Editor’s note: We’re still getting lots of feedback on the Publisher’s Log in our September issue, “Resume Hand Wringing!” in which Ben Cesare opined, “I think we need a better tool [than the Optimist] for the job [of teaching kids to sail].”
Across two junior sailors I never had issue with the [Optimist]. I honestly think it’s a great class, but again, I’m a focus group of one. At a beginner’s level, say a 9-year-old, you can simplify the boat and get a real cheap one they can hack around on and learn. Then they can take over the tweaking when they get a bit older – 12 or 13, but I don’t recall it ever being frustrating. What is great about the Opti is its rudder and ease of sailing. Big rudder = quick responsiveness.
Who said Optis are just for racing? ©nnyliving.com
Is there a better boat? There can always be improvements, but the Opti has created the opportunity for more kids to become accomplished skippers at a younger age. The backside of a ‘group’ boat at a young age is kids space out and don’t learn anything. It comes down to the coaches and parents making the learning experience fun. I think what lurks beneath the Opti design is what the boat has come to represent, which is a far more pressurized learning environment. This needs to be managed so kids aren’t spooked early from the uber-competiveness of the sport. Parents always overdo it.
Now the real important stuff. My boys were involved with ‘active’ sports like [Publisher Ben Cesare’s son] Matt (soccer, baseball, ski racing) and it’s an objection they can use to hedge on sailing. I think sailing is a very difficult sport to learn and stay with (initially), because before you gain competence and eventually some satisfaction with ‘a little’ racing, there are many exit doors.
Hence, my line with my boys was to commit to sailing for three years (full summers), because of the fun, friends, water, competition, and eventually a ticket to see the country and world, if so inclined. Why? Because sailing is so unique, so cool (like flying a plane), it takes time to learn correctly, and when you do, you get your wings and you’re ready to explore the world. Now, if after three years you just don’t like it, fine, but let’s do three. And I believe it – if a kid doesn’t get over the hump, they don’t get a chance to make an informed decision and actually get cheated, if you will!
That’s simply a strategy I used, but I think it’s important they do the full eight weeks – it’s hard to get traction on four weeks. They’ll get exposed to some Green fleet events (traveling is fun) and all the while a good learning process – not results – as Green fleet events don’t even keep score.
– Peter Cusick, Fairfield, CT
A decades’ old question comes up again: Is the Opti killing our sport? My answer is no; it’s the only point of entry into our sport. Is the Opti a bad boat? No, it’s a boat built to, and suitable for, its purpose. What’s the Opti’s purpose? That depends on ‘What is our sport?’ We have two aspects to our sport of sailing. There’s the competitive side, full of teflon polish and bound by dozens of pages of rules, and the side where we’re just happy to separate ourselves from shore for a day – or 30 – in any reasonable weather and maybe get an engraved glass or a rum hat. The Opti is tricky enough to make one a competent racer, and simple enough to sustain abuse and open the possibilities of endless reaches and parties on beaches.
As is obvious by its shape, the Opti came from the same mindset that drives dozens of people into garages today, building compound curves and shapes out of flat plywood sheets. With its blunt bow, middle bulkhead and mast support cross-member, the Opti has a classic layout and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The aft cockpit is big enough to add foot straps and flotation bags, and the forward cockpit’s big enough to fit another kid. If you want to knock one out in a weekend you probably could, for a quick and dirty way to get off the beach. Optis are squirrely, and sensitive to body placement and rig tune. With the sliding mast foot, dozens of sail lashings and the sprit, tuning possibilities are endless. It’s hard to master an Opti.
Once you start using the Opti away from shore, keeping it afloat after swamping appears to be a necessity, so airbags were added at some point. But when the boat’s swamped it’s rather full, and the kid will expend considerable effort on bailing. Is bailing without much effort a technical impossibility or an artificial problem? It seems simple enough to cut stern drain openings, but the Opti class rules expressly prohibit that. I was tempted to test the physics, but stopped because I want to sell my kid’s Opti at close to what I paid for it. However, if the cut-outs are indeed a technical possibility, we should probably do something about it…maybe even change the rules.
According to my 7-year old with one season of Opti sailing under his lifevest, an Opti is obviously just a bathtub with a sail, but he says he loves his bathtub because that’s where he had fun…a full summer of fun. Yes, I am jealous. Before that, I foresaw frustrations in light air, the need to bail, and maybe a scare in high winds. In very light air, they either switched to paddleboards or capsized for fun with instructors helping to bail the boats, and capsizes in high winds were deemed fun, broken goosenecks notwithstanding. So, for the small price of entry he was able to join dozens of other kids in Optis to drift, capsize, sail in big winds, and capsize again. Capsize recovery was the first thing they learned, in the pool, and also the first criteria with which they evaluated various boats last summer.
The O’Pen BIC and Hobie Wave came out as clear winners in this important category. The RS Feva became a favorite because it can accommodate up to six kids and has a spinnaker. The 420s sailing from a neighboring club caught their eye as well. Getting on a Laser was impressive, like sailing a proper yacht. I noticed that double trapeze boats and foiling boats were impressive, but interest didn’t last. Their eyes were on simple, shiny things that looked like fun.
Is there a real need for a new beginner boat? Maybe, but probably not. We can browse through websites and come up with a half dozen boats that are all somewhat affordable and transportable – the RS boats, the less expensive Hobies, VX1, UFO, Laser, etc. They are all very fine boats, and gateways to many other well-established classes that would be obvious choices no matter what – J/22s, 5O5s, Vanguard 15s, Rhodes 19s, scows, Thistles, Lightnings, etc. Maybe there is some need for small, cruise-able boats that are also fast – covering distances fast is fun. My son sailed five or six different boats this summer. I think it was all well worth the effort, and he stays with sailing.
– Serge Leonidov, New Rochelle, NY