per cent of our total membership. This has led to overall participation growing by more than 20 per cent in the first few months of the 2016 season, on top of year-on-year growth since 2009.

Talking to parents, making them feel welcome and their children safe is probably the most successful recruitment strategy. Heavy advertising of Start Sailing and powerboat courses and explaining the various pathways (Start Sailing, racing, powerboating and instructing) encourages some parents to take a first step into volunteering.

Getting families involved makes a huge difference. The instructor pathway is particularly powerful as youngsters develop their communication skills and impart their knowledge to others as peers.

How have you promoted the link between OB and your other youth activities?

We have integrated OB by offering ‘Try before you buy’ and Push the Boat Out as well as Skill Saturday sessions. By the club offering club dinghies at reasonable rates, young families can get started without making a purchase. As confidence, competence and enthusiasm grows, the younger ones look up to the older ones and see them going out racing and start thinking they too can aspire to handle such dinghies.

The very youngest group, around nine to ten, is oversubscribed so those children wanting to get involved are pointed to Skill Saturday to get started. There is a performance squad where youngsters sign up to specific race coaching and a development squad bridging Friday Youth into performance squad. This has seen a number of sailors selected for S/SE Zone Squads and also at national level. Their exploits are promoted through our social media channels so the pathway becomes genuinely aspirational.

How do the Friday Night Youth sessions help get extended family involved?

Younger siblings often see what their big sister/brother is doing and from very young it becomes a foregone conclusion they want to sail as soon as possible. Light-wind taster sails are the best way to get the younger ones really fired up, but based on SI judgment on what are suitable conditions.

As the group has grown, enthusiasm has grown with families joining up as social and sailing members, with many parents getting started in sailing and powerboating at the same time as their children.

Do you have any plans to expand on what you are already achieving?

Some age-groups on Fridays are full. We need to enhance our offering on Skill Saturdays and maybe introduce another training night. Our small clubhouse is used five days out of seven so there is still some capacity for growth. Our tiny dinghy park (70 spaces) is a limiting factor but plans are in hand to expand the space and capital projects are being considered to enhance the club for future generations.

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