Optimist trial: is it still the right boat for little ones?

2019 Optimist World Championship, Antigua.

Criticized, mistreated, accused of being old, yet a new season of youth sailing has just begun, and in Italy, as in much of Europe (different story in the southern hemisphere), the Optimist is still the most numerous boat in sailing activity aimed at children. Designed in 1947 by American Clark Mills, just 2.35 meters long, it landed in Europe in the mid-1950s and today has more than 300,000 new young sailors each year, impressive numbers that alone would be enough to erase any criticism. Its good fortune is due to a number of factors: net of an “anti-marine” aesthetic and some objective technical limitations that we will go on to analyze, the Optimist’s strengths are its simple construction, low price, light weight, essential rig, an intuitive sail plan to adjust, and a general ease of handling. Beware though, as we shall see ease of conduct does not imply that it is easy to become good and successful on the Optimist, quite the contrary.

CONSTRUCTION

The Optimist has been a One Design boat since 1996 but produced by numerous shipyards with an average price starting at 2,900 euros. This means that the boats must all be the same and the margins of tolerance are minimal to be classified as a one-design boat. Every hull in order to participate in official events, recognized by national and international federations, must therefore pass the tonnage test to be sure that it meets the standards and rules of the class. The construction, made of fiberglass, basically consists of three elements: the hull, the board and bench that supports the mast, and the central bulkhead with the drift case. A basic construction, for a final weight of 35 kilograms that allows even a child to carry it ashore on a cart, or to pick it up with one or two teammates to push it into the water.

Aft, the Optimist is to be led in “overextended” mode, that is, by going for the maximum angle of descent while heeling the boat decidedly upwind.

MAST AND SAIL PLAN

The mast is a “pole” that does not allow any preflexion, partly because there is no equipment on board that can flex it. Through the foot adjustment, one can manage the rake, or the diagonal slope towards the stern, to make the boat more or less easterly depending on the sailor’s weight and weather conditions. The sail, with its distinctive square shape, is set by the sheet, a base brim, vang and spike and connected to the mast through a series of strops as no channel is provided. Peak adjustment is one of the most important: it is decisive in controlling the fat on the sail, but it is easily visible to the eyes of the sailor. A diagonal crease will cross the sail alerting the young optimist that his peak is not properly capped.

CONDUCTION

The final stage
of a tack with roll, a fundamental technique to use in racing, also decisive on many Olympic dinghies.

The Optimist is an easy and maneuverable boat, allowing any child to maneuver in just a few days. However, this does not mean that it is a 100% easy boat to take. Its simplicity makes it perfect for the sailing school. Just think that one of the classic methods on the first day of school is to put the child aboard without a sail, and have him or her move only by weight shifting and rudder corrections, thus quickly becoming familiar with the boat’s reactions, which again will be decidedly intuitive.

If in the stern in a strong wind the sailor’s weight is not in a very backward position you risk what you see in the picture: the bow sinks and capsizing is almost certain and disastrous.

From a sailing school perspective, no child, even the physically petite ones, is unsuitable for this boat. For those who decide instead to pursue a competitive path, the viewpoint changes. The shape of the hull, with its distinctive square bow, forces the most technical people to continuously work on shifting weight according to wind and wave conditions. Proper attention to this crucial detail causes macroscopic differences in speed, and this is how you dig the furrow between those who get in tune with the boat and those who remain at the sailing school level.

THE DEBATE.

On the subject of the Optimist for years now there have been at least two factions: those who viscerally hate it and those who defend it on principle, two irreconcilable positions and both biased. Let’s start with its undoubted technical limitations: the hull design is now out of date, and with sailing becoming more and more future-oriented, it seems almost anachronistic that youngsters entering the sport have to start from a boat that is now outdated in terms of design. But the opposite is also true: the simpler the sailing is and on essential means, the more inclusive and less classist it can be, and in a sense the Optimist is a flag for this concept. Its huge technical limitation is that it is not a self-emptying boat and forces the athletes to do a very tiring job of “sassing” after each capsize, all the while being at the mercy of the waves and wind with the boat almost unable to maneuver due to too much water being taken in. Again, however, there is another point of view here: this difficulty accustoms the student to fatigue and fighting in the water, a wealth of experience that will serve him in no small measure if he moves on to a higher class where the physical intensity will increase exponentially. Class switching is another hot topic used by detractors, who argue: the Optimist being a slow and old boat is not propaedeutic for any class, in fact it ends up hurting athletes who switch to a bigger boat because they have to start all over again from the beginning. This is a deficient and incomplete thesis. Some of the movements you develop in Optimist are definitely useful, albeit on a different scale and with different techniques, to those you will learn on some singles such as the Laser or Finn. If anything, the problem is different-the Optimist’s light weight and reduced sail plan means that the sailor arrives physically unprepared for the transition onto a 420 or Laser, boats that will look like a crazed Lamborghini by comparison. But beware: the Optimist is not a boat that was created only for competition; rather, its main purpose is to be used as a school boat even by very young children. At 14,15 or 16, when the sailor decides to change boats, he or she is still at an age where the capacity for apprnediment and technical evolution are intact and, with the right will and motivation, it will not be difficult to be “reborn” on a new boat. Ultimately, net of numerous objective technical limitations, one should consider the Optimist for what it is: a school boat first and foremost, on which even 8-year-olds can have fun without the stress of racing. You can use it having fun even for racing, but without necessarily blaming this small boat for all the evils of the sailing world.

Mauro Giuffrè

IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE OPTIMIST TRIAL WE WILL GO OVER ALL THE COMPETING DRIFTS ON THE MARKET

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