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Not quite a plan, but a budget for a plan.

Boating in 2022

We're in the process of setting a budget for 2022. This is a draft plan to help us prepare for boating expenses in the year ahead. Send feedback to me direct, or leave in the comments below.

The Dolphin Club is uniquely positioned to offer a community boating program on the North shore of San Francisco. It’s not only in our history, but written into our agreement with the city. How we offer that program is up to us. We can have a quiet little program that members work their way into through persistence, or we can create a diverse and easily accessible program that appeals to a broad a range of people.

It’s the view of this Boat Captain that we should strive for the latter by offer a variety of boating opportunities and eduction that will meet the needs of current members and future members. This means different boats for different folks. It also means effective training, structured opportunities for practice, and high standards of safety – and all that requires quite a lot of organization.

Over the last year we have worked hard to introduce boating to more people. Over 90 members have started into basic rowing training, 21 members advanced into shells, 70 members into SUPs, and a similar number into kayaks. Dozens of members have started in on piloting with motorized craft. All told, there have been over 2200 boating outings so far this year. This has been one of the busiest years on record for boating at the club, and I’m hopeful 2022 will continue on this trajectory.

As the board prepares to set a budget for 2022, we need to figure out our numbers for the year ahead. After numerous conversations with members, I’d like to share a boating plan for 2022, explain some of the the thinking behind it, and get your feedback and support to make it happen.

Note, the budget is just a tool to help predict expenses. It doesn’t actually indicate approval of the ideas within. All these new ideas will still need further deliberation and approval from the board in 2022.

Traditional Wooden Fleet – $69k Maintenance

Over the last several years, we have invested heavily in our traditional wooden rowing fleet. These boats are constructed in a plank on frame method similar to that used before glue and and modern materials were available. We have a fleet of 17 traditional boats. Almost all are operational, and in near museum quality.

Our wooden fleet is in such fine shape because of the leadership and dedication of Jon Bielinski with help in recent years from Julia Hechanova. Jon Bielinski started maintaining our wooden boats in the mid 1980s and has developed a well equipped boat shop and processes for maintaining these craft. Their work is supported by volunteers on Tuesday evenings.

Ideally we revarnish three boats each year. When boats come into the shop, there are often other issues to fix such as broken frames and rot. In the year ahead, we have the following repairs to make:

  • Viking: Re-caulk garboard plank. (A relatively simple repair)
  • Foster: Refinish
  • Re-varnish two other boats.
  • Other repairs that may come up.
Varnish Schedule

How should we maintain these boats?

The drawback of traditional boats has been the cost of their upkeep. Boat Night supervision and food accounts for only a quarter of the costs. Supplies and equipment are relatively small too. The bulk of our expenditures are on professional maintenance which takes place during the rest of the week.

Over the past several years we’ve spent an average of $80k per year maintaining the wooden boats. This averages out to about $5000 per year, per boat.

In contrast, the South End maintain their wooden boats on a shoestring budget. They do the bulk of their maintenance with all volunteer labor, and contract out only the more complicated repairs. Their fleet is not in as good a shape as ours, but their 2021 maintenance budget was under $7k. (Although they did spent an additional $11k this year to replace a keel on one of the boats)

More Volunteering. Saturday Boatbuilding Class?

There are some things we can learn from SERC. Their Boat Captain described to me how during Covid they were able to engage volunteers to work on boats in small groups throughout the week. While we fell behind during the pandemic, their members actually became more engaged and were able to return three wooden boats to service in time for this year’s tri.

Having just a couple wooden boats would be a highly prized privilege at other clubs. If we want to keep a fleet of 17 wooden boats in such good condition, those of us who value them owe it to the rest of the club to look for ways to help out more to their maintenance.

I’m open to ideas for how to encourage this. One thought I have is to direct some of our professional labor towards boatbuilding education. What if we offered a Saturday boatbuilding class to provide advanced training and tackle the more difficult repairs with more dedicated volunteers? With more members trained to use the shop, we could do more maintenance on boats outside of just a three hour window on Tuesday evenings.

2022 Wooden Budget

This year we spent extra money on professional maintenance to make up for missed varnishing during the pandemic. For 2022 we should be able to return to relying more on Boat Night. My recommendation is to allocate $69k to wooden boat maintenance for 2022. This would be slightly less than we’ve spent in 2021, but in line with expenses over the last several years.

Wooden Boat Maintenance: 2014-2021
  • 650-03 Boat Shop Maintenance – $500
  • 650-04 Professional Labor / Tuition – $38,400 (12hrs/week @ Avg $64/hr)
  • 650-05 Supplies Wooden Boats – $6500
  • 650-09 Boat Night Supervision – $15,600 (50wks @ $300/night)
  • 650-10 Boat Night Food – $8000

There are two additional projects that members have expressed an interest in.

  • Restore Baggiani
    This was one of the original DC Singles, built in 1948. It’s old and out of service with a rotten keel. It will need to be fully re-planked and have its keel replaced if we want to bring it back into service. But do we need another whitehall? This could be a fun project for dedicated volunteers as part of the boatbuilding class. Jon Bielinski is the primary advocate for this project.
  • Wooden Four
    There is interest among some members for a smaller version of the Wieland. If built with professional labor, it’s probably a $150k project. But if we have several capable trainee boatbuilders in the club, this might be possible for much less. Perhaps a project for 2023? Nanda Palmieri & Julia Hechanova are advocates for this project.

Plastic Whitehalls – $0

Our wooden boats are of a design commonly referred to as a ‘Whitehall’. These designs are good for novice rowers because they’re stable, and they’re good for swim piloting because you can pull someone out of the water. But there’s nothing intrinsic about the design that requires them to be made with wood.

Does it still make sense to have such a large fleet of wooden whitehalls?

Several years ago we acquired a plastic Whitehall. It’s actually a really nice boat and liked by many experienced rowers at the club. Plastic boats don’t rot or need revarnishing, they are more forgiving of bumps and scrapes, and quicker to dry and put away. They may not have the same character of a wooden boat, but they’re better boats in all other ways – they’re lighter and faster, they use standard sculling oars for better ergonomics, and they’re a less intimidating platform for novice rowers. Best of all, they cost almost no money to maintain.

See 2:58 for on how to hit a plastic boat with a hammer!

Our plastic whitehall gets a moderate amount of use, but would get more if we trained people on it. But we don’t train people on it because all the other boats they’ll use are wooden. If we acquired another Spirit Whitehall, it would become more practical to offer Learn to Row training with them, and then encourage rowers to graduate to wooden boats, if they wished, and as their skills developed.

Whitehall Spirit also make a 17′ double seated whitehall. These weigh half as much as our wooden doubles, and would likely be a popular boat for double rowers too.

I would recommend we purchase another single Whitehall Spirit, and a double Whitehall Spirit. However these boats take up valuable floor space and we don’t need more whitehalls. So it only makes sense if we’re willing to sell one or two of our wooden whitehalls and use the funds to replace them with plastic ones.

Sacrilegious, I know. But this would help lower our ongoing maintenance costs, and I believe would be appreciated by many of our rowers.

Rowing Shells – $2k Maintenance + $24k Improvements

Whitehalls are the pick-ups of rowboats – great for getting groceries from the farmers market or rescuing swimmers, but not well suited to fitness or competition. Most recreational rowing is done on narrower, lighter shells like the ones we have in the Zahler Room. Coastal Rowing is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and San Francisco Bay is an ideal location for this type of rowing.

Our rowing shells are not maintenance free, but they are fairly economical to maintain. Expected maintenance costs for the year ahead are just $2k.

Our shell fleet at the end of 2021 is sufficient to meet our needs. However, we have been training more shell rowers than in any time in years, and some of these boats are becoming particularly popular. Fleet improvements that we expect to need in 2022 include:

  • Add 2 Coastal Shells to Meet Demand
    There’s a good chance we will need to add one or two more coastal singles to the fleet in 2022 to meet demand. These would probably cost $5-7k each.
  • Upgrade the Quad
    We’ve restarted training on our four-person quad, and we’re aiming to make team rowing a much bigger part of our rowing program in 2022. Our current boat, Storm, isn’t ideal for San Francisco Bay as it can be swamped in rougher waters. Better designs of coastal quad that are now available, and we’ll want to replace ours with a more seaworthy craft in early 2022. Gabby Wong and Michael Enright are advocates for this project.

This is likely to add up to $2k for maintenance and $24k for improvements to the Shell/Coastal Fleet.

  • 650-07 Shell Maintenance – $2k
  • New Coastal Singles Acquisition – $14k
  • Quad Upgrade – $10k

Lake Merced – $5k

Our Lake Merced rowing facility has six rowing shells. Four singles and two doubles. One of the mid-weight singles has long had a problem rowing straight. We may need to remove it from service and replace with another shell. Jim Storm is keeping his ears to the ground in the hopes of picking one a good used shell. Single rowing shells all but disappeared off the market during COVID, but with a return to crew rowing, we’re hoping one will become available.

Paddling Fleet -$1k Maintenance, $18k Improvements

Rowing isn’t for everyone. It has a stigma of being associated with preppy colleges, and you have to look back over your shoulder a lot. Today recreational small boaters typically gravitate towards paddle-craft such as kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.

In 2021, the board approved the purchase of six new paddleboards. We made an initial order for four, and these have proven very popular. I’ve placed an order for the remaining two and these are expected for delivery in Spring 2022 at a cost of ~$2k.

Our fleet of sit-on-top kayaks are old, but seaworthy and they are likely to provide good service for recreational kayaking and swim piloting into 2022.

However old plastic kayaks are not great for athletic activities and workouts. Surfskis are their lightweight performance cousins and are much better for fitness and training. They are well suited to rougher waters like we have in San Francisco. While rowers typically prefer calm waters of the morning, you’ll often see surfski kayakers out on windy afternoons. Surfskis seem like a natural opportunity for growth at the club and I’ve heard interest from several members. Simao Herdade & Mark Cullen are advocates for this.

Outrigger canoes are another popular form of boating in the Bay Area, with roots towards the Pacific islands. There are many outrigger teams in the Bay Area, but very few of them offer singles for members to use on their own schedule. This might be an opportunity for the club to appeal to and serve a wider range of paddler.

Request for the budget includes:

  • 650-07 – $1k Maintenance (Paddles, Hatches, Safety Gear)
  • 650-12 – $18k Remaining SUP order, New Surfski kayaks (or Outrigger Canoes)

Keep in mind that new boat acquisition will provide value for many years to come. A $5000 surfski or shell has fairly low maintenance, and provides 10-20 years of value. If it turns out that members don’t use surfskis, there’s a ready market for resale.

Motorized Fleet – $3k Maintenance + $3k Improvements

We’re very fortunate to have the support of Barry Christian who has been performing all the maintenance on the smaller inflatables boats as a volunteer. This has kept our motorized maintenance costs down considerably. Arias2 gets serviced once a year and is very reliable. Currently the fleet is in working order, it’s well suited to the task, and we see no need for major changes in 2022.

One small project that is likely to come up will be the setup of AIS units to help VTS and larger vessels track our boats on swims. Expected cost for this in the order of $4k.

650-01 – Motorized Fleet Maintenance – $6k

Training & Operations -$25k

We’ve been very fortunate over the years to have members train each other, and volunteers running the programs.

But volunteerism has its limits. Our rowing training is currently only one class, and we struggle to provide any additional coaching in follow up outings for the experience to gel. Organizing boating programs is time consuming and it’s hard to devote the time and effort unless you’re retired. For the previous couple years we offered no shell rowing training simply because there were no volunteers willing to teach it. I now teach people to row our shells, but I’m just making it up. I have no rowing credentials aside from figuring stuff out on my own.

Other boating clubs don’t do it this way. They hire coaches who keep an eye provide structured outings through masters lessons and keeping an eye on safety and organization. Take a look at local clubs like Bair Island Aquatic Center, Open Water Rowing Center, Lake Merritt Rowing, Cal Sailing, London Rowing Club, Boston Community Boating etc.

I don’t have a firm plan for this yet. Cal Sailing have an Americorps employee on staff. Other clubs hire part-time instructors who provide coaching on a schedule. But this year has taught me there is real work in running a boating program, and to make it sustainable, we should start testing the waters with some hired help for training and program management. We hire people to put varnish on boats, we should hire people to put people in boats too.

I don’t want hired professionals to replace volunteer training, but rather, to complement it, expand it and make our boats more available.

Charging for training would allow us to provide this service on a more cost neutral basis.

Maybe starting with something like:

  • Experience Rowing ($50)
  • Learn to Row (3 Lessons – $150)
  • Learn to Row Shells (3 Lessons – $150)
  • Learn to Surfski (3 Lessons – $150)
  • Womens Crew: Regular Sunday Mornings ($200/quarter)
  • Mixed Crew: Regular Saturday Mornings ($200/quarter)
  • Senior Crew: Regular Wednesday Mornings

Currently we have a high drop out rate from training because there is little structure after a first lesson. Charging money and providing multiple lessons will hopefully increase commitment to follow through with training.

Boating Surcharge? +$20k

Ok, this one will be unpopular, but enough members have suggested it to me that it deserves discussion. Should we charge a fee for boat access, just like we do for lockers?

Kayaks, SUPs and plastic whitehalls operate at such a low cost that it barely makes sense to have a surcharge.

Shells and surfskis are fairly cheap to operate, but increased use will likely create more maintenance costs, and we are spending money to expand the fleet.

The wooden fleet has very high running costs. On a typical year wooden boats are used around 1500 times. So if we were to cover our costs on the wooden boat program on on a pay per use basis, we would need to charge $50 per outing.

How about a token fee to support premium boat use? Shells, Surfski & Woodens – $150/yr, this could be waived with 5 nights of Boat Night, or a contribution to 5 training sessions?

Summary

Again, all this is a budget, not a final plan. Everything is subject to more discussion, but I hope this provides a framework for how we can improve the effectiveness, efficiency and fun of our boating program at the Dolphin Club.

I’d love to read your comments below.

5 Comments

  1. Zack McCune on December 13, 2021 at 2:18 pm

    My brother Grey and I joined the Dolphin Club to row. We were delighted by the fleet, the volunteering spirit, and the extraordinary history we get to support. This year, we competed for the first time in the Tri thanks to James’ active encouragement.

    I appreciate the boldness of vision here and believe it offers terrific opportunity to discuss dimensions of the club as an active athletic forum and a steward of history.

    I agree there is more room for us to engage and serve the public. As a student, volunteer, and eventual staff member at Sail Newport- a Rhode Island community sailing center- I experienced how profoundly bringing citizens to the sea changes their relationship to it. I would welcome open boating events to get people out rowing in the cove. The plastic Whitehall (which I have often used) is ideal for this. I believe that hosting our neighbors on boats (once or twice a year) would make for a fantastic education experience and could even be monetized for funding our fleet.

    Thanks for your service James!

  2. Brian Dineen on December 14, 2021 at 12:57 am

    Thanks James. I would support the $150 token fee on the wooden. I also personally want to help out on boat night more at least once a month. I am not a huge fan of selling of a Wooden, unless it has zero or very minimal usage, i.e. less than 5 times a year. The Whitehall spirit looks like a nice addition to the fleet. The question is would it be used regularly to warrant its purchase and floor space.
    I am very grateful for those who have volunteered to train and mentor new folks like myself this year. Maybe a trial year of a hired part time coach to assist in this workload is possible? This could take some of the workload off the dedicated volunteer coaches.
    Anyway, thank you to you and all the dedicated members of the Dolphin club. It is a magical place to row.
    Brian Dineen

  3. Dominic Lusinchi on December 14, 2021 at 2:48 am

    Thanks for putting this together.
    – Boat building training: Has there been a demand for that? If offered will there be a demand? Perhaps what we could do is tell rowers that our boat builders can always use a hand (aside from boat night) and to contact them if they can come in on a certain day during the builders working hours (?).
    – Maintenance on our woodens is an all-week activity with extra help on boat night: isn’t it?
    – How many woodens does the SERC have? Their site says over 30 boats but does not give a breakdown.
    – Shouldn’t we wait to see what the demand for shells will be at the Cove? From the usage information provided from Nanda, the shells are the least used vessels. Granted 2021 was an unusual year; so perhaps we should look at more years. But is usage going to change that much if we look at additional data?
    – Same question for Surfskis, kayaks, and Outrigger canoes?
    – AIS, VTS? Forgive my lack of knowledge for these acronyms. M father went to AIS during WWII but I don’t think that’s what you are referring to.

  4. Krist Jake on December 14, 2021 at 5:48 am

    his is a very illuminating essay and I thank the author. I like the suggestions and feel they deserve discussion.

    The graph of boat maintenance costs is helpful and could be improved with a plot of annual club revenues. Nonetheless, the message is clear: Boat maintenance costs consume a major portion, often >10%, of the DC’s annual budget. (11.9% in 2022 draft budget).

    I suggest the Club place more emphasis on data – data on which boats are used and when, data on who uses the boats and how much, etc. With a better understanding of usage, a better-informed discussion could ensue.

    Let us not forget the Club’s name – Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. No mention of the Club being a boat museum.

  5. Dominic Lusinchi on December 14, 2021 at 9:38 am

    – Boating surcharge: being a rower at the Dolphin club is not like going to the ice rink and renting a pair of skates or to the bowling alley and renting a pair of shoes. As rowers, I would hope that we are all invested in our fleet–meaning that we are involved in caring for it, first by cleaning and drying the boats after use and going to boat night on a regular basis. So the short answer is: NO to a fee per use.

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