Optimist / Sailing News

The Optimist Dinghy – sailed by kids since 1947

OPTILaserPerformance is one of 31 builders around the globe that produce the IOD (International Optimist Dinghy). The LaserPerformance version is called the Optimist Vapor and is made for first-time-on-the-water sailors all the way to the very highest levels of international competition. An idependent review of the boat can be found at http://sail-laser.com  The major builders of the Optimist may individually build as many as 2,000 Optimist per year. Those numbers are staggering considering the humble beginnings of the kid’s trainer.

Rewind the clock back 66 years:

In 1947, the Clearwater Florida version of the “Soapbox Derby” called the “Orange Crate Derby” was sponsored by the Clearwater Optimist Club. Optimist member, Major Clifford McKay promoted the idea, and it finally made some headway with other members. He contacted local boat builder, Clark Mills about the idea and asked Mills to design a small sailboat that could be made for under $50.

Design Phase:
Mills started sketching and soon ran into a basic limitation. Plywood comes in eight foot sheets. So, he knew the boat had to be less than eight feet. Since it was hard to put a pointed bow in an eight foot boat, he designed it as a pram. Clark Mills noted that the size and shape of the world’s largest class was dictated by the dimensions of a sheet of plywood and by McKay’s $50 budget. Mills chose a sprit rig, to allow some shape in the poorly designed, often home-sewn sails of the era. Mills vividly recalls the very first Optimist hull. “It wasn’t pretty, because Major McKay wanted it fast, for the next Optimist Club meeting. I hammered it together in a day and a half with 10 penny galvanized nails, slapped on a coat of paint, and called her an ‘Optimist Pram.’ We rigged her up in the hotel lobby where the Optimist Club met.”

Birth of the IOD:
The Optimist was mainly a Florida phenomenon until 1958, when Axel Damgaard, the captain of a Danish tall ship, visited the United States and was inspired by the design. With Mills’ permission, he took an Optimist back to Europe, modified it, and renamed it the International Optimist Dinghy. The IOD had a battened sail and much simplified running rigging. The new design spread quickly, first through Europe then all around the world.

The Decline of the Pram:
The IOD collided with a large, established fleet of Optimist Prams in the U.S. As more and more IODs landed on the shores of the U.S., regattas were scheduled for both Prams and IODs. As late as 1985, separate regattas were held for both boats. Many sailors from the 1970s and 1980s owned two boats, to sail in both types of regattas. In the early 1980s, the scales were tipping in favor of the IOD. The number of Prams steadily declined and, by the mid 1980s, Pram racing opportunities had dried up.Today, Prams are occasionally found in learn-to-sail and community sailing programs but they are no longer an organized class and are virtually never raced.

Image shows the design changes from the 1947 Optimist to the modern IOD:
For more history and images visit
Wooden Optimist

The originator of the design:
Clark Mills recounts the story of the Optimist Pram in Clearwater, Florida: