To innovate: to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

What about launching an offshore sailing club in a village just outside Coventry and over 130 miles from the nearest bit of coastline.

Yep that will pretty much tick the box!

Inland cruising clubs aren’t a unique phenomenon, and they all do a grand job in giving people who don’t live by the sea the chance to go yachting.

But it is was the Heart of England Offshore Cruising Association’s willingness to constantly reassess itself to help more people get the chance to go offshore - resulting in a steady 150 members (a third of whom are female) - which landed the Warwickshire club the RYA Club Innovation Award at the RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show.

 So what have they done?

 “At the start of 2016 we undertook a membership survey to benchmark attitudes and understand barriers to participation,” explains Commodore Judy Lambourne.

 “The biggest barrier highlighted was lack of time, nothing else. We therefore decided to focus on increasing active participation on the water whilst maintaining membership levels.”

Established in 1993 as a continuation of RYA evening classes and with no boat owners, HOEOCA now offers opportunities in four areas – training, cruising, racing and social – all underpinned by strong communications forging a close community.

One of the HOEOCA's biggest draws is you don’t need to own or have access to a yacht to be involved, and few members have any desire to be boat owners. Instead the club’s role is largely to provide a social network whereby people can meet others with similar yachting interests and ambitions and help them to make these happen.

To help keep the club moving the club forwards in 2016, HOEOCA did the following: 

  • Broadened its range of cruising, including re-introducing ‘shared cost cruising’ for low cost weekend trips and adding new rally and cruise destinations.
  • Maintained racing opportunities, including having an all HOEOCA boat in Cowes Week for the first time and entering multiple boats in the Round the Island Race.
  • Trained future skippers through its skipper development programme with the chance to skipper/navigate on rallies supported by experienced members.
  • Kept developing skills for all, including adding new RYA courses and bespoke training and awarding three of its own Jim Race Bursaries to support newcomers to cruising in gaining practical RYA practical courses certificates.

 Did it have an impact?

 The results of these new innovate interventions were unquestionably impressive.

 Amongst other successes over the past 12 months, the club had four first-time skippers and three first-time mates crew on rallies, a quarter of all members took part in a racing event, a record number of people (including 11 trip ‘virgins’) enjoyed a HOEOCA ‘hot’ trip in the Mediterranean and there was a 38% increase in the number of RYA Yachtmaster Offshore qualified skippers within the club’s ranks.

In addition three members bought their first boats, three sailed across the Atlantic and eight made maiden cross-Channel voyages.

All this was underpinned by a strong year-round social programme, that is equally as effective in integrating new members as it is in keeping long-standing members interested and enthused, and the launch of a brand new website.

As Judy continues: “Skill levels across the board have risen dramatically over the years while increasing the amount of racing we are involved in has attracted younger members ensuring there is a healthy cross-over between cruisers and racers.

“When it comes to newcomers we offer rallies as a cost effective taster to sailing in a safe environment and select crew to balance abilities and experience with thought given to social mix and overall enjoyment. Nothing is left to chance if we can help it.”

Plotting the course ahead

Of course to keep being successful you must keep innovating, and HOEOCA aren’t about to rest of their laurels.

This year will see HOEOCA build on the ‘shared cost’ cruising model, with more weekends on offer, as clubs also tend to be able to negotiate better charter rates and discounts than individuals. How many non-sailing weekends away have you been on that have cost as little as £100-200 including accommodation?

Meanwhile the club is adding further new rallies and cruise destinations to appeal to a wider audience. HOECOA is also entering the Fastnet for the third time but for the first time on a member’s boat, demonstrating the increased skills, confidence and appetite the club has nurtured.

Building more formalised relationships with local clubs, to share best practice and training opportunities, is another important strategy. HOEOCA sees this as a way of attracting new members, particularly as dinghy sailors seek alternative options with the club ideally placed to support the Active Third Age.

Judy concludes: "Whatever people want from their yacht sailing, we will be able to make it happen either directly or through contacts, and for many people, that itself is a revelation.

“We were so proud that the work we are doing to break the mould of what people may consider to be a typical sailing club was been recognised with the RYA Club Innovation Award.”

Find more information about all RYA Club of the Year finalists and the award.