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An interview with Ashley Walker about Lakewood Yacht Club's new RS21 fleet

by David Schmidt 23 Oct 2019 08:00 PDT October 23, 2019
RS21s upwind © Paul Wyeth

If you’re into performance dinghy and sportboat sailing, you’re likely familiar with RS Sailing, the UK-based designers and builders of fun-friendly designs including the well-loved RS Aero, RS Feva and, more recently, the RS21. While these boats all sport completely different designs and design briefs, they all share the same go-fast DNA, and all have been found guilty of generating borderline face-splitting smiles, especially when the boats light up in a good sea breeze.

I experienced this myself in June when I caught a ride for a casual, Seattle-area evening race aboard an RS21. Sadly, Mother Nature didn’t quite deliver the wind needed to really stretch the facial muscles, but we did experience a few great kite rides ahead of the starting sequence that demonstrated the boat’s performance attributes.

While we ended up bailing on our mixed-fleet race when the breeze died, the RS21 wasted little time putting trees in between itself and the other boats in our class. Granted this wasn’t terribly hard, given some of the heavy displacement boats that we were up against, but the experience demonstrated that, while RS21s can be raced in handicap fleets, they are likely a lot more fun to race as One Design boats.

One Design sailing was the exact thinking at the Lakewood Yacht Club (LYC), in Seabrook, Texas, when the club recently made the decision to purchase a fleet of 12 RS21s. The club plans to use these capable boats to advance and grow its adult sailing, youth keelboat racing and women’s sailing programs, and to break down as many barriers to sailing participation as possible by removing the burdens and expenses of boat ownership.

I checked in with Ashley Walker, the 2018 Commodore of LYC, to learn more about the club’s recent decision to purchase the first fleet of 12 club-owned RS21 sportboats in the USA.

You mentioned that Lakewood Yacht Club is breaking down barriers of entry to sailing with their pay-to-play model. Can you explain what this is and how increases access?

Lakewood Yacht Club has built a nationally recognized Youth Sailing Program over the years. Many of those youth sailors have moved on and completed college sailing programs as a result of their skills developed at LYC. We want them to return to our club as members and saw a pay-to-play option as providing a high level of value in return for their membership.

Many young sailors fresh from college or building a family often have to choose between investing in either a club membership or purchase a boat, and cannot do both. We’d rather they join our club and let us provide them with a fleet to sail at a nominal cost compared to boat ownership.

Can you give us some background on what influenced the Lakewood Yacht Club to buy a fleet of RS21s?

LYC recognized three years ago that club-owned keelboat fleets were gaining popularity in various areas of the country. We began looking at other clubs [that] were using matched keelboats and trying to determine what kind of programs they were using to promote use of their fleets. [Then,] RS introduced their RS21 last year as a purposely built boat for the activities we thought would attract new and younger members not only to sailing, but also to our club.

Design/performance-wise, what specific attributes drew Lakewood Yacht Club to the RS21? What other boats/designs were considered and what about the RS21 allowed it to prevail?

Our goal is to attract new and younger members to LYC. Providing a strong social atmosphere is key to doing so.

We were primarily attracted to the versatility and costs of acquiring a matched set of the RS21 model over the others, including Sonars, J/22s, and J/70s, which allows us to offer use of the boats for everything from learn-to-sail programs to team and match-racing events.

We see the RS21 as purposely built for what we want to do. Being in Texas, we can offer year-round sailing in both Clear Lake, located immediately in front of our club, and in Galveston Bay as a larger sailing area and expect the sailors to return afterwards for socials, regatta parties and educational briefings.

How do you see this new fleet of boats fitting into the club’s new pay-to-play model?

Providing boats with the versatility to be used by members for multiple programs, such as learn-to-sail [programs] all the way to National Championship racing events, will offer LYC members opportunities to walk in, lower the boats into the water from their sling slips, and go sailing for a cost much less than the traditional costs of boat ownership.

We want to keep it easy, but also provide a high-quality service with boats they will want to sail.

What kinds of sailors/people do you see getting excited about the new fleet? Or, in other words, do you see the RS21s attracting new people to the sport, or do you expect matriculation from other classes/One Designs?

Clubs around the country today are challenged with attracting new and younger members. With costs of boat ownership rising all the time, we hope to provide opportunities for new and existing younger members to enjoy sailing in a socially active atmosphere, and enjoy the sailing experience without the hassle.

Wednesday night racing on Clear Lake [are] very popular event[s], with J/22’s historically being the largest class. We’ve already received inquiries from some of those racers about moving over to our fleet of RS21s to compete, once we take delivery this fall.

What was the highest hurdle that the Lakewood Yacht Club had to clear in order to make this purchase a reality? And how was this crux move negotiated?

It is obviously a large investment to secure a matched set of new keelboats. LYC regularly updates its continuing strategic plan and made attracting new and younger members a priority. Long-term planning and saving for the opportunity began a few years ago when the subject was first introduced.

We are also fortunate to work with Bay Access, Inc., a local sailing foundation whose mission is to introduce sailing to folks in the Galveston Bay area, and has assisted LYC with funding the purchase of the boats.

Do you see the Lakewood Yacht Club’s pay-to-play model as something that can attract new sailors to the sport? And, if so, do you think this could become an export model to other clubs around the country?

We believe the success of our program will depend largely on promoting it as a social event, attracting new sailors to join our club and enjoy the comradery and experience of sailing on new and advanced designed RS21’s.

Paying a scheduled fee for daily, or weekend use allows [sailors] to avoid the historical costs of acquiring a boat, storing, maintaining and insuring it, and will allow them to enjoy the best of sailing without the hassle.

We hope other club’s will follow and offer opportunities for both their and our members to participate in team and match-racing events, and enjoy a fun and socially driven experience.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

We’re genuinely excited about our new program. We’re confident the RS21 is designed for what we want to accomplish, and are looking forward to promoting our program to develop new sailors and give experienced ones new opportunities to enjoy sailing at Lakewood Yacht Club at all levels.

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