Like the US breed of Moth, the world’s most popular dinghy was inspired by a father who was concerned that idle youth would become caught up in “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. In the 1940s, US media such as Life Magazine identified a strange new creature – the “teen-ager”. Changes in education and the economy and the freedom given by cars led commentators to speak of an entirely new species, perched between child and adult.
The newly-identified life form was the target of yet another of the recurring moral panics about Kids These Days. This time the fear was not about alcohol or acid, but about comic books. The new genres of crime and horror comics were ruining teenaged minds, said the experts; if you left it to Beaver he’d turn into a psychopath.
In 1947 Major Clifford McKay of Clearwater in Florida gave a talk to a local service club, the Optimists, about protecting teenagers from “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote in Southwinds magazine many years later, his father looked at the enormous success of the “soapbox derby” and the joy his son had sailing with the local Snipe fleet. Major McKay proposed that the Optimist club should sponsor a class of cheap little sailboats, each subsidised by a local merchant in the same way as the soapbox derby carts.
Building and racing “soapbox” gravity racers was a popular way to keep kids on the streets in the 1940s. Bridgeport Library pic.
McKay asked local boatbuilder Clark Mills to build a simple boat that would cost less than $50. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote, Mills created gave the boat a pram bow to keep it short enough to be carved from an 8ft sheet of ply, and a spritsail rig which was more forgiving for amateur sailmakers. He built the boat in a day and a half and had it ready for the Optimist club to adopt at its next meeting.
The Optimist is so pervasive these days that we struggle to stand back and assess the design with clarity. It’s interesting to see that when it was spreading worldwide at the height of the dinghy boom, it was recognised as the most stable and easily-handled of craft. The British Dinghy Year Book noted that it was “so stable that it is exceedingly difficult for a child to capsize” and “as near foolproof for a child’s first dinghy as it is possible to get”. The stability is obvious, but it’s also noticeable that the centreboard is set further aft than some other prams, which suffer badly from getting caught in irons.
I have to admit that when I first saw an Optimist while I was at a high-performance windsurfer world championship at Lake Garda in Italy, I was appalled. The speed of the boat seemed to be a cruel punishment given the skill with which they were being sailed. It was not until years later, when I saw them being used by beginners in Australia and my own kids started sailing, that I realised how well Mills’ design worked. While my kids and I had seemed to spend hours stuck in irons with the boom whacking our heads or capsized, the Opti kids were just having fun. The beginners found that an Opti was easy to sail, the club found that they were easy to afford, and the future champions found lots of competition in a simple boat. Our club (Dobroyd in Sydney) had Opti sailors who were at the front end of the national fleet, but none of them were the spoiled brats of the stereotype; they loved their little boats and the ease at which they could launch them and through them around for a high wind training session.
As Clifford McKay Junior wrote many years later, “the dreams and expectations for the Optimist Pram were always large, as large as the boat was small.” Even when only one boat had hit the water, his father was planning a national championship. Fifteen sponsors signed up to the programme in the first week and by November 16th, 1947, a fleet of eight “Optimist Prams” was racing in the warm, calm waters of Clearwater Bay. The fleet grew quickly. Even a disastrous clubhouse fire that destroyed most of the fleet’s boats became a promotional opportunity to launch the class further afield. Within seven years, there were a thousand Optimist Prams racing in Florida alone.
In 1958 Axel Damgaard, a Danish ship captain, saw the Optimist Pram while on a trip to Florida. With Mills’ permission he took the plans to Europe, modified the class rules to allow a more sophisticated sail and fittings, and the Optimist Dinghy was born. In the 1980s, the growing popularity of the International Optimist Dinghy finally killed off the original Optimist Pram class in its home waters.
So why did the Optimist catch on so well? It was not the first tiny training pram. Just before the war, The Rudder magazine had published the plans of the Sabot dinghy, which had been modified into the Naples Sabot and the El Toro in California and also adopted in Australia, where it was fitted with a bigger rig. Debate still rages about the merit of the Sabot (which is still popular in California and Australia) and Optimist, although it seems fair to say that the Mills design is slower but easier to handle. The Sabot and its variations was not the Optimist’s only competition – in 1951 it was claimed that over 20,000 examples of the 8ft Sea Shell pram were afloat, and there was at least some class activity. There were also many other junior dinghies, like the little Dutch Pirat (with a flat floor like that of an Optimist, but a conventional bow and a lug rig), the Turnabout and of course the International Cadet.
Perhaps the Optimist succeeded because the class did not splinter into small groups that concentrated only on local sailing, like the various classes derived from the Sabot had; perhaps its success can be seen as the ultimate demonstration that ease of handling and safety attract more sailors than speed.
But like the other classes that sparked off the dinghy boom, in the end the main ingredient of the Optimist was the vision, generosity, and (sorry to say) optimism of those who created the class. Like the other major classes of the time, the Optimist was created to cater to the society in which it lived, rather than as a narrow technical exercise in boat design. From the start, the class was driven by the optimism of volunteers like Major Mackay and his backers. As Clifford McKay Junior wrote, the creation of the Optimist class “was a labor of love. Dad conceived a plan so all kids could sail and promoted the Pram around the state….Clark Mills designed it, built many of the first hulls, and donated the copyright to the Clearwater Optimist Club. The Clearwater Optimist Club with Ernie Green’s tireless leadership spent countless hours with the program, supervising races, working with the boys and girls, and transporting them to regattas….No one received royalties or any remuneration. Dad’s plan worked. It provided inexpensive boats sponsored by merchants for every boy to spend hours and hours on the water, with no time to think about getting into trouble. The goal of these men was that boys and girls could have fun sailing, and grow up to be good citizens . . . and that alone was their reward.”
Most of the information in this post came from the article by Clifford A Mackay Jnr in Southwinds magazine, November 2012.
Sea Shell information from “The Sailboat Classes of North America” and MotorBoating magazine. In December 1951 the latter claimed that over 20,000 had been built, while Sailboat Classes speaks of 2,500 to 5,000. Since the Sea Shell was sold in kit form as a rowing and outboard dinghy with an optional rigging kit it seems likely that the smaller number referred to the number of kits sold with rigs. The Sea Shell had a class association and seems