While an Optimist sailing dinghy is an excellent training vessel, children quickly out-grow it. Not only its size, but also its limited performance. What if the humble little tub could be turbo-charged – easily and inexpensively? Well, it appears it can be.
Professional sailor Matt Mason has developed a simple solution. It comprises a bolt-on bow appendage, an extended mast and a bigger sail. Together, they radically transform the looks and performance of the standard Opti. Mason calls it the O-Pro.
The modification package offers a host of advantages. Not only to young, developing sailors – but also to their families – because it extends the ‘operational window’ of an investment in the standard Optimist.
There’s perhaps an element of irony that Mason – with four America’s Cup titles under his belt and years of involvement at the high end of the professional sailing circuit – should be dabbling with what is the most basic of sailing craft. But it all started innocently enough, with his eight-year-old son, William.
“William is part of the Opti programme at North Shore’s Wakatere Sailing Club,” he explains. “On the way home one day he asked me why the Opti had such a blunt bow compared with other classes. It started me thinking.”
Over the next few months Mason thought about an add-on bow appendage and then made a prototype in his garage. “I can’t really say any ‘design’ was involved – I just extended the hull lines to form a more traditional bow – though I did use scans of Opti hulls from three different manufacturers to create the optimum blend. These scans were imported into Solidworks, and that allowed us to develop a precision mould.”
The appendage is a simple, lightweight fitting that clips snugly on to the Opti’s existing bow. It extends the hull length by 450mm and makes for a more streamlined entry that slices rather than punches through waves. It also creates a longer waterline length.
It mates seamlessly with the existing hull (it’s hard to see the join), and is held in place by three bolts and nuts. This simplicity means any kid is able to attach it in minutes. It’s also a sealed, watertight unit, offering more buoyancy – and the built-in splashboard diverts waves away from the interior (helping to eliminate one of the traditional Opti’s major drawbacks).
To complement the modified hull, the O-Pro also gets an upgraded mast and sail. A 1.8m carbon fibre section slots into the top of the standard Opti mast. The mast is still stepped in the conventional way. The new sail is not only a more conventional shape but is also 1.2m2 bigger than the standard Opti’s four-sided sail. It’s fully-battened and has a sleeve luff that slides over the mast – a bit like a windsurfer’s.
WHAT’S THE RATIONALE?
Various considerations shaped the development of the kit, says Mason.
“Kids getting into sailing invariably begin in an Optimist – it’s a fantastic training vessel and will continue to be. But kids become bigger and heavier and quickly outgrow it, and for those who advance and become competitive, the Opti’s performance soon loses its lustre.
“Stats show that on average about 200 kids participate in our Optimist Nationals every year, but only about 20 percent of those continue sailing. So it’s not a great retention story – something’s wrong.
“I think there are two main issues: loneliness and cost. Sitting alone in a boat for hours on end isn’t much fun for a kid. Many want to participate in an activity they can do with their friends. The Opti’s a one-man boat so it can be quite solitary. This modification not only allows bigger, heavier kids to continue sailing as they grow, but it’s also perfect for two-up sailing.
“Secondly, for kids that become serious about competitive sailing, the step up to the next class of dinghy is prohibitive – anything from $5,000 to $10,000. That’s a lot of money for many families. I believe the O-Pro fills the gap. The modification
kit is a relatively inexpensive outlay – around $1,500 – and immediately offers bored sailors a more dynamic, performance-orientated boat. It’s an affordable solution.”
New Zealand’s Chris Steele – winner of the 2007 Optimist Worlds – says the O-Pro is a promising, enormously exciting concept that offers a solution to many of the limitations inherent in the traditional Opti.
“Apart from offering developing sailors a more exciting experience, I’m sure it would appeal to many clubs because it effectively creates two classes with one boat. The traditional Opti will remain the go-to boat for learners, but an existing fleet of Optis can be transformed in minutes for more experienced sailors looking for more performance – for very little capital outlay.
“Consider that these appendages are stowed in the boat’s cockpit, so clubs wouldn’t have to find additional or larger lockers.”
Twelve-year old Tom Darbey has been sailing Optis for two-and-a-half years at Wakatere, and says the O-Pro is definitely more of a handful but also much more exciting.
“It’s a lot quicker and drier, but you have to be careful when gybing. It’s easy to attach the bow section, and in some ways the sail is easier to rig than the Opti’s. I really like it.”
Mason has just returned from the World Sailing Association in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he presented the O-Pro concept to the assembled delegates.
“I’m delighted to report that the response was overwhelmingly positive, and we’ve already received scores of enquiries from places all over Europe, as well as from India and the Cook Islands.”
The best summary of the general O-Pro feedback, he says, came from Kim Anderson, World Sailing’s president. Pointing out that thousands of Optimists are lying unused all over the world, Anderson said that if the Association’s objective was getting children into sailing – and retaining them – he couldn’t think of a better way.
Mason stresses that the O-Pro isn’t an Optimist replacement. “It’s just an extension – but I think it offers an easy solution to any club struggling to nurture promising sailors.”