There’s no getting around it, 2021 has been difficult. Starting the year with yet another lockdown forced clubs to postpone opening up. And then when open, having to operate with limited numbers to comply with Government restrictions.
However, this year has also been full of opportunities. Many clubs up and down the country experienced a rise in enquiries and members. And subsequently were able to capitalise on this when restrictions eased. This was also reflected in our OnBoard clubs with over 40,000 youngsters completing their first OnBoard session during April – August.
Understanding the reasons for this increase is important so that we can better prepare for next year.
Is it down to the staycation movement and families exploring outdoor sporting opportunities in their local perhaps? Or is there more to it?
Shropshire Sailing Club experienced a rise in youngsters taking part in their first OnBoard session this year. John Ridgers, Commodore and Simon Hewitt, Training Principle believes this is due to several factors.
Staycation effect – discovering local surroundings
The club sits on the northern shore of Whitemere, a Site of Specific Interest (SSSI) with 65 acres of water and surrounding woodland. John and Simon believe that the club’s location helped attract newcomers wanting to explore the local area.
As John explains: “Our OnBoard activities have been popular with our young sailors, schools and youth associations wishing to bring their young people along to experience sailing in a beautiful setting. It was not necessarily just to learn a new sport, but to try something together in a safe and friendly environment.”
Pre-covid the club had already implemented more regular, better communicated sessions for the club’s young sailors and less experienced adults with fortnightly Saturday sessions of two 2-hour sailing sessions supervised by SI’s and DI’s. Once restrictions eased the club then took a cautious and considerate approach, opening with just ten young club members in two distinctly separated groups on the water in each session.
The club then matched the government’s recovery steps, increasing the OnBoard session sizes accordingly. As interest grew, the club’s strong and flexible volunteer instructor team was also key in allowing the club to run the regular sessions - alongside the increase of enquiries and activities from local schools and youth associations.
Staying local – schools and youth organisations
The club discovered that local schools were particularly enthusiastic to give their students the opportunity to try something outside whilst remaining local.
One school had historically taken their students into Wales, however with the tighter restrictions and wanting to stay local in Shropshire, they approached the club to lay on eight half-day sessions over four days.
John adds: “Local head teachers in Shropshire work very closely together, and word gets about very quickly when a school or youth organisation has a wonderful experience with us.
“In 2021 we hosted five different primary schools and two secondary schools. These teachers were speaking about their experiences to their pears meaning our enquiries were increasing through increased activities – the snowball effect.”
Parents and teachers have also been extremely understanding of the club’s Covid-19 requirements and happy to work with the club. For example, youngsters arrive ‘ready to sail’ whilst the changing facilities have been closed.
Like many clubs around the UK, Shropshire SC introduced a new on-line booking system for parents and carers to book the young sailors onto OnBoard activities, which helped safely manage everyone when on site.
“The new system has been instrumental for us controlling numbers afloat and more importantly the parents on the foreshore. If people would like a taster we know we can easily invite them on those dates and there will be instructors available to give them a taste of the sport and keep them safe.
“For staying connected, we have found WhatsApp a great forum for conversation and getting things out there.” John added.
From embracing new technology to investing in outside spaces, Covid-19 restrictions required clubs to re-think how they could operate safely. Whilst some of these changes are no longer required and clubs will be glad to see go (Covid secure social bubble anyone?) clubs have found some of these measures to be hugely beneficial and are here to stay.
As John explains: “What has remained is our club boat and activity booking system so that we know who is attending and match our instructors to it accordingly. Our young sailors continue to attend our activities ‘ready to sail’ so they are ready to go straightaway – meaning there is no wasted time getting ready. We also purchased large event shelters so that activities can remain outside and also give shelter over our picnic tables.”
Word of mouth effect
During 2021, Shropshire SC found that the word of mouth effect from the school and youth group sessions was incredibly powerful and the club often saw an increase in enquiries after a group session.
As Simon comments: “Word of mouth is an incredibly strong way of people knowing what you do, feedback from people who come to visit us suggests that what we are doing is great, but it’s not always easy to let people know. Sailing has an elitist stigma attached to it, we often get comments like “we didn’t think that sailing would be affordable”. We continually work hard to ensure the communities around us know that sailing is accessible to pretty much anyone.”
Balancing the fortnightly sessions for the club’s young sailors alongside those from local schools and youth associations has been a challenge, as Simon explains: “We only have a small team of RYA Senior Instructors and Instructors to cover all the different OnBoard events and our activities. Several used up their work annual leave quotas, others volunteered more of their personal time. Juggling and matching volunteer instructor resource so that young people get the best experience when they come sailing at Shropshire SC has been difficult at times.”
The club’s flexible attitude was also key in meeting the growing demand from schools and clubs, against those of current members. With one set sailing on a weekend, the other during weekday school time.
Listen, evolve and prepare for a fantastic 2022
Throughout the last 18 months or so, Shropshire SC has actively listened and sought feedback so that it can continually improve its activities. To help prepare for 2022 the club is building on this and is currently producing a simple feedback questionnaire, so that it can gain the thoughts from its young sailors as well as parents and carers about what they would like for 2022.
As John explains: “What we will continue to do is evolve the content of our activities to develop our young sailors of 2020 / 21 further into the sport of sailing whilst continuing to promote what we do to new potential sailors.”
Simon adds: “We continually evaluate the way we operate and are flexible in our approach, we have a really great group of leaders at the club that actively think and make decisions as we develop. This is not related to Covid but makes us continually strive to be better at what we do.”
Simon concludes: “It is always important to prepare. It takes time to understand what went well, what not so well and refresh our activities.”