"It's the snowball effect. Once Optimists are active in one country or region, neighbors see them and think 'why not us too'," says Robert Wilkes, the Ireland-based secretariat for the International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA), who visited the event this year to help develop the class in the Caribbean. This tropical trend towards Opti expansion is not isolated. Where in most other sectors the sport of sailing is experiencing decline in participation, these little square boats appear to be thriving nationally and internationally.
The Optimist quickly caught on in sailing communities around the globe. The first World Championships were held in the UK in 1962 and IODA—the worldwide governing body for the class—was founded in 1965. Today there are over 90 member countries of IODA and an estimated 250,000 Optimist dinghy sailors around the world. As of the end of 2001, membership in USODA topped 3,000. "In terms of absolute growth,” explains Wilkes, “the US, with over 800 new boats a year compared to less than 150 in the 1980s, is the fastest growing region in the world for Optimist sailing."
Angela Garcia, whose brother Grant sailed in the first SCIOR and who is a former Opti star, Florida State college sailor, and currently the Baltimore, MD-based coach for the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association, says: "In the last 10 years, there has been a concerted effort to move Opti sailing beyond its traditional strongholds of Florida and the Gulf Coast. USODA presidents started moving major regattas up to the Northeast and Midwest. Also, the new US National Team Trials qualification system has made it so that sailors could qualify at "local" major regattas, rather than having to travel all the way to Florida for major regattas."
Ironically, southern California, a hot bed of sailing, has been slow to develop Optimist Sailing. "The Sabot is real popular in this area and it has a strong following," says Chuck Fuller, a California-based International Sailing Federation (ISAF) judge and umpire, who has officiated at all 10 SCIORs at the request of fellow ISAF and America's Cup judge, Henry Menin, who is a STYC member and SCIOR co-founder. "But it's (Optimist sailing) starting to pick up once the parents realize the opportunity for national and international competition that isn't available with the Sabot," says Fuller.
A review of 2001 by IODA shows that a record 87 countries participated internationally in Optimist regattas. Over 700 different sailors from 72 countries sailed in IODA World and Continental Championships, while others sailed in regional regattas in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. "With the creation of the IODA African Championship all six continents now have their own championships," Wilkes says.
One of the best explanations for the worldwide success and growth of the Optimist class comes from Jeremy Terr, a former Opti coach for numerous Florida teams and a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in Kazakhstan. "The Optimist is car-toppable, draggable, liftable, droppable, fixable, sailable, riggable, accessible, affordable, desirable, and cool enough for everyone everywhere from the richest yacht clubs of America to my local impoverished sailing club in Kazakhstan to want to own, use, or talk about the joy of sailing the Optimist."
Continuing, Terr adds: "We have no more factories that operate and an economy that stopped functioning after the end of communism in 1992, but still we have Optimists that are dragged up the beach and down into the reservoir everyday. My Russian is terrible, but we still carry on shoptalk. With the Optimist, it is just that easy."
IODA has doubled the number of member national associations over the last twelve years and offers limited financial aid to newer countries in three areas. One is a coach-training course where IODA subsidizes the travel fees of expert instructors to train local coaches. In 1999/2001 nine such courses were held, involving sixteen countries. Secondly, IODA offers free entry and/or travel for newer countries to send sailors to continental and regional regattas, of which Egypt, India, the Seychelles, Grenada, St. Lucia and Trinidad benefited in 2001. Third, is IODA's free boat program. "Countries seeking to start or enlarge Optimist fleets can apply for one free boat for every five bought," Wilkes says. Countries that have benefited from this "6 for 5" opportunity so far have been Vietnam, the Cook Islands and Caribbean islands of St. Lucia and Barbados.
This dynamic and global growth in Optimist sailing "could be a bright spot on the horizon that just might halt some of the decline in sailing we're seeing in adult sailors, like the Farr 40 class, for example," Fuller says.
Susan Daly, vice-president of marketing at Vanguard Sailboats, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was quoted last year in the online sailing newsletter, Scuttlebutt, about the future of sailing: "While there is an overall decline in participation (a trend seen in several other countries like the UK and one that seems difficult for many to accept), there is also good news as kids are coming into sailing at a healthy rate...So we need to make sailing a fun, fair and rewarding experience for kids, help them develop the mastery of needed skills so that they can feel in control and gain a sense of accomplishment (and this is not just racing skills), involve the parents and organizers and make sure it's fun and rewarding for them as well, build and support a solid infrastructure with well-organized and run programs and qualified instructors and program directors, and develop well-run and fun events and regattas."
Menin, reflecting on ten years of the SCIOR and the future for young sailors via e-mail, says: "What does our regatta and the promotion of junior sailing generally have to do with America's Cup and international sailing as a whole? Everything! The lessons learned in Optimists, the international experience that you get at a Scotiabank regatta, or one similar, all are the best training that you can possibly get for later competition in other international classes and regattas. But the best part is, even if you never compete or race a sailboat again and you only go cruising or sailing for your own enjoyment, the Optimist and the Scotiabank regatta will be experiences and fun times that you will treasure the rest of your life and the friends you make there will be special friends forever."
"At least 68 percent of skippers there sailed in Optimist World and Continental Championships," says Robert Wilkes of the IODA. "This information disproves the myth that sailing is one of the sports where early success leads to burn-out and lack of achievement in later life." To bolster Mr. Wilkes words, here follows a list of Olympic medallists from 2000 who used to go about in rectangular boats:
Suggested Reading:Should Children Race by Michelle PotterSailing With Children—The First Day by Michelle Potter
Optimist European Championships by Amy Gross-KehoeSailNet Store Section: Blocks