Cap’n Fatty’s Opti-Mistic Report – In Praise of the Optimist Sailing Program

We live in difficult times. In order to psychologically survive, we have to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirm—and never mess with Mister-in-Between” as singer Johnny Mercer wrote way back in WWII. Here’s the truth of it: I’ve started this column a dozen times—and each time it has veered off into ugly modern reality.  

How in the hell can you write lighthearted marine comedy in a world darker than any Stephen King novel ever penned—including his dystopic The Stand? 

Luckily, my nine-year-old granddaughter Sokú Orion Goodlander came to my rescue—by signing up for the Optimist sailing program at our local yacht club. 

To say I’m wildly enthusiastic about the Optimist Class is to make a vast understatement. The Opti is, perhaps, the only boat I ever learned how to sail well—although my sailing instructors at the time might have vehemently disagreed. 

First, a little back story on the Opti class. Back in 1947 in Clearwater, Florida, some half-sloshed parents wanted to stage a soap box derby—only they had no hills to roll down. Instead, they staged a ‘wheelless’ soap box derby on the water—and the Opti class was born, sort of. 

Nobody was impressed initially—except for some old duffer from Denmark, who carried a line drawing home for the 7’9” by 3’8” inch wide 77 pound vessel. By 1962, they were staging international regattas in England, and the rest is history. Today, over 80% of all Olympic sailors start sailing aboard an Opti. There’s a large Opti fleet on every continent except Antarctica—with over 150,000 officially registered and perhaps twice that number constructed in 120 countries. Every year, over 1,000 Optis are on the starting line in Lake Garda, Italy. 

In many ways, it is the most successful yacht design ever—basically, just the biggest hull that Clark Mills could draw using two sheets of exterior plywood. 

Optimist sailing program - Soku Starboard tacks Charlene (Note freighter on the race course), Opti Singapore CSC
Soku Starboard tacks Charlene (Note freighter on the race course), Opti Singapore CSC

Anyway, I climbed into one in 1961—and immediately discovered the joys of drifting off sideways while an adult yells at you, “Bear off, bear off!”

The Opti is, surely, the slowest racing boat ever designed—and that’s part of its world-wide charm. 

Of course, racing is all about the rules—and by ten years of age I figured out that if you attend all the races, you have a good chance of winning Top Opti Sailor of the Year no matter how badly you sail.  

I won using exactly that method in 1962—a truth that stuns many otherwise well-informed sailors. Why? Because our ‘Opti Club St. Pete’ (of the Vinoy Basin) was filled with idiots in sinking plywood vessels with rags for sails. The rich kids at the ‘Opti Club St Pete’ (of the SPYC) had actual boats that floated, sails that weren’t half duct tape, and instructors who knew how to sail them—just ask Ed Baird, Rick Merriman, Chris Larson, Allison Jolly, Mark Mendeblatt, Timothy McKegney, Chris Morgan, and many other fine international racers if you don’t believe me. 

Of course, our daughter took sailing lessons with the KATS program on St. John in the USVI at a similar age—racing both Optis and Lasers. 

My point is that our entire family exploded with utter happiness when Sokú decided to embrace the Opti class—our generational pride swellith. My wife Carolyn immediately bought her an official Opti tee shirt, I chipped in with a pair of sailing gloves, and her parents came up with both a gallon of sunblock and a large glass case to put all her trophies in. 

Okay, I’m joking about that last part. 

As our daughter Roma Orion crowned, I vowed to her in the maternity ward that I’d never measure her by her sailing ability—actually, that might be the first lie I told that kid. 

…seriously, I didn’t want to be a ‘helicopter’ grandpa—so I just tossed the sailing instructors one-by-one against the yacht club wall, and informed them which was my granddaughter… how to spell her unusual name… and not to give her any special privileges (other than, perhaps, to allow her to win). 

Fatty Opti 1960s Vinoy Basin St. Petersberg, FL
Fatty Opti 1960s Vinoy Basin St. Petersberg, FL

Sokú, of course, didn’t care (nor know) about any of this—she just knew that if she professed the slightest interest in Optis, she could charge anything she wanted (think of dozens of half-eaten burgers) to my name at the club—smart kid, that one. 

Yes, there’s a swimming pool at the club—and Sokú is perhaps the cutest dog-paddler in it, and, sad to say, the loudest screamer as well. (Yes, we worried that other members might sue us for a broken ear drum or, at best, severe hearing loss.)

Immediately Sokú teamed up with three other aggressive girls (Nahara, Anya, and Charlene) and they resolutely banded together to scare the few boys in the fleet with cries of “Shark! Shark!”

Actually, as near as I could tell (I pretended not to watch but perhaps my Fujinon binoculars gave me away), they mostly perfected their collision skills—Sokú never saw another Opti she didn’t want to smash into. 

So, it all worked out well—the whole family cheered her on and, once or twice, she actually seemed to know which direction the wind was coming from. 

Sokú Opti Singapore CSC
Sokú Opti Singapore CSC

The best part came on her third day of instruction—when the instructor’s boat wrapped a line in its prop, a freighter was bearing down on them (I kid you not, they raced suicidally in a narrow ship’s channel), a tugboat pulling a barge of sand almost decapitated them, and, during the height off all this madness some crazed adult gave Sokú a sharp knife and ordered her to cut away the rope from the prop—as a final act of bravery before expiring for the good of the fleet. Oh, and all the boys in the class started crying for their mommies when a sudden gust capsized the entire Opti fleet at the same instant. 

Basically, fun stuff. 

My moment of pride was when I dinghied back to the club—and there Sokú Orion was holding a large group of kids and adults spellbound as she recited a mammothly exaggerated sea yarn she dubbed, “Sailing to Death and Back.”

…and a few mothers not accustomed to hearing full-blown sea yarns actually passed out. 

Chip off the ole block!

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com