Sparking the Fleets
A pair of experienced racers are making a habit of bringing fleets back from the grave and invigorating local sailing communities.
The Nashville sailing scene was dying before Chris Laborde’s eyes. Immediate action was required to stop the bleeding. Nashville’s older racers were on their way out, and behind them was nobody. Over glasses of bourbon one evening at Harbor Island YC in Old Hickory, Tennessee, Laborde, Robert Mattix and Tim Fitzgerald assembled a ragtag group of racers and hatched a plan: They would commit to buying six boats and to sail eight weekends.
By process of elimination, the doublehanded Vanguard 15 made it to the top of their list. It’s self- bailing, self- rescuing, fast and exciting in breeze, and there were plenty of used boats and parts available. They then built a six- boat trailer from donated parts, drove to Chicago and returned with their starter fleet in tow.
One year later, Nashville’s V15 fleet grew to 19. Some fleet members had never owned a boat or learned to race, but knowledge flowed freely from the top down. The less- experienced sailors went from comfortable in 10 knots to confident in 25. “A successful fleet-building environment means there’s a culture of sharing information,” says Laborde.
Laborde and Fitzgerald credit Ted Lischer, known in Midwest sailing circles as “the godfather of fleet building,” for their blueprint. Lischer built the Kansas City, Kansas, Thistle fleet into one of the nation’s largest.
“Camaraderie is the key ingredient in the success of our fleet,” says Laborde. “It’s culture that will grow the group the quickest. We established a core group of racers who fit the profile of who we thought would be ideal participants in the fleet, convinced them to write checks, and got them to commit to events.” Today, it’s “a sailing family,” adds Laborde, who has been involved with growing fleets elsewhere.
In each successive fleet- building endeavor, he’s stuck to what he says is a formula that works — focusing on family, fun and learning. Social opportunities and a welcoming attitude into the fleet are essential because not everyone wants to win a pickle dish. “Hoist the flag on a happy hour, meet at the club after work, get together for holiday fleet parties,” says Fitzgerald, who has also helped grow fleets of Hobie 20s in Charleston, South Carolina and Lasers and Thistles in Kansas. “Borrowing boats, crews and skippers is easy when everyone knows each other,” he says. “Invite new friends and bring nonsailors to the mix. When they’re not worried about being the outsider, the group grows.”
The racing should be about quality, not quantity. “If sailing is every weekend, you have to pick and choose, and causes the ‘who can make it?’ syndrome,” says Laborde.
Instead, Laborde suggests designating one Saturday per month. “Take a poll early in the season to set the calendar and focus on getting everyone there for those days. Think of your schedule as a boxing match. Jabs are tiring and unimpressive. Focus instead on landing one big hit that gets people’s attention and provides the great memories until the next one.” Q