July 12, 2012 § 21 Comments
On the subject of kids learning to sail, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a discussion thread on a sailing website or an op/ed in a sailing magazine that doesn’t include extreme opinions about the Optimist Dinghy (Opti) and other similar one-person prams like the El Toro. Folks either hate them or they’re resigned to them.
Generally, the Opti-resigned assume that the only way for a kid to learn is in a pram, starting precisely at the age of eight. Opti haters blame the boats for scaring kids away, or, at least, for not being enough fun to sail to hold their interest after a time. The resigned often get their cues from people who sell prams. And haters get theirs from people who sell something else.
Of course, neither claim is true. Optis can be a heckuva lot of fun, but they aren’t the only way to learn.
Deeper thinking than rants and promotions takes you to a place where the flaws and the benefits are found in the programs, not the boats.
On one hand, many a parent has teared up watching their child sail away from the dock for the first time, mainsheet in one hand, tiller in the other, and in full, confident control of their own tiny sailboat. It’s just as moving when later in the summer, the same kid hits the line at speed in their first competition. But it can be awkward when a boat intended as a basic trainer for little people is tweaked, turboed and branded like a Formula One race car, to carry an adult-sized teen painfully slowly around a race course year after year with mom or dad shouting commands from a powerboat.
Programs that use prams as basic trainers and tools to build confidence go a long way toward the development of a capable young person. But programs that push too long and hard into the dangerous zone of making sporting celebrities out of children, shuttled around in mini-vans by vicarious, overenthusiastic parents (and the win-at-all cost approach that often accompanies them) can do more damage than good. It’s precisely the same in any youth sport; when it gets hyper-competitive, it’s gotten out of hand. The fun is replaced with panic and stress for everyone.
On the merits of the boats themselves, I am admittedly hard-pressed to say that there are flaws with prams. In fact, I have a hard time criticizing anything that uses foils to make motion from wind. And they’re classically cute.
I tend to value things based on how well or poorly they meet the original intent of the designer and his/her way of approaching the needs and wants of the people who will use the designed thing. Note that the El Toro was originally a combo sailboat and rowing tender. So racing one, I’m told, can feel a bit like driving a golf cart at Indy, but it will handle many jobs. As Kyle points out below, Clark Mills designed the Opti to be built out of common materials in a garage, by a parent or parents and their kids. Some still do. These boats do what they were designed for very well, perhaps better than others.
Given this, perhaps it would be better to stop bashing or promoting one boat or another, and focus, instead, on the right ways to use them, and then, more importantly, on how programs might help kids willing to invest the time to have terrific, unforgettable sailing, sporting and teamwork experiences in the long term. How can we get the most from the tools we have, and then ensure that when the time is right, another, newer and grander experience is waiting for the folks who are willing to go after it?
– Nicholas Hayes, July 12, 2012