Back from the Brink
O At the Great Chase Race at the Hull YC in Hull, Massachusetts, 121 boats competed for line honors. A pursuit race, the Great Chase is not your typical regatta. The pin at the start is a rubber duck. The official T-shirt looks like it came from a Grateful Dead show. The entry fee is just $90 for boats with crews up to five people, and it includes a party with a band, dinner, dancing and trophies.
At the after-race party, while the band rocks, more than 500 people bob to the music and relive the racing. In the midst of the melee, Bill Bradford has a smile on his face and a beer in his hand. He’s having a hard time eating his dinner because well-wishers are stopping by to congratulate him on the event he started more than 25 years ago as part of his plan to save the Hull Yacht Club from extinction and revive sailing in the bay.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Bradford joined the club in 1985, membership was plummeting, the club was on the verge of closing its doors, and the commodore wanted to install a tennis court. At the time, the Hull YC was the domain of summer people. Townsfolk wanted no part of it. The club had no launch service or dinghy space. But there was a junior program, so Bradford enrolled his daughter, Katie, and renovated a tired turnabout.
As Bradford spent more time at the club, he realized the Junior Program was solid. The challenge was that the parents joined the club to have their kids in the program, then quit when their kids aged out. Turnover was high.
To make matters worse, the few Senior Race members were at war with the Junior Race members regarding use of scant club resources. The infighting got so bad the commodore, Susan Epstein, a racing enthusiast, resigned and left the club.
PHRF was growing in the surrounding area, but not at the club. The volunteers were getting burned out, the building was falling down, and the town of Hull, which owned the property the club sits upon, was thinking about using the location for condominiums or a restaurant to generate revenue.
Bradford has a lot of energy. The Archbishop Williams Athletic Hall of Fame member used to commute from Hull to Boston by running the 20-mile route. Then he would get home by hopping in Boston Harbor and water-skiing back to Hull behind a friend’s powerboat.
So when Bill Bradford sees something that is broken, he has an unstoppable urge to try to fix it. He thinks this is a nice quality. His wife, Ann, thinks it makes him a pain in the ass.
After the summer people left in fall, Bill got to work. With the help of fellow sailors and fixit men Charlie Buckley, Brian Stanley and Will Craig, Bradford would identify something on the property that was about to fall apart, such as the ramp that reached the docks, then rip it apart. That way, it had to be replaced.
Puzzled by all of the structures that were failing unexpectedly, the out-of-town executive committee recruited a year-round resident to join their ranks to keep an eye on what was happening at the club during the offseason. They chose Bill Bradford, and the fox was in the henhouse.
As a former CFO, Bradford knows the value of a dollar. In 1990, the club dues were $350 per year. With membership dropping, the executive committee decided to raise the dues to meet the bills. Bradford opposed the dues hike, and argued that more members, not higher dues, was the better course.
By 1992 dues reached $750, and membership was scraping the bottom at an all-time low of 38 people. But the 38 members who did remain were dedicated. Every weekend, members fixed floats, club boats or the clubhouse. They also ran the launch, tended the bar and mowed the lawn. After the work was complete, the Buckleys and others would join Bradford and crack open some beers and think up ways
How one man saved his yacht club by rebuilding from the people up.
to recruit new members to the club.
They determined that a successful yacht club must have three components that work together in harmony: Junior Sailing, Senior Sailing and Cruising. In Bradford’s opinion, all social activities must be based around sailing.
Bradford’s vision was to build each component, recruit new members, then move them to the board. He started by recruiting PHRF sailors to join by volunteering the Hull Yacht Club to host the parties for several weekend regattas. Next, he created new races with low entry fees, strong race management, free moorings and great parties.
To keep entry fees low, trophies were homespun. “No one needs another silver tray,” says Bradford. He knew he had the formula right when after the race, the prize winners were laughing and trading their trophies, which included a used plaque, an old screwdriver and a jelly jar.
When he launched the Great Chase Race, a pursuit race where the slowest starts first and the fastest starts last, his slogan was “Come celebrate the sport of sailing.” All sailboats, PHRF, cruisers, one-designs and multihulls were invited. The Great Chase was the first pursuit race in the Boston area, and Bradford convinced the leaders of PHRF and one-design classes that the event would help grow their fleets.
Bradford’s goal for the Great Chase Race was for half of the participants to be skippers with no or very little racing experience. At the skipper’s meeting, the pursuit format was explained, and then to make it fun, skippers could plead their case for a better rating. The proceedings were not based on US Sailing Protocol, but instead The Gong Show. Whiners were gonged quickly, but it added to the camaraderie.
At the first Great Chase Race, no one entered an ark, but it would have been a good choice. Even though the rain fell in great sheets, 20 boats entered, and all comers attended the party after sailing. Bradford’s wife, Ann, made pots of homemade soup, the fire roared in the fireplace, and everyone was talking about coming back the next year.
Building on the success, Bradford attempted to get the Great Chase Race listed in the Mass Bay PHRF schedule the next year. The Mass Bay board was not amused by the unconventional approach to ratings and were not interested.
Fortunately, Jack Slattery of North Sails, who grew up in Hull, was also at the meeting. He vouched for Bradford, and the event was listed on the calendar. Over the next three