It may be a beginner class, but the International Optimist is at the heart of the sport's development. By Roger McMillan.

They are not the most exciting looking craft on the water. And they have that funny, almost gaff-rigged mainsail. But there’s no doubt that kids who learn to sail in Optis learn to sail well. And no-one can argue with the numbers - hundreds of thousands of children all around the world sail this funny little boat every weekend.

There are three key features of the Opti that teach good skills. The unusual rig encourages good sail settings, with mast rake used to change weather helm; sprit, outhaul and vang used to adjust leech tension; while adjusting the length of the sprit tightens or loosens the luff to move draft fore and aft. Going downwind with the daggerboard all the way up makes the boat fast but unstable, teaching balance. And being short and squat, the Opti is sensitive to crew weight and can be steered with a change of body position, a good lesson for future skiff sailors. There is a big difference between sailing an Opti and sailing one well.

Bland beginnings

According to OptiNews, the Optimist dinghy began as a soapbox car in Florida about sixty years ago. The local chapter of Optimists International asked boat designer Clark Mills to build a floating version of the soapbox, hoping that the local children would start cruising Clearwater Bay instead of Clearwater’s streets.

Mills came up with a little square bowed boat and called it the Optimist Pram. “It was a boat which a young skipper and a parent could put together in the garage, with one sheet of plywood, some stainless steel screws, some resorcinol glue, and a few banged thumbs.”

The first Optimist was built in 1948 and was soon a popular youth boat in and around Clearwater and St. Petersburg. In 1954, Axel Damgaard, skipper of a Danish three-masted tall ship, saw an Optimist while his ship was visiting the United States. When he returned to Denmark, Axel promoted the design. The Optimist soon became very popular throughout Scandinavia, where it was renamed the International Optimist Dinghy, and was quickly adopted throughout Europe.

In 1962, the first World Championships were held, at Hamble in the UK. In 1965, seven nations got together and formed the IODA (International Optimist Dinghy Association). In 1973, the class received International status from the International Yacht Racing Union (now ISAF).

During the 1970s, the popularity of the Optimist spread to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Today, it is the world’s largest and fastest growing sailing class with 150,000 competitors in 110 countries.

The optimist fleet in Australia was formed through the initiative of the late “Huck” Scott, Olympic silver medalist in the 12 Metre at Melbourne in 1956. Huck, then coach of Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club in Perth, was invited to coach the Zimbabwean sailing school which had approximately 200 Optimists sailing on a lake in that country.

Impressed with the number of boats, the international organisation and the level of racing across the globe, on his return to Perth in 1988 Huck enlisted the support of Syd Corser and America’s Cup manager, Jack Baxter, to build six Oppies for RFBYC. There are now 830 Optimist sailors registered in Australia.

World Championships

This year’s Optimist Worlds are in Langkawi, Malaysia, starting on December 27. The Australian team is Nia Jerwood, Lachlan Gilmour (son of Peter Gilmour), Jack Felsenthal, Sam Blackburn and James McLennan. The coach is Diego Figueroa.

Each country can nominate only five sailors. As well as the individual championship there is also a team racing event, which is considered a very important part of the regatta. To date, Australia hasn’t fared well in international competition and the 2010 team is hoping to change that. The best result by an Australian so far in the IODA Worlds was James Brewer’s 80th last year in Brazil.

The sailors will leave Malaysia on January 8 and fly directly to Sydney for the National championships that start the next day. The 2011 Worlds will be in New Zealand.

The most famous Opti old-boy is triple Olympic Gold medallist, Ben Ainslie of Great Britain. Ben won Olympic Silver in 1996 and Gold in 2000 in the Laser, then Gold in the Finn in 2004 and 2008. Two of Australia’s 470 Olympic Champions, Belinda Stowell (Sydney 2000) and Elise Rechichi (Beijing 2008) also learnt to sail in an Opti. According to the IODA website, more than two-thirds of the medallists at the last two Olympics started in Optis.

Teach your children

The Australian class association recommends: “Kids should start sailing as soon as they are confident near water, usually it’s around eight or nine but there are six-year-olds sailing Optis in Australia”. They can race Optimists until December 31 in the year they turn 15.

The Australian Optimist Sailing Team (AOST) program, which was introduced in 2006 with the assistance of Yachting Australia funding, encompasses specialised coaching throughout the year at AOST nominated regattas. These include state, national and international regattas. The aim is to spread the fund dollars beyond the five Optimist Worlds team sailors who may be about to “age-out” of the class.

By spreading funding over twenty sailors, the association says it can focus the coaching not only on the top five, but on up and coming sailors who are likely to continue in the class for several more seasons. “With the AOST programme we are lifting the standard in the Optimist class, not only lifting the (top) sailors as they move on to 420s or other classes.”

The AOST is reported to be working well. The association says that AOST sailors formed into a tight knit group transcending state borders. “They are eager to travel, to sail and train against and with their friends, who like them are working hard at improving their own skills. They are also becoming aware that they are a part of something special and are gaining the respect of many other class associations, be they Junior, Youth or Senior.”

“Sailing Boats for Kids” program

Yachting NSW has launched an enterprising program based on the Opti. Recognising that “the limited number of vessels in junior sailing clubs has hindered children’s participation in recreational boating” they have teamed with the Boating Industry Association and the Sailing Industry Association of NSW to approach sponsors to buy Optis for qualifying clubs.

Launched at the Sydney International Boat Show in July, the target is to get 80 boats distributed to 10 clubs by the end of 2011. Every time the BIA gets eight sponsorships, eight boats will be provided free to a sailing club that can show evidence of success in getting new juniors into the sport. The first pack of eight boats was delivered to Concord and Ryde Sailing Club in August and they are already being used to get more kids into sailing.

At time of writing, sponsors included RW Basham (2), IC Frith (2), McConaghy Boats, the CYCA Breakfast Club, Pacific Sailing School and Sturrocks, Volvo Penta Oceania, Yanmar Diesel Engines, Afloat Publications (2), Riviera Syndication, Stebercraft and the BIA of NSW (2).

From the sponsor’s point of view, this is cheap advertising. For $2,800 per boat they get a permanent billboard on a beach every weekend for as long as the boat is in use - probably quite a few years. Clubs are being encouraged to approach local sponsors to add to the total number of boats available.

This is an initiative that could easily be rolled out in other states, or could be adopted by individual clubs to secure more boats for their learn-to-sail programs.

To sponsor a boat or for more information on the program, contact Domenic Genua at the BIA via email to or go to

Buying an Opti

IODA has gone to extreme lengths to ensure that it is the sailor, not the boat, that gives the best result. To achieve this aim, all racing hulls are built to within +/- 2mm, they all have identical layup, prototypes from each mould are measured by one of three international measurers and each boat is measured by a national measurer.

There are now four major importers of Optimist dinghies into Australia. OziOpti is the biggest, and we have reviewed their range of imported boats along with the two very recent additions, McConaghys and the Shanghai Far East Boat Company.

The other importer is DSC Marine who import the McLaughlin Opti from the USA. For details go to or call Gerry Deakin on 0407 758 629.


OziOpti is owned by Steven Bond and operates from the Boatshed on Albert Park Lake in Melbourne, with outlets in the other capital cities. “Bondy” is the driving force behind the Tackers program and offers a range of Optimist dinghies and spare parts to suit a variety of needs.

OziOpti is the Australian importer of Optiparts fittings, Winner Optimists from Denmark, Bluemagic Optimists from Poland and the ZOU boats from Qingdao, China, which have won every Australian Open Championship since 2007.

The latest Regatta MkIV models from OziOpti come in a box and have a lot more features than the basic Optimist. They come with a non-skid floor and non-skid decks for better grip and are supplied with Black Gold spars, stiff foils made from foam and epoxy, racing mainsheet systems from Harken and Ronstan, extra large buoyancy bags and quick release hiking straps. The price, rigged and ready to sail with trolley and covers, is $3950 Australia wide.

The Club model is designed as a starter boat for club sailing. It features the same GRP hull as the regatta model, but comes with “starter level” fittings to keep the initial price down. It can be upgraded to a regatta model at a later date when the sailor decides to take racing more seriously. Supplied ready to sail including an aluminium beach trolley and covers, the list price is $2975.

The Tacker, designed and made by OziOpti in Australia, is a training boat made from roto-moulded polyethylene, which means it is very resilient, requires little maintenance and takes the knocks expected in a training school environment. The self-buoyant hull is slightly larger than a racing Opti and weighs in at 42kg. Price is $2395 ready to sail.

OziOpti also offers the EziOpti rental program, sells second-hand hulls and gives clubs and sailing schools fleet discounts on bulk purchases. As the official charter boat supplier to the Optimist Class Association, OziOpti Regatta boats are sold after one or two events for $2,750 plus a sail under the OziOpti ‘6 for 5’ deal.

Contact Steven Bond by email, phone 0424 225 774 or visit


McConaghy, known for its state of the art grand prix race boats, is now producing two versions of the International Optimist sailing dinghy.

The M1 is a top-of-the-range racing version designed to appeal to all sailors who want the best performance out of their boat. The M2 is the same hull as the M1 but is fitted out more simply for training and learn to sail purposes.

McConaghy says that a lot of work has gone into these boats with special attention to detail, high quality finish and parts to maximise performance. “They not only look ‘cool’ but are fast as well,” according to project manager Rob Brown.

The M1 is supplied with higher specification fittings, foils and graphics. The foils are made using a one-shot, epoxy resin/infused, foam cored cold-moulded process. The rudder comes with an anodised tiller and Ronstan padded tiller extension. The M1 spars are from the Red Hot series, made from lightweight and stiff 7075 grade anodised aluminium. With the new adjustable custom mast-step, adjustments to the rig can be done simply and efficiently while sailing, to maximise the performance of the boat. The M1 features the unique McConaghy non-skid pattern on the floor and gunwhales, which allows the crew to sail the boat more effectively, especially when hiking and working the boat with their body dynamics.

The M2 is a simpler version, with a pocket luff sail for ease of rigging. It is supplied with 6000 series anodised spars and comes with the same fast shape foils as the M1. The M2 is the boat of choice for the BIA Boats for Kids learn to sail program.

Both the M1 and M2 boats are supplied with Ronstan hardware and McConaghy custom fittings. Dyneema cordage is used for sheets and control lines. All boats are subjected to stringent quality control measures to ensure the highest quality
and performance.

There is quite a range of optional extras available such as padded foil bags, top and bottom covers ( McConaghy Graphics) and a trolley with padded mud guards which allows the sailor to place the hull upside down on the trolley. Check it all out on the website:

Prices: M1 is $4400, M2 is $2970.

Far East Optis

Shanghai Far East FRP Boat Company is one of China’s leading sail boat manufacturers, represented in Australia by 2008 Olympic Gold medallist Nathan Wilmot and his father Jamie, who competed at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Far East has a factory in Shanghai where they produce two types of Optimist as well as a proprietary 11ft design, 420s and small production keelboats.

The Far East Opti has been manufactured since 1996 and has often been chosen as the championship boat for Asian and European championships. The charter boats at the Opti Worlds in Malaysia from December 27 will be Far East models.

At time of writing, no Far East Optis were being raced in Australia but Jamie Wilmot expected to have stock before Christmas and was looking forward to putting the boat up against its competition.

The fully-equipped Far East GRP Speedster SR Opti will retail in Australia for $4525.

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