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 Should a Kid Move Out of Optis?
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.”