Opti Haters

July 12, 2012 § 21 Comments

From the series Here Come the Optis, by Curt Crain

From the series Here Come the Optis, by Curt Crain

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

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 21 Responses to Opti Haters

  • Leslie says:

    Don’t hate the Optimst. It is a great and stable boat to learn in and if you run a positive sailing program and fun regattas like we do the kids have a good time and make life long friends. Changes to the sailing instructions have limited the parent/coach access to the sailors and the race course area during the races. The requirement for them all to register their support boats and carry a numbered flag allows us to monitor the trouble makers and the threat of penalizing the sailor for the parent/coach mistakes has removed most of the problems. It is not the kid’s fault that their parents are over achieving zealots. Remove them from the picture and the sailors have a lot more fun.

    • ndhayes says:

      Thanks for your informed comment, Leslie. I tend not to blame the parents either. After all, they’ve been left out of the sailing (sucks for them), in addition to the spectating (as you point out.) Another way to design programs is to include the parents in the sailing. I’ve observed that when this happens an entirely new dynamic can develop: one of intergenerational teamwork, and cooperation, mutual respect, and sometimes, even, mentoring. Admittedly, it doesn’t always work that way, but when it does, it’s magical. Of course such a thing generally precludes Optis. But not because they’re bad.

  • Hi Nick,

    I learned to sail by banging around in a Sunfish on Lake Ontario. It was just the big lake and me most of the time. I think back on those halcion days and want my children to experience that freedom and control.
    Just recently, I fell in love with the story of Clark Mills’ Optimist Pram and just wanted to go “old school” and build one for my eight-year-old son. I know I’m a dreamer, but the story and the man just made this little dinghy seem more than just a go-fast trainer.
    I know that a lot of people don’t have the time or means – or even the want – to build the Optimist, but for me it is a win – win. I get to build a little boat, and then I get to watch my son go out on that big lake to make his own memories.

    Thanks for “Saving Sailing”.

    Best regards,
    Kyle Leonard

  • Capt'n Ron says:

    I’ve been in the sail training business for 20 years and although I don’t classify myself as an Opti hater, I do strongly believe that there are more modern day platforms and more fun boats for kids to experience their first sail(s) on.

    For example, if I were to take 25 kids and take them for their first sail on an Opti and take those same kids for a sail on an Open followed by a vote on their

    • Capt'n Ron says:


      preference of boat, the score would be 25-0 in favor of the Open Bic. Comments from the kids would be that the Open Bic is funner, faster, easier, cooler, more comfortable, not to mention – no bailing required!

      It’s not that kids can’t learn to sail in an Opti, it’s about making their first experience the best possible and keeping them excited so that they keep coming back.

      Why do we have kids learning on a 50 year old platform? Just imagine if you decided to have your kids learn downhill skiing on a pair of 1960 vintage skis. There are many more examples of other sports that have adapted and taken advantage of technology to make it easier and more fun for kids to learn on.

      My kids first learned how to sail on an Opti, but once exposed to the O’pen BIC, they never went back.

      If we are to get the masses (next generation) excited about sailing and keep them excited, especially given the choices that kids have today, then we’ll have to move away from teaching kids based on a design from 1947. It really is time to move on.

      • ndhayes says:


        Thanks for your comment. I take it as a solidly-held position. But I don’t buy it. I hope you’ll respect my position.

        A good sailing instructor (or just a sailor looking to teach a newcomer) can make a great, fun first experience out of a bed sheet and an aluminum canoe.

        It may well be that the boat you mention has performance characteristics that are inherently quicker or more nimble than a pram. And that can be fun too. But it doesn’t matter in the context of good teaching and sharing.

        Open makers appear to have chosen to pram-bash as a central leg of their marketing campaign. It is a sales strategy, not something done in the interest of sailing; designed to convince kids (and parents) to value one boat over another in order to gain competitive advantage, not because it will bring sailing to the masses. Here’s evidence:

        Consider two programs in one town, both with good older kids teaching good younger kids to sail in the summer. One has an assortment of old prams that it fixes up each year. Another has gleaming white Opens. Blind to one another, both can do great things. But placed side by side, Open’s hope is that Open sailors will eventually become OPTI-haters, but not because OPTIs are bad or old. And as far as I’ve seen, Open has no plan for what happens next; intergenerational sailing or more advanced group sailing, where the deeper experiences and lessons emerge (although they seem to do a good job of harnessing the vicarious, spectating dad.)

        In the end, how many of the kids in either program do you think will stick with it? Sailing has been shown to all of these kids to be divisive, exclusive and shallow, not constructive, inclusive and socially rich. Absent the latter, the answer, the data prove, is a woeful 5-10%. (Sailing has shed more people and kids since the new designs arrived.)

        Repeating a theme from my previous post, the answer lies in the program and the people, not the boat. Either boat.

        Nicholas Hayes, July 14, 2012

      • Capt'n Ron says:

        You won’t get any arguments from me with regards to great instruction and programming leading to a wonderful experience for kids trying sailing for the first time. I’m basically in the business of turning people onto the sailing lifestyle and your comments about getting superior instruction and sharing from enthusiastic sailors, both from certified and non-certified instructors must be a given if we are to grow the sport.

        Where I’m from in Canada, I don’t see a trend of growing Opti-haters or pram bashing going on but a real concern for how we get more kids (and families) involved with sailing and sticking with it. The instruction/programming delivered is just one part of the puzzle but I’ve also seen that the type of boat that instruction is delivered on does make a difference in the overall experience. One of the 3 sailing clubs I belong to has taken the bold move of replacing their Opti fleet over the years and continue to add (around 25 boats currently) to the fleet. This was not a decision that was taken lightly but one that I believe was a good one in the long term for delivering a superior experience and turning kids onto sailing by providing them with modern fun equipment. For your information, I was not involved with that decision of replacing the fleet.

        When I brought this discussion up with my 14-year-old son, he mentioned a couple of other interesting points. Remember, he grew up in an Opti but later transitioned into the O’pen BIC and has now grown out of it. He recalls when first being introduced to the O’pen BIC that he was able to sail more because they were down less for repairs and when you dumped them, you could right them immediately and start sailing again. For reasons mentioned earlier, he as well as his sister definitely found the O’pen BIC more fun. Sailing more and having more fun on a boat can only be a good thing.

        We also took the O’pen BIC with us a few times when we went on holidays on our cruising boat. It was amazing the number of juniors taking sailing camp while we were visiting other clubs that were wowed and came to ask our kids afterwards about the boat. Most of the comments from the other kids revolved around how fast and cool the boat looked relative to the boats they sailed on. With regards to cool, I don’t understand why kids wear some of the “cool” clothes they do but I’m not about to change their minds or the fashion industry in my lifetimeJ.

        I don’t think it’s up to the folks at O’pen BIC to have a plan in place to fill all the different choices and types of sailing that exist for people getting involved with sailing. That’s up to the sailing clubs and different associations at the regional, national and international level, all sailing industry members and existing sailing participants to get creative and do a better job (compared to other sports and recreational pastimes) at marketing the sailing lifestyle and all the benefits it has to offer. O’Pen BIC has delivered a fine product at an affordable price for an important market – next generation sailors and for that I commend them.

        To make one more analogy in regards to sailing on an older platform versus a newer one, if for the same price you give me the choice between choosing the keys for a 1957 Chev and a 2012 Ferrari 458 Italia, I’m picking the Ferrari in a heart beat. Both cars have the same main purpose of getting you from A to B. My reason for picking the Ferrari is not just speed but for multiple reasons with the number one factor being that it is just way more FUN!

        Capt’n Ron
        Advantage Boating

      • ndhayes says:

        Please stop selling boats on this blog.

  • Capt'n Ron says:

    Who is selling boats? Just to be clear and not loose sight of the original discussion, this is not about one brand versus another. I thought this was a discussion between choices available to people/clubs sailing on newer platforms versus older ones and what leads them to make those decisions.

    • ndhayes says:

      The point of this blog is that the boat is irrelevant and the people and the program are what matter.

      It would be interesting to get your insights into creative program design, with out naming a boat. For example, try answering this question: how would you make lifelong fun with three derelict donated boats from the 50’s?

      • Capt'n Ron says:

        Although I agree wholeheartedly about needing people and having good programs in place for “grow sailing” initiatives, I also believe that today we have access to better boats/equipment largely due to technology and modern manufacturing processes which does play a role in the overall experience. Enough said on that subject.

        Now onto the next discussion…. I wasn’t born in the 50’s but I do know that one of the clubs I belong to built three 26’ boats one winter in the early sixties based on a boat designed in the 1950s. They were built of marine plywood and could be built by a reasonably skilled amateur from scratch. The nice thing about this project is that they were built during the winter on the club premises and it was a regular weekly activity by a team of enthusiastic sailors.

        I have personal experience with 2 donated club boats 24 feet in length made out of fibreglass that were first built in 1960 and designed in 1959. These boats were in rough shape when we got them but they were restored to very good seaworthiness condition over the winter period when there is far less on-the-water activity happening. I think it’s a good idea if a club and its members take on the activity of a “project” boat, to choose a boat where an existing fleet already exists in the area. That way you can leverage local knowledge/expertise and potentially get access to spare parts if they are particular to that boat. Today these 2 boats are still being used 15 years later after they were restored. The easy part of this project was restoring the boats to a usable state. The challenge is in managing use of the boats and the on-going maintenance. After several years of the club having challenges running the program themselves including finding/keeping enough volunteers to maintain the program, they decided to outsource this activity to a 3rd party. The difference now is that the 3rd party for a fee takes care of all the details including insurance, maintenance, scheduling, marketing and making sure that participants in the program have sufficient knowledge to use the boats. Participants have the option of using the boats for cruising or racing. What tends to happen after 2-3 years is that the participants in the program don’t wish to live with some of the restrictions put on them like no overnight usage, so they end up buying their own boat and chances are they will moor it at the same club they already belong to and where they have made friends. Recently a bigger boat was added to the fleet that allows members to take the boat overnight given that they have at least 2 years experience on the smaller boats and have demonstrated sufficient knowledge to handle the larger boat.

        These days, boatyards are littered with derelict boats, so finding boats for free or a nominal fee should not be a problem. All that is required is a “sparkplug” member with support from the club and a plan in place to manage the program. There are things that make it easier these days like taking advantage of technology for online scheduling of the boats.

        Where there is a will there is a way.

        I must go now, as it is my time to go sailing.

      • ndhayes says:

        Now this, I mostly buy. (Except the part about modern manufacturing which plays barely an incidental role in shaping a life of great experiences.)

        In fact, it’s easy to see that when people team up to make something out of nothing (or at least very little), the experience will inform many other aspects of a good life. I appreciate your willingness to share ideas, and to reflect on how they matter to sailing.

        If we are to value one boat or another, then on these terms, it’s also easy to see that the derelict has far more potential to save sailing then the shiny new bic.

        Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

        – Nick

  • […] all started here: https://savingsailing.com/2012/07/12/opti-haters/ Capt’n Ron on July 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm I’ve been in the sail training business for 20 years […]

  • Scott Boye says:

    It’s not the boat that we hate; it’s the jealousy of the money. Those of us that run programs wish we had the cash to supply our students with just the right type of boat for each phase of their education – start in prams of some sort, optis, el toros or sabots for those SoCal types to teach them the very basics. Then move on to a Bic O’Pen or something more high performance to give them some excitement. Lasers need to fit in there somewhere, as does a decent sloop to teach them crewing skills. Should we argue about 420’s, FJ’s, V-15’s or fireflys? We could, but it would just get down to money.

    My yacht club spends six times the money for Commodore’s Ball every year as they do on the juniors program. That disgusts me, but that’s my opinion. The rest of the money for the juniors’ lessons comes from program fees and fundraising. I look at other sports and see well-oiled funding for football, softball, soccer and many others that siphon money from donors that I’m also targeting. It becomes a problem because our primary focus is on the sailing skills, not the fundraising or board management skills. Think of it – how often do you ask a potential sailing instructor what skills they have in fundraising? We’re concerned about instructor certification and first aid training but pay no mind to the administration skills that will promote the program in the long run.

    Optis aren’t my favorite boat for several reasons but they are getting kids out on the water. That’s reason enough to accept them, even love them. What we really need to be worried about is spreading the good word about sailing and getting more kids involved. And that means talking to the people with the money. It may mean the bridge at the yacht club. It may mean offering sponsorship to local merchants. It definitely means talking to local teachers who see kids all school season long. But we need to talk to the folks with money and influence with kids.

    The fight isn’t between Optis and El Toros. It isn’t between FJ’s and Vanguard 15’s. It’s between sailing and the plethora of other activities that pull kids away from the water.

  • Mark says:

    As the Director of a non-profit sailing organization, I’d like to add a few points:

    Boat classes are mostly the result of USS regulations, olympic pyramid and racing, racing racing.
    I find it odd that there is such animated debate about boat classes here, where the focus is on fun sailing and multi-generational learning.

    We use Laser Picos for summer camps because they are indestructible and still a lot of fun. Yea, an Opti has more lines and stuff to figure out, but so what. You don’t get kids jazzed on sailing by throwing too much at them. Open Bic’s are rad, so are 29ers and aussie skiffs but you break one part and it costs you a fortune.
    To each his own, why worry about it. Just don’t shove a class down people’s throat, and please no more doomsday warnings about fleet ‘dilution’.

    What does bother me is the fact that so much access to youth sailing is driven by yacht clubs who are beholden to these ‘system’s and engage in these class wars. We have baseball and basketball fields in public parks — why can’t we have some true blue community sailing access points (especially here on the west coast).

    Why do boats need to be so standardized and formalized.
    We complain about how over-scheduled our kids’ lives are, then we go drop 4k on a smokin-hot El Toro so our kid can be first in the fleet.

    How about focusing on learning, creative ways to engage kids new to the sport, sailing adventures, smiles and leave some of that hyper-structured crap behind.

  • We raised these issues at our club in the states several years back after hearing several kids say they didn’t want to sail anymore because 1) they were afraid/uninterested in sailing alone in Optis, 2) they were always yelled at, 3) it wasn’t fun. So we convinced the leaders of the junior program to do a survey. What they learned caused a radical shift in the program. Now there is a “messing about in boats” option, a two-person boat option, and a serious individual racing program. As a result, most of the kids are staying in sailing and moving up to big boats as soon as they can crew. A side benefit is that the club is now producing Olympic caliber racers as the program can concentrate serious effort on the competitive group.

    I have also been relentless at getting US “SAILING” to understand that sailing is not synonymous with racing. In one survey I told them they did not serve the needs of sailors, only racers. They didn’t get it.

    I have also complained to sailing museums that focus exclusively on racers. I ask them about Chichester, The Pardey’s, Moitessier and so many others who were not racers but certainly made sailing history. Where are the role models for the rest of us?

    By the way, I learned to sail on Sunfish and Hobie cats. I have sailed an Opti and I know I would have quit sailing had Opti been the only option.

    • Capt'n Ron says:

      Interesting Daria, our National sailing association in Canada also tends to focus it’s attention on a handful of elite racing sailors instead of focussing at the grassroots level, filling the pipe so to speak with “newbie” sailors. If we can fill the pipe then individuals (young and older), couples, and families will choose their sailing path whether that be racing (club level or higher), cruising or something inbetween in local waters or farther abroad. Also interesting, is that with all this focus on racing by the National sailing associations who also heavily influence the state/provincial sailing authorities, not one Olympic medal was awarded to a North American sailor this timearound. Like everything, sometimes we have to feel the pain before we change our ways. I would also be interested in hearing from others about what changes they have made to attract or/and keep “newbie” sailors at the Opti level and beyond.

  • ndhayes says:

    Please tell us more about your survey! Is it something other clubs could tap into? And thanks for what you’re doing.

  • Mark says:

    Just FYI, USSailing IS working on a more accessible and friendly community sailing area of their website.
    I’ve been peripherally involved in helping out and have advocated a hopefully more open, easy to use and not too nested structure to the upcoming site.

    One thing that is very encouraging is that there will be an area for sailing programs to share their ideas, surveys, teaching methods, etc.

    Perhaps when that is available we can post our success stories and other materials that can be of help.
    Contact me if you are interested.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Opti Haters at Saving Sailing.


%d bloggers like this: