Back from the Brink

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

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

The Great Chase Race is Hull YC’S sig­na­ture event. It started as a way to get non-rac­ers to the race­course and into the club­house. PHOTO : JOE BERKE­LEY

Great Chase com­peti­tors re­turn to the club for the sta­ple meal, mu­sic and rev­elry at Hull YC. Bill Brad­ford, skip­per­ing his Rhodes 19 Full Cir­cle, is the leader of the club’s re­vival. PHO­TOS : JOE BERKE­LEY

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