The Origin of the Optimist Pram

Published on August 30th, 2017

Clark Mills will be among the eight selected people in 2017 to join the 57 previously-recognized individuals who have been enshrined in the U.S. National Sailing Hall of Fame since the first class in 2011. As Mills is best known as the designer of the wildly popular Optimist dinghy, here is the story by Clifford McKay Jr. of how that boat came to be.

In 1972, I watched the opening ceremony for the Munich Summer Olympics in the harbor at Kiel, Germany, the Yachting venue. As the historic sailing ships from the Age of Sail, paraded stately past, 400 diminutive sails swarmed around them . . . Optis. The contrast was striking . . . the blend of large and small, of old and new, of work and play. The full panorama and history of sail stretched across the harbor, a fitting backdrop for Olympic competition.

Excitedly I called my dad to turn on his TV and share the moment. He conceived the idea for the Optimist Pram, and I sailed the first pram on the day it was launched in 1947. We shared many wonderful memories. As we watched the Optis and realized how far Dad’s dream had spread, the dream that boys and girls might sail and race, I determined to gather the writings and pictures of those early days and to tell the story of the origin of this little boat.

In the summer of 2012, I anchored my research by reading the microfilm copies of The Clearwater Sun, Clearwater’s local newspaper. I read the files from March 1947 when the Optimist Club of Clearwater was organized, through August of 1949. Based on the historical data and my first hand experiences, I have written the record of the beginning of Optimist Pram and of the two men who were responsible.

Clark Mills and Major Clifford A McKay developed a boat and a plan to make it affordable so every boy could sail. Thousands of parents and club members all over the world have stepped up to supervise the races, teach safety, transport the young sailors, and provide support. Millions of boys and girls have learned the skills and joys of sailing, as this little boat from the genius of Clark Mills has spread around the world. It all began August 14th, 1947, in Clearwater, Florida, USA.

To read Clifford’s complete account… click here.

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