Monday, October 31, 2011

The Clark Mills Optimist - Short History

The Optimist Inception:
In 1947, the Clearwater Florida version of the “Soapbox Derby” called the "Orange Crate Derby" was sponsored by the Clearwater Optimist Club. There had been talk of creating a waterborne version of the Soapbox Derby racer. An Optimist Club member named Major Clifford McKay promoted the idea, and it finally made some headway with other members. He was in contact with boat builder Clark Mills about the idea and proposed a small sailboat that could be made for under $50.

Don Krippendorf, in 1952,
sails Sharkey
From the USODA Manual:
Mills started sketching and soon ran into a basic limitation. "Plywood was the problem. It comes in eight foot sheets. I could special order it ten feet long, but that cost a fortune, so I knew the boat had to be less than eight feet. Since it was hard to put a pointed bow in an eight foot boat, I made it a pram." So the size and shape of the world's largest class was dictated by the dimensions of a sheet of plywood and by McKay's $50 budget. Mills chose a sprit rig, to allow some shape in the poorly designed, often homesewn sails of the era. Mills vividly recalls the very first Optimist hull. "It wasn't pretty, because Major McKay wanted it fast, for the next Optimist Club meeting. I hammered it together in a day and a half with 10 penny galvanized nails, slapped on a coat of paint, and called her an 'Optimist Pram.' We rigged her up in the hotel lobby where the Optimist Club met."
Clark Mills in 2000

The Decline of the Pram:
The Optimist was mainly a Florida phenomenon until 1958, when Axel Damgaard, the captain of a Danish tall ship, visited the United States and was inspired by the design. With Mills' permission, he took an Optimist back to Europe, modified it, and renamed it the International Optimist Dinghy. The IOD had a battened sail and much simplified running rigging. The new design spread quickly, first through Europe then all around the world.

The IOD collided with a large, established fleet of Optimist Prams in the U.S. As more and more IODs landed on the shores of the U.S., regattas were scheduled for both Prams and IODs. As late as 1985, separate regattas were held for both boats. Many sailors from the 1970s and 1980s owned two boats, to sail in both types of regattas. In the early 1980s, the scales were tipping in favor of the IOD. The number of Prams steadily declined and, by the mid 1980s, Pram racing opportunities had dried up.Today, Prams are occasionally found in learn-to-sail and community sailing programs but they are no longer an organized class and are virtually never raced.
1948 Optimist Pram /  International Optimist Dinghy