Some ideas on how to encourage growth of a racing fleet...
I've been a member of various fleets of racing sailboats over the years and seen lots of others. Most of them were in a state of decline or, at best, holding steady in terms of numbers of sailors participating. One or two were a roaring success, growing every year, breaking records for participation every season. What were the successful ones doing differently?
What follows are my random thoughts and observations on the subject. Feel free to disagree, argue, add your own ideas. I don't claim to be an expert on this subject by any means. Also, bear in mind that my experience has mainly been with small one-design dinghies. Different factors may come into play with larger boats and handicap fleets.
Publicity. You have to get out the word about your fleet to every potential member in your area through every possible medium. This is so important that I'll write a separate post on this subject.
Go with the flow. By this I mean you have to recognize what kinds of boat are popular in your area and what is likely to be successful. If you live in an area where every other club has a thriving fleet of Boat X and they already have an established inter-club racing circuit then there's probably a good reason for that and you will have more fun sailing Boat X too and a greater chance of success building a Boat X fleet at your club. Don't try and grow a fleet of Boat Y which is a near clone of Boat X.
Sell to everyone. Have the attitude that everyone you meet is a potential fleet member. Let people know you sail and find opportunities to strike up conversations about sailing and your fleet. At work. At parties. At other activities. In shops. Who knows? Your mailman, or the guy that services your car, or the kid that photocopies your newsletter may be the next recruit for your fleet. (You do have a fleet newsletter don't you.)
Find boats and put people in them. This is critical. Scour newspapers, forums, eBay, craigslist, every source you can imagine to find second-hand boats for sale. Then when you come across a potential fleet member you can put them in touch with someone selling a boat. It may be obvious but this is crucial. You won't get people in your fleet unless they have the right kind of boat for your fleet. So make it easy for them to buy the right boat.
Be friendly. Go out of your way to welcome new members to your fleet. Help them with rigging the boat. Offer advice. Answer their questions. Give them tips. Make them feel wanted.
Organize well-run races. Sailors like to race at a club where things happen on time, start lines and course are square, signals are clear and correct, etc. etc. If you let race management become sloppy, sailors will get pissed off and go somewhere else.
Insist on fair racing. Nobody likes protests but serious racers don't like racing in fleets where nobody cares about observing the racing rules either. Create an atmosphere where it's expected that rules will be followed, penalties taken and, if necessary, protests speedily and fairly handled.
Teach. Organize seminars and clinics, informal or formal, to teach new fleet members about how to improve their racing skills and how to go fast in your fleet. Everyone wants to improve. Make it easy for them. One simple way to do this is to have the winner of each day's racing do a short debrief after racing on how he or she did it. The more you share the more the fun for everyone.
Socialize. Organize off-the-water social activities where the sailors in your fleet can hang out together and have a good time. It might be as simple as beer and pizza after racing or as elaborate as an annual dinner dance. For many people the social side is just as important as the racing side of fleet membership.
It's up to you. Every successful and thriving fleet I've ever seen has had one enthusiastic individual who is plugging away year after year at all these activities of fleet building. A relentless dynamo of a person, a cheerleader, who devotes all of his or her energies to promoting and growing the fleet. I've seen one fleet where the same guy has been doing this for twenty years. He may not always be the fleet captain. He may delegate a lot of the jobs of running the fleet to others. But he's there behind the scenes pushing, persuading, promoting, twisting arms, solving problems, making things happen. Can you be that person for your fleet?
OK. What have I missed? There must be a hundred items we could add to this list. Go for it.