Optimist Sailing—A Growing Concern - SailNet Community
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Optimist Sailing—A Growing Concern

Eager Optimist sailors enjoy a downwind ride at this year's Scotiabank Caribbean Optimist Regatta.
The 76-boat starting line at the Scotiabank Caribbean International Optimist Regatta (SCIOR) boasted the sail insignias of almost a dozen countries ranging from Bermuda to Venezuela. The Netherlands, France, and Great Britain were represented by sailors from St. Maarten, Curacao, Martinique, and the British Virgin Islands, which really wasn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the event. Since its inception a decade ago, this annual junior regatta, hosted by the St. Thomas Yacht Club (STYC), has grown four-fold in participation, sparking Optimist dinghy sailing on several other Caribbean islands.

"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.

Clark Mills first constructed the seven-foot, six-inch flat-bottomed, pram-bowed, 77-pound Optimist dinghy back in 1947. According to a written tribute printed after his death in December 2001 in Optinews, the official publication of the US Optimist Dinghy Association (USODA), the Clearwater, FL, boatbuilder constructed the kid-friendly dinghy after being given the job by the charitable Optimist Club of America. Mills explained his role in the Opti’s genesis in an earlier quote: "I got the idea for the shape of the dinghy from the Sharpie, a flat-bottomed boat that had been used for a long time in coastal areas. It was seaworthy and sailed extremely well even with heavy cargo. It appeared that the children learned to sail very quickly in this little dinghy because they felt safe in it. I donated the construction to the organization. In that way I hoped, that the dinghy would be available for all children, even those who could usually not afford it. This was in 1947 and the dinghy, which was made of plywood, was (ready for sailing) not allowed to cost more than US$50."

The waters off the St. Thomas Yacht Club fairly roiled this summer with the 70-plus sailors on hand.

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."

"Those who have stayed with the class after their own kids age out are terribly important to lend continuity, to keep from reinventing the wheel and to offer their historical perspective."
Tom Coleman, the marketing director for the Chattanooga, TN-based Optimist builder, McLaughlin Boat Works explains a further reason for growth in the class: "There have been incredible initiatives coming out of the US National Optimist Team. Once thought of as an elitist organization, it is now looked upon for leadership and innovation in many areas. Some of the latest programs provide national level coaching at regattas and a series of regional clinics. Overall, the best is that the new blood is interacting with and building upon foundations laid by those who started things rolling. Those who have stayed with the class after their own kids age out are terribly important to lend continuity, to keep from reinventing the wheel and their historical perspective."

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.

Despite its reputation as a fiercely competitive arena, the Opti class manages to maintain its friendly camaraderie, largely through the participation of its senior sailors.

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.

A core group of international Optimist sailors poses at the culmination of the SCIOR.
One of the biggest reasons for the Optimists success, Wilkes says, is: "We have defended our 'anyone may build' philosophy while ensuring that all fiberglass boats are identical wherever they are made. So we have builders in 27 countries with local labor costs and no import taxes: people like to 'buy local'." A new Optimist sells for under US$3000.

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."

Optimal Vibrations

So what becomes of all the kids that make their way through the various Optimist programs that populate the US and regional waters? Well, take a look at a barometric event like the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia; former Optimist sailors made up over 50 percent of the dinghy skippers and erstwhile Opti skippers won medals in every event except sailboards and the Star Class.

"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:

Thomas Johanson, Finland, 49er
Ben Ainslie, Great Britain, Laser
Iain Percy, Great Britain, Finn
Belinda Stowell, Australia, Women's 470

Margriet Matthijsse, Netherlands, Europe
Robert Scheidt, Brazil, Laser
Jochen Schümann, Germany, Soling

Javier Conte, Argentina, Men's 470
Juan de la Fuente, Argentina, Men's 470
Rene Schwall, Germany, Tornado
Serena Amato, Argentina, Europe
Frederik Lööf, Sweden, Finn

Suggested Reading:

Should Children Race by Michelle Potter

Sailing With Children—The First Day
by Michelle Potter

Optimist European Championships by Amy Gross-Kehoe

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