The Fascinating History of the Optimist Dinghy

You may think of sailing as something that only adults can safely do—but did you know that there is a boat designed specifically for children to sail and race?

The Optimist Dinghy is a very small vessel that can be sailed by a single child. It was designed in 1947 by two men: Clark Mills and Major Clifford McKay. 

History of the Optimist

McKay had the initial idea for the Optimist after watching his 12 year old son struggle to build a Soap Box Derby car. McKay believed that rather than spending a lot of time and money building this small car that could only be used a handful of times, it would make more sense to find a way to build an affordable sailboat that could last significantly longer.

Just as Soap Box Derby cars are raced by a single child, the idea was to create a small boat that a single child could sail and race as much as they wanted. McKay’s goal was to foster a sense of independence and responsibility in any child who wanted to sail.

McKay enlisted the help of Mills, who was a designer of small boats. According to McKay’s son in the book The Origins of the Optimist Dinghy, McKay told Mills that the boat “should be built with two sheets of 4′ x 8′ plywood; and it should use a bed sheet for the sail.” In an effort to keep costs low, McKay insisted that each boat cost less than $50 to build, which was the same spending cap enforced by the Soap Box Derby.

The first iteration of the Optimist, named the Optimist Pram, was designed in less than a week. Initially, a group of boys ranging in age from 10 to 16 were selected to build and sail their own Optimist Prams. While the focus was initially male-centric, girls were included in the sailing program only six months after it was first established.

How Optimist Dinghies are Built

Optimist Dinghies are very small, as they are designed to be a single-handed vessel. The goal of the dinghy is to safely teach children how to sail, and then enable them to continue on to more advanced sailing and races.

The Optimist has a broad beam to increase stability, and has a single sail and centerboard. Ever since 1972, Optimists are also required to have a small plaque to confirm that they were built according to the sizing rules of the Optimist class. Because of the popularity of this type of vessel, knock-off Optimists are common—the plaque ensures that the ship you’re sailing is genuine. 

The Modern Optimist

Optimists are still incredibly popular to this day—in fact, they are the only vessel approved by the International Sailing Federation to be sailed exclusively by people younger than 16 years old. 

Optimists are most frequently used in racing. The first World Championship was held in England in 1962, and the North American Championship was established in 1976. Most recently, the Optimist World Championship has been won for three consecutive years—2017, 2018, and 2019—by 15 year old Italian sailor Marco Gradoni

Today, the main international governing body of Optimist vessels is the International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA). The IODA keeps track of the Optimist rules and regulations in every country to ensure that World Sailing requirements are upheld. It also aims to help reduce costs for young sailors. 

There is no doubt that learning to sail and take care of your own vessel at a young age can teach independence and responsibility, just as McKay initially intended when he conceptualized the first Optimist in 1947. If you know a child who might like to sail, the Optimist is an excellent place to start.