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Big Fleet Opti Sailing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Published on September 26th, 2016

by Thomas Sitzmann, Sail1Design.com
On a brisk fall Sunday morning at Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, parents, coaches, and kids huddled under a massive tent for the skippers meeting on this, the second and final day of the 2016 Optimist Atlantic Coast Championship (September 24-25) in Oyster Bay, NY.

Back-dropped by a gorgeous clubhouse, the food spread in the tent was fantastic, bordering opulent, and the view from the rolling grass hill down to Oyster Bay harbor was, and is, beautiful. What a wonderful place and a great opportunity for Optimist sailors.

Right on time, the competitors meeting was called to order by the club’s PRO. A club member, the PRO was dressed in traditional yacht club officer attire, complete with formal nautical hat. He offered a quiet but dignified presence as he asked for attention, but the crowd didn’t seem to be tuned in. For a moment the scene reminded me of a lonely flight attendant offering passengers safety advice before a flight.

Patiently, but with purpose, the PRO offered a very nice allegory of times gone by, when sailors who weren’t paying attention would climb the rigging of naval sailing ships, play around, and sometimes whistle, a practice called “Skylarking.” Today we may call it “horseplay.”

I think the message was a dual one; a sailor whistling in the rigging while shirking duty was thought to bring storm winds, and since we didn’t have much wind at all on the day before, we were all asked to whistle for more wind on Sunday. Also, and more subtly, however, I think the PRO was reminding the crowd to pay attention, and to respect the event.

Then, and what I found most compelling, the PRO offered his sailing observations of the day before:

• Boats were hitting each other, very often, and without consequence. No protests filed.
• Several sailors, clearly over early just before a start, were overheard compelling their fellow competitors to remain over early, so that the race would be abandoned and a general recall called.

In my short time following the class, these observations are made too often, at regional and national-level events. In fact, the PRO of the 2016 New England Championship earlier this summer, offered very similar observations to parents after the first day of sailing. It is a problem, it’s not going away, and it needs to be addressed.

Not all is lost, by any means. Getting lots of kids involved in sailing is great. Having lots of enthusiasm and organization is also great. The Optimist Class Association has a pure mission and is filled with caring people. Smaller fleet Optimist regattas abound, green fleet events provide a perfect platform for beginner development, and team racing offers great competition. Also, to be fair, these kids are young, and of course mistakes are more likely, and those mistakes should be treated with patience.

However, are we at, or beyond, a tipping point, where rules and proper sportsmanship are sacrificed for numbers and show, and where fleet sizes have become unmanageably large? And, are we as race administrators and yacht club hosts ultimately to blame, and in fact inviting this problem ourselves? Yacht Clubs seem to take almost sadistic pride in out-registering each other for regional and national Optimist events.

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Sail Newport claimed with glee and honor that the 400+ competitors constituted the largest single one-design regatta ever held there (or anywhere, maybe). I have heard other exclamations of “ours was the biggest” at similar events in different locations. That’s great, but so what?

Maybe the sheer size of these events is actually the root of a problem that is teaching our young sailors poor lessons on the water. It’s great that kids want to register, but after a certain point, do we lose the ability to hold a valid, safe regatta that develops proper skills? What’s more, the larger the fleet, it seems, the less the racing, and the more the waiting.

With 20-30 coach boats swirling around, we’re putting 100+ kids on massive starting lines in 2-3 heats, where in many cases collisions are inevitable, fouling is rampant, and starting becomes an all-or-nothing, rules-be-damned gamble. Learning to “get off the line” at a large Optimist event can teach bad lessons, as the Seawahnaka PRO noted, ones that kids then take to the next level.

“Successful” sailors become role models for the younger ones, and the younger ones watch, and emulate, what they do. At that next level, where fleet sizes almost always go way down, not only do these poor habits not work, they have to be un-learned, and quickly. And, that can lead to disappointment, and can also lead to kids leaving sailing. And if they are not un-learned, those sailors almost invariably damage their reputation with their peers.

These may well be, by far, the largest fleet sizes many of these kids will ever encounter, at the ripe old age of 10-15. Are they really ready for it? Is this good development, or what’s best for them at this age?

The number of boats on the line in Optimist events compared to protests filed seems to be very uneven when compared to other one-design classes. We discourage protests while we encourage situations where they are going to happen, to the very group of sailors (kids) who are least experienced with rules knowledge.

Forget for a moment about sportsmanship; huge fleets of Optimists can simply be a safety concern. Two hundred, three-hundred or more singlehanded sailors on the water can be a logistical nightmare, but it can also be an accident waiting to happen.

At the end of his remarks this Sunday morning, the Seawanhaka PRO recalled advice from a friend, and reminded us that a poor reputation, especially in sailing, can be made in 5 minutes, but can then take a lifetime to change. There is so much that is right with the Optimist dinghy and the Optimist class. I hope that the class will address his concerns, and continue to provide incredible experiences for our kids.

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