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Here Come the Optis By William S. Schaill


ere come the Optimists, the little prams widely used for entry level kids’ sailing programs. During the week you’ll see them sailing around an instructor’s boat or practicing capsizing. On weekends you’ll find them at regattas. Wherever the Optis go, you’ll find action. And drama. Imagine yourself aboard the committee boat at an Opti regatta. There’s a light, but building wind, a slight swell and everywhere you look you see Optis. Today, 112. The Optis are divided into three fleets—Red, Blue and White—based on age. While they wait for the start, they scoot madly in all directions like little water bugs. There are collisions galore but little damage because Optis tend to bounce. A horn sounds. “Five minutes,” bellows a member of the race committee. “That’s the five-minute warning, Red fleet.” The racers are supposed to know the signals, but many committees help out a little, especially at the beginning of the season and with younger skippers. The kids with red streamers at their mastheads check their watches and start to jockey for position. “Number 4974,” bellows the committee member, “this is a start for the Red fleet. You’re in the White fleet, so stand clear of the starting line!” Number 4974 continues to glide along the starting line. He may not have heard. Or he may not recognize his own number. Or he may not be sure what exactly to do. “4974, this is a Red start. You are White. Please stand clear of the starting line!” 4974 continues on, oblivious. Then he reverses course and heads right back along the line again. “4974, Get off the starting line!” The message finally gets through, and 4974 turns out of the way. The countdown continues. By the last minute of the sequence most of the 70


Red fleet is “running the line.” The shouts of “Starboard!” and “Get out of there!” and “Oh, hi! I didn’t know you were going to be here,” are almost continuous. As are the collisions, near and otherwise. A gun fires. The entire Red fleet turns up into the wind, almost as one, and heads for the first mark. It’s time for the Blues, the next younger fleet. This start goes exceptionally well. Much to everybody’s surprise, the start of the White fleet, the youngest and biggest, is almost as orderly, although a number of boats cross the line about five minutes after the gun. The committee, exhausted, takes a few minutes to rummage through the cooler while an armada of safety boats watch over the racers. Half an hour later, the gun fires as the first boat of the Red fleet crosses the line. The winner swings by the committee boat to receive a spent shotgun shell, the informal prize for the winner of individual races. As the Blue fleet is finishing, one of the instructors notices a White fleet Opti which has wandered far off the course and is sailing very erratically. She realizes she’s the closest safety boat so she goes to investigate. She finds a girl of about 10—soaked in sweat and reduced to tears of frustration— screaming “I hate it! I hate it! I hate all of this!” as the Opti tries to sail itself. Oh, God, thinks the instructor as she pulls alongside and grabs the Opti’s gunnel. This kid wasn’t ready. “Not a great day, huh?” asks the instructor. The girl looks at her, not scream-

ing anymore but still muttering “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.” “Listen, I’ve got the Opti and everything’s okay so let go of the sheet—just let the sail flap—and sit down in the bottom of the boat. Then take five real deep breaths for me. Real deep.” The girl’s face is still swollen and teary, but she nods her agreement. “I’ve got some sodas here,” continues the instructor while still holding the Opti. “Coke, orange, ginger ale or root beer?” While the kid sips the soda, and becomes calmer, the instructor reports to the committee and asks that an instructor from the girl’s program come and take charge. By now most of the Red and Blue fleets, and about half of the White fleet, have finished. The wind has filled in, but the second set of starts goes even better than the first. At the third Red fleet start, it’s clear that many boats have withdrawn. Among the starters is a boy who insists, for some neverexplained reason, on wearing his PFD inside his windbreaker. A powerful gust hits the boy shortly before the start. As his Opti heels more and more, he hikes out farther and farther, fighting to hold the boat down. Then he’s totally out of the boat, lying on its high side. Is that a grin or a grimace on his face? If anybody ever deserved to win this skirmish with the elements, he does. But despite his efforts, the boat lurches again and continues on over. You can almost hear the sound of solid water pouring over the lee rail! But this kid’s not going to be stopped by a little water. He slithers back into the boat and starts bailing like a demon. Two minutes later, he sloshes across the starting line, his bailer flashing and water flying in all directions. The White fleet that starts that See OPTIS continued on page 68