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When Should a Kid Move Out of Optis

The Optimist dinghy is the most popular youth training boat.
It’s sailed in over 110 countries by some 150,000-plus junior sailors.
It’s the only dinghy approved by the International Sailing Federation
exclusively for sailors under the age of 16. And, it was the first boat sailed
by 70 percent of the medal winners in the Athens Olympics. But, what boat
should junior sailors move to? And more importantly, when is the right time to
do so?

The
immediate next boat for nearly 80 percent of Optimist sailors is the Laser or
the 420. The recent expansion of the Laser 4.7 has provided a much-needed
additional step especially in locales with windy conditions. A number of newer
boats have been developed specifically for the post-Optimist market but few of
them seem as yet to have made much impact worldwide.

When a
junior sailor should make the jump out of Optimists to another boat is a big
question.

Nick Castruccio, former president of the Virgin Islands Sailing
Association (VISA) and former youth sailing instructor at the St. Croix Yacht
Club, says, “I think the Opti produces world
class sailors and is an excellent training boat for juniors. Yet, because it
costs only slightly more than an Opti, a Laser often
gives a young sailor the feeling that he or she has left the little old
Opti to the toddler set.”

St. Thomas’ Shep Barrows, who has first hand parent knowledge of this
transition from son Thomas, says, “What you don’t want is for kids
to give up Optis because Lasers and 420s are faster
and sexier.”

Age will
force kids to jump from the Opti to another boat. But
realistically, size may push this jump ahead of age.

“My
guess is that size, not age, is a big factor in this transition,” says
Castruccio.

St.
Croix’s Tim Pitts, an ex-Opti sailor who
represented the Virgin Islands in Lasers at
the Athens Olympics, says size is what moved him into the bigger boat. “I
was no small kid at age 12. It was extremely tough to be competitive in an
Opti and not be able to fit in the boat.”

Barrows
says, “For the most part, I think kids should stay in Optimists until
they either size out or age out. Sizing out is a question of weight. When kids
are over 115 pounds, they are not as competitive anymore, and at that point I
believe it’s good to make a transition to Lasers and/or 420s. It’s okay
for them to race both Optimists and Lasers or 420s. They will often want to
keep going to regattas with their Opti friends for a
couple of months in the summer, even after they start making the transition.
The key is that when they start becoming less competitive in
Optis because of weight, then starting a new class gives
them something to look forward to.”

Weight is
important, Pitts agrees. “The Laser is a much more physical boat than an
Optimist. Kids need to have a solid hike and be able to hold the boat down with
their body weight. It’s a big step in kinetics, the control of their own
body to use their weight to move the boat around the course. They also need to
have basic skills to advance to a Laser. They need to be able to get around the
course. Not necessarily winning races, but comfortable in their boat handling
especially in big breezes.”

Barrows
adds, “For kids that are unusually large for their age, I think
it’s better to keep them in Optimists until they are at least 12. I have
known kids that were over 140 pounds who could compete pretty well in
Optimists, even though they didn’t win races. The Affoo
kids from Trinidad were a good example of
that. What you find is that if the kids stay in the Optimist for at least three
years of hard racing, then when they switch to Lasers or 420s they are often
good right away. For example, if you have a ten year old who weighs 115 pounds,
and keep them racing in Optis until they are 12, then
they will have a good base of skills for Lasers that will allow them to excel
from the start.”

The
opportunity for junior sailors to jump up to a Laser, especially in the
Virgin Islands, is easier these days, says Pitts.
“It use to be there were more Sunfish and 420s
than Lasers available. But, we’re up to 20 Lasers now on
St. Croix.”

The most
crucial tip for parents of junior sailors is this, Pitts adds, “Some kids
find their comfort zone in Optis, then
do a gradual change. Don’t rush this type of kid and push them out. For
other kids, they lose interest in sailing when they get boxed in an
Opti for too long. It’s really up to the kid. Parents
do need to trust their kids to tell him when to make this transition.”

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