Optimist class: soapbox boats sailing enthusiasts

Willow Bank Yacht Club and Cazenovia Lake will be host the Central New York Sailing Association Annual Regatta the weekend of July 9 and 10. The event will bring participants from 30 sailing clubs across the state to partake in races.

In the preceding weeks, a series of articles about the various fleets that will be seen competing will be featured.

The story of the Optimist class, the smallest to be featured in the Regatta, starts on land, with a group of young kids racing around the streets of Clearwater, Florida, in soapbox cars (homemade go-carts). The local civic group, Optimists International, asked boat designer Clark Mills to build a floating version of the soapbox cars to get the kids off the street and onto the water.

Mills took them quite literally, and came up with a boxy 7-foot 7-inch pram dinghy which could be knocked together from two 8-foot sheets of plywood. Thus the Optimist was born. The class was launched in 1948 and spread to Europe a few years later, courtesy of a Danish skipper, Axel Damsgaard, who happened to be visiting Clearwater.

Over half a century later, some 150,000 have been built in 95 countries around the world.

Designed to be sailed by younger sailors ages 8 to 15, the Optimist was one of the first boats which children could sail completely independently - as opposed to merely acting as crew, or mobile "ballast." As a result, the watercraft has been responsible for introducing thousands, if not millions of people to sailing.

According to the American Optimist Association, more than half the dinghy skippers in the last Olympics started their careers sailing Optimists.

Jean Doering is volunteer publicist for Cazenovia's Willow Bank Yacht Club.

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