A Parent's guide to Opti Sailing - Part 1

Introduction

I wanted to put down some information I thought might be helpful to parents of newer Opti sailors. Whether you are a sailor yourself, or whether this is a new activity for you and your family, entering the world of Opti sailing involves a lot of new terms, knowledge, and experiences. My wife Emmy and I have learned a lot since our son Charlie (also know as Chuckles) started sailing in Optis in 2014. We wanted to share what we’ve learned. Opti sailing can be rewarding for your child but also for your whole family.  Unlike a lot of other youth sports, the parents must stay involved throughout their child’s ‘career,’ and the rest of the family will also likely participate in some way. There are lots of links - you should click through for more information.

By way of background, I am a member of the Chicago Yacht Club and race my own cruising-racing boat with my wife and co-owner, Emmy. We have two small kids, Charlie (8) and Maggie (5), both of whom have participated in CYC's sailing school for several years. I serve on CYC's board and was chair of the Race to Mackinac in 2014 and 2015. Emmy and I both serve on CYC's Junior Activities Committee which oversees junior sailing, and I was just elected to a 4-year term to the board of directors of the US Optimist Dinghy Association (USODA), the organizing body for Opti sailing in the US. 

This first article is an overview of Opti sailing in general. Other articles will cover regattas, travel, a parent's role, competition on a national level or beyond, future opportunities for sailors beyond Optis, and as many other topics as I can think of. If you have questions, or there's something you would like me to write about, drop me or Emmy an email.  We're writing this from the point of view of parents,  but our CYC coaching staff is great and can answer many of your questions as well. Contact Bobby or Augustin. We may try to get some of the kids to contribute as well.

Why start sailing an Optimist?

    •    Optimists are designed for kids. 

    •    Single-handed is best for learning. They didn't learn to ride a bike on a tandem.

    •    Over 150,000 kids in over 110 countries cannot be wrong. It is the largest class of identical (one-design) sailboats in the world!

    •    The Optimist is not only the biggest dinghy class in the world, it is the fastest growing.

    •    Former Optimist sailors were over 85% of medal winners at the last Olympics. Everyone from great Olympians to great America's Cup Sailors to the average woman or man cruising off Chicago started somewhere, and many if not most started in Optis.

    •    Builders on five continents provide ample opportunities for travel sailing. In fact, traveling is a key part of the experience for youth sailors. More on this later.

    •    Almost any yacht club in the country or around the world that offers youth sailing will have an Opti fleet.

    •    The only dinghy recognized by the ISAF* exclusively for under 16 sailors   (*the world organizing body for sailing)

How is Opti sailing organized?

The vast majority of Opti sailors start sailing at the sailing school at a yacht club, community sailing center or park district. CYC's Junior Sailing school is one of the most prestigious in the country. Most Opti Sailors start sailing in the Green Fleet and move on to the ‘Championship Fleet’, also referred to a “RWB Fleet". What's the difference?

Opti Green Fleet

Green fleet is a special fleet for beginners. Green fleeters can be any age up to 15.  A green fleet might have skippers who are as young as 6 and as old as 15, but sooner or later they'll move into their age-appropriate fleet. A ten year old green fleeter would move into white fleet, a thirteen year old green fleeter would move into red fleet, etc. The purpose of the green fleet is to encourage novice sailors. To discourage sailors from staying in green fleet, in order to win races and receive awards, USODA’s policy is to present “Participation Awards” to all skippers sailing in the green fleet. By not crowning a champion,  sailors and their parents, are encouraged to move to the appropriate age fleet as they become more confident of their abilities. Not all events are organized under USODA rules (more on this later) and thus don't always follow this, but the basic idea is that a green fleet is not about winning, but about learning, having fun, and getting ready for competition in the RWB fleet.

Often times Green Fleet racing takes place on a separate race course that is smaller and more protected. Green fleet usually enjoys a shorter day on the water and/or a lunch break mid way through racing. Coaching is usually permitted during racing for the back half of the fleet.  Sailors generally do Green Fleet for one year, or until they are in the top third of green fleet, before moving up to Championship Fleet. Switching back and forth between Green and Championship Fleet is discouraged.

Green Fleet sailors sail the same type of boats with the same equipment as RWB fleeters do.

Championship Fleet - AKA Red White and Blue Fleet or RWB or Race Team

When sailors are ready to move out of Green Fleet they move into the "Opti Championship Fleet." At CYC, we call this the Race Team, and in other places it's called the RWB fleet, but it all means the same. To make Optimist racing in the United States as fair as possible, the class puts each skipper into an age group, called a fleet. White Fleet is for skippers who are 10 and under. Blue Fleet is for skippers who are 11 or 12. Red Fleet is for skippers who are 13, 14, or 15. Skippers move up to blue fleet on their 11th birthday and red fleet on their 13th birthday. At most regattas, the red, blue, and white fleets all start at the same time and race on the same course, but are scored separately according to fleet. On their 16th birthday sailors "age out" of the Optimist and are no longer allowed to compete in the class. More often than not, sailors "size out" before then. It's rare that sailors continue sailing the Opti once they reach 120 lbs.

The USODA

The United States Optimist Dinghy Association oversees Opti racing here in the US. The USODA is in charge of enforcing class rules, overseeing national/regional regattas, and selecting the US National Team. The USODA adheres to the rules and guidelines set forth by the International Optimist Dinghy Association. Opti sailors are STRONGLY encouraged to join the USODA. Although USODA membership is not required for many events, it is required for championships, qualifiers, and team-trials. Membership is also a good way to support the class that supports you! On the USODA website you'll find lots of great resources!

Other resources

The best single book on Opti sailing was written by CYC's own Jay Kehoe and Gary Jobson, the Winners' Guide to Optimist Sailing. It's written for kids but works for parents as well. It's available from Crowley's Yacht Yard (and Jay will autography your copy on request) as well as the usual internet sources. A lot of the content for the articles I am writing will be liberally lifted from the Optimist Parent Manual published by USODA. It gives you some idea of what to expect as an 'Opti Mom' or 'Opti Dad'.  You can download part one and part two of the Optimist parent manual for free. The Optimist Owner's Manual, available here, provides useful information on boat selection, repair and rigging. 

What's next

I expect the next few articles in this series to focus on

  • How racing is organized and the basic rules of racing
  • How regattas work
  • What is a parent's role in opti sailing
  • Yacht Club's Roles in sailing
  • What travel regattas are like from a parent and kid's point of view
  • Parent's role vs Coaches role in sailing
  • Buying an Opti

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