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What Makes a Good Opti Sailor Great

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We’ve all been there as parents.

Thrilled to see our kids take the tillers of Optimists for the first time and sail out into shallow seas unaided. Excited when our kids actually compete in regattas for the first time and beam with the pride of participation. Ecstatic when our young sailors finally put first place medals around their necks. But, what does it take to go to the next step? For that Opti sailor who’s winning all the home island regattas to win the International events held ‘round the world too?

First, you need to decide if this is something that you and your Opti sailor truly want. Some kids get a kick out of being the big fish in a little pond and the self-assurance that comes from this level of sporting endeavor.

For parents and clubs, Peter Barclay, Peru-based vice president of the International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA) who attended the Optimist North American Championships in Ponce, Puerto Rico this summer says, “It’s one thing to start a program and another to get the kids to a high level of competition. Before you do this, you have to travel to small international events in your region and arrange for good coaching.”

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This second point, that of traveling to other islands for sailing competitions, takes a time and money investment by the whole family.

For example, one of the first regattas Puerto Rico’s Jose Nigaglioni, Jr. attended outside of Puerto Rico was the Valentine’s Day Optimist Regatta held on St. Croix. This trip was made possible by his father, Jose “Quino” Nigaglioni, Sr., who transported boats and Jose’s fellow sailing friends aboard the family’s 47-foot sailboat, Lady S. “That’s what really launched by son’s sailing career,” Nigaglioni says.

Many Caribbean islands host regattas where the Optimist is a featured class. Beyond these smaller inter-island events, two larger regattas held in the region are the Week of Schoelcher in Martinique each February and the Scotiabank Caribbean International Optimist Regatta in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands each June.

The next leap for many Caribbean junior sailors is attendance at the Orange Bowl Regatta held the last week in December out of Miami, Florida. The Orange Bowl is the largest youth regatta held in the U.S., with over 600 sailors from around the world competing. Many Caribbean juniors will also choose to compete in Opti events in Europe as part of planned travel to visit family and friends in a native country.

Third, coaching is key. There are many excellent sailors in the Caribbean who can teach kids how to sail well and win regattas. Yet, to take them into the winning realm of high-level international competition, it takes well-traveled coaches who themselves have participated in this type of event and have ‘head out of Caribbean’ mentalities to know how to prepare kids for the world’s junior sailing stage.

Finding a good coach takes networking and dedication on the part of parents and clubs, but it pays off. Just look at the success story in Trinidad. David Lewis, an Opti dad and president of the Trinidad & Tobago Optimist Dinghy Association (TODA), hired Peru’s Fernando “Happy” Alegre, who began an intensive training program with a handful of Trinidadian sailors. After less than a year of concerted instruction, one of these sailors, Matthew Scott, astounded the junior sailing world by placing an overall 7th at the Optimist World Championships in Ecuador. The following year, Scott scored 2nd overall at the Opti Worlds held in Switzerland.

The question of ‘what makes a good Opti sailor great?’ was put to three South American coaches who have trained or currently train kids in the Caribbean and their answers are insightful.

Agustin “Argy” Resano, who is coaching a team of five kids in the U.S. Virgin Islands in preparation for the Opti Worlds in Uruguay at the end of the year, says, “It’s a big step going from a good Opti sailor to a great one. This last step can only be achieved by the sailor.

“In the Optimist class, sailors usually start at the age of eight, so they are really young. They sail because they like it, but mostly because their parents are supportive. Then they reach the ages of 11 to 13, which I think this is a critical stage for kids. Now is when you really see if the sailor wants to be a great sailor. The parents are still supportive of the kids, but at this stage the kid has to step forward and demonstrate the self motivation and commitment to become a great Opti sailor. No matter how hard you want a kid to perform well, if the kid is not into it, it will never happen,” Resano says.

Alegre agrees: “A coach can guide a young sailor but the desire to win has to come from the kid him or herself. Natural talent is important but that desire to win, that focused determination to win, is all important.”

As for natural abilities and attributes, “It’s helpful if kids are capable of multitasking,” says Luis Chiapparro, a former Uruguay World Team coach who is in Bermuda. “Sailing is all about being sensitive to the feel of the boat, making minute to minute changes in boat handling based on constant evaluation of conditions and competitors. Some kids have the natural perception and memory to do this effectively.”

“In my opinion,” says Resano, “the ideal weight is 100 pounds with a tall, slim, fit build. This way, the sailor is not heavy when it’s light air—and when it is heavy air, the sailor has good leverage when hiking. This would be the ideal trait, but it is not the most important aspect. Any kind of sailor can perform well as long as he really wants it.”

Training time on the water is important. Alegre says, “I have the kids train five days a week for two to three hours a day on weekdays and four to five hours on the weekends. If a big competition is coming up, we’ll train more.”

Resano adds, “The optimist boat requires a lot of technique when it comes to boat handling and boat speed—body movements, trimming, positioning, etc.—and it is very important to start developing that technique in the early stages…otherwise if they learn it the wrong way, they create bad habits that are harder to break later on than to start from scratch.”

But, says Alegre, “The mind is all important. All sailors can sail fast, technically. To win takes a lot of mental preparation. For example, we arrive one week before the start of a sailing in a major regatta. This gives a chance to prepare the mind as well as get used to the conditions.”

Optimist racing is a mental game, Resano agrees. “There are usually 300 boats in a top level regatta with usually 70 to 80 boats at each start. If you are not mentally prepared, your mind can play against you. For example, you may think that you are not sailing as fast or you get intimidated by the boat next to you right at the start. Your mind is occupied in negative thoughts when in reality you should be thinking in how to make a good start, where the first wind shift is going to come from, which side of the line is better, what is the current doing and how it is going to affect you at the start and during the race. If you are not mentally prepared you would not have the level of relaxation your body needs to perform well, especially when you have to make a lot of decisions in a short period of time.”

Finally, great Opti sailors need to think outside themselves to the team, says Chiapparro. “You have to know how to work as a team in a competitive situation just as you have to know how to handle it individually.”

Resano adds, “In a good team, every member is pushing in the same direction. That means team members will generate good rivalry and competition, which is key when it comes to racing and off course. It’s more fun to sail and train with friends.”

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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