The Opti

A Short History Of The Opti

The International Optimist Dinghy, known as the Opti, Oppie, or Bathtub with some sticks, is the world's most popular youth trainer, and one of the most successful sailing dinghies in the world with over 150k craft registered with the class association, IODA, but many more are out there that don't compete and are not registered with their country class association.

The Opti came about after a request from a Maj. Clifford McKay to a Clearwater, Florida boatbuilder Clark Mills. The idea was to create a low-cost boat for affordable sailing for young boys and C. Mills designed a pram to be built from 2 sheets of plywood and donated the plans to the Optimist Club that sponsored the design. You can read more about the origins of the Opti in our post here.

An original Clearwater Pram - the original Optimist. Photo P. Van Puffelen
There were many variations of the Opti in those days and in the 1960s a man named Axel Damgaard from Denmark stopped in Clearwater on a freighter haul, and found the Optimist Club and the Optimist Dinghy. Axel took the plans to Europe and within months there were literally thousands on the water.

Many Opti sailors are not aware, but Optimists were not originally a one-design class. Throughout the 70s and 80s further refinements and advancements were made to the rig, with the introduction of fiberglass hulls, aluminum spars but there existed many variations of the hull from different builders, leading to an arms race within the class.

Fast forward to 1995, the IODA or International Optimist Dinghy Association decided to make the by then, venerable Opti a one-design class - limiting the manufacture of hulls and production of spars to tightly-regulated parameters which ensured costs would not skyrocket and keep the playing field as fair as possible.

The Optimist is sailed in over 120 countries and it is one of only two yachts approved by World Sailing exclusively for sailors under 16. As one of the smallest dinghies at 7 3/4 feet long, sailors can continue to race them up to the age limit of 15 years old. Many sailing schools and yacht clubs own a number of them and they are the first boat most beginners will sail, at least in the United States.

A full history of the Optimist is published as: Wilkes, Robert (2013). The Optimist Dinghy 1947-2007

Rig

Mast - boom, and the sprit-pole make the opti a stable, low aspect ratio sail platform

 

The single sail of the Optimist is sprit-rigged. Two battens stiffen the leech and is secured evenly with ties along the luff to the mast and along the foot to the boom, pulled down tightly by a vang or kicker. The light, slim third spar, the sprit, extends through a loop at the peak of the sail; the bottom rests in the eye of a short cable or string which hangs along the front edge of the mast. Raising and lowering the sprit and adjusting the boom vang allow for adaptation of sail trim to a range of wind conditions. Similarly, the Optimist has a small string outhaul on the end of the boom. It is usually correct to tighten the boomvang, outhaul, and sprit in heavy winds and loosen them in light winds. As well as this, huge adjustments can be made to sail shape, due to all of the ties running along the mast and boom.

The spars may be made from aluminium or wood, but are invariably aluminium in modern boats.
A monograph-style "IO" insignia (after IODA - the International Optimist Dinghy Association) on the sail is a registered trade-mark and may only be used under licence from the International Optimist Association. Optimists also have a national sail number using the Olympic abbreviation of their country and a sequential numbers such as

  • ARG - Argentina
  • CAN - Canada
  • MEX - Mexico
  • USA - United States
 

Hull

The Optimist has a pram hull, originally formed primarily from five pieces of plywood as was the biggest hull Clark Mills could make from two 4 ft by 8 ft sheets. Just in front of a bulkhead, which partitions the boat nearly in half, is the daggerboard case. Right behind it on the centerline of the hull floor are attached a pulley and ratchet block. These anchor the sheet and its pulley on the boom directly above. At the bow resides a thwart to support the mast which passes through a hole in its centre to the mast step mounted on the centre line of the boat. The painter, a rope used for securing a boat like a mooring line, is usually tied around the mast step.

Optis congregating around a coachboat 2018 International Optimist Regatta. Note the triple airbag placement for flotation

Buoyancy bags are installed inboard along each side in the front half of the boat and at the stern to add buoyancy in the event of capsizing. Two straps, known as "hiking straps", run lengthwise along the floor from bulkhead to stern. These and a tiller extension allow a sailor to hang off the side for weight distribution—commonly called "hiking out". This can be crucial to maintaining the boat in near horizontal disposition during heavy air, allowing greater speed through the water and more manoeuvrability.

An Opti sailor demonstrating hiking technique

The vast majority of hulls today are made of Fiberglass, although it is still possible to make and buy wooden hulls.

Foils

The rudder and daggerboard can be made from plywood or a composite of foam, glass fibre, and epoxy.


Performance

While younger lighter sailors begin in Optimists, competitive sailors usually weigh between 35 and 55 kg (or between 80 lbs. and 125 lbs.).[9] Optimists can be sailed by children from age 8 to 15. This wide range of weights which is not typical of most dinghies is made possible by different cuts of sail. Due to its inherent stability, unstayed rig, robust construction and relatively small sail, the Optimist can be sailed in winds of up to 30 knots.

2016 IODA North Americans. Photo by Matias Capizzano

Optimists are manufactured to the same specification by over 20 builders on four continents. In the United States the main producer of Optis is McLaughlin Manufacturing, who produced the 2019 World Champion and North American Champion hulls.

There is strong evidence that hulls from different builders are the same speed. Sails and spars of differing qualities enable sailors to upgrade their equipment as they progress.

Fun Fact: The Optimist is such a stable platform for kids that it is actually rated the slowest dinghy in the world by the Portsmouth rating scheme by the Royal Yachting Association.




Competition

From 2016 International Optimist Regatta. Photo by Matias Capizzano

The Optimist is the biggest youth racing class in the world. As well as the annual world championship the class also has six continental championships, attended by a total of over 850 sailors a year. Many of the top world Optimist sailors have become world-class Laser Radial or 4.7 sailors after they "age-out" but many also excel in double-handers such as the 420 and 29er. At the 2016 Olympics at least 85% of the boat skippers were former Optimist sailors.

The first World Championship was held in Great Britain in 1962 and it has grown to over 60 countries participating. The changing pattern of the strongest countries can be seen from the results of the Nations Cu. For the first 20 years, the class was dominated by sailors from the Scandinavian countries, with 13 world champions. In the 1990s Argentina was by far the dominant country but, following standardization of the boat and improved coaching standards internationally, many countries have excelled. Recently S.E. Asian countries and the United States have produced strong teams. The Optimist World Championships include Team Racing which is increasingly popular.
Continental Championships are held on each continent (the Oceanian held jointly with the Asian). A complete list of World Championship winners can be found over at Wikipedia.

With competitive charter boats easily available and low-cost airfares, there are scores of open international regattas. The largest is the Lake Garda Easter Meeting with over 1,000 Optimists participating. The Lake Garda Meeting actually received a Guiness World Book Of Records recognition for largest one-design class regatta in 2012 - but it went and surpassed its own record in 2018 with nearly 1,400 sailors!



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