Optimist Dinghy Speed Guide

  • Last Updated: November 3, 2022
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North Sails class leaders Zeke Horowitz and Juan Carlos Romero answer your International Optimist Dinghy speed and boathandling questions.

Who sails an Optimist Dinghy?

The pram-style Optimist is a great starter boat for learning to sail and later learning to race, and youth sailors can literally take their Optimist Dinghy to whatever level they want. Any motivated young Optimist sailor will develop both confidence and dinghy sailing skills, from boathandling techniques to big-fleet strategy and tactics; some will go on to race at the highest levels. The sailors who do best in the class are those who spend the most time sailing their boats, usually with a good coach, strong sailing program, and ample resources. The International Optimist Dinghy Association is the biggest one-design class in the world.

Optimist speed guide
Top young Optimist sailors line up on the starting line at a clinic held on Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

Who is the ideal Optimist sailor physically?

Sailors should be fit and agile, able to move gracefully and hike out for extended periods. Those who do best are usually 12 to 14 years old and weigh up to 110 pounds. Regionally, top sailors can still compete at 115 or even 120 pounds. Girls sail equally with boys, and it’s common to see three or four girls in the top 10 at any regatta.

What are three top Optimist speed tips?

  1. Find a good coach and team.
  2. Focus hard while you’re on the water.
  3. Do well in school so you can miss days while off sailing.

What should buyers know when choosing an Optimist Dinghy?

Any sailor’s first boat is typically a used boat, to allow for collisions due to inexperience with dock landings and being in close quarters with other boats. Competitive sailors will normally move up to new boats as they reach higher levels.

Older boats can remain competitive, but heavy travel and racing schedules put a fair amount of wear and tear on the boats. As a result, used boats may need gelcoat dings and scratches repaired. A fully outfitted new boat may run $5,500, while a good used boat costs 30 to 40 percent less.

Keep in mind that you can purchase different sizes of boom section with different stiffness, although most sailors stick with a mid-range version. As a sailor grows, a stiffer boom may be preferred. If your mast is extremely bendy, it may also help to replace it with a stiffer one as experience and size merit.

How do you move an Optimist Dinghy around?

An Optimist weighs only 35 kilograms (77 pounds), which makes it easy to put on top of a car. There are also many trailering options; some teams own trailers that carry up to 18 boats, plus a coach boat!

How long does it take to rig an Optimist Dinghy?

Rigging time depends on how focused the sailor is on the task, but it’s not hard to have a boat ready in 40 minutes. What’s most time-consuming is attaching the sail to the spars, which in the Optimist requires tying knots in a way that’s carefully prescribed by the rules (see the North Sails Optimist Tuning Guide). The goal is to match the luff curve with how much the mast will bend in a given condition, which varies depending on a sailor’s weight.

How many sails are allowed?

Top sailors will take two sails to a regatta, but just one sail is allowed for the duration of the event; the other is a backup in case of a breakdown. There is some nuance to selecting Optimist sails, but North presents a good choice of radial or crosscut sails of different size depending on the sailor’s weight. Read more about what North offers, from a crossover sail for beginners, to two crosscut and four radial-cut racing sails.

International Optimist Dinghy Tuning

What are the keys to rig set-up?

Tuning the rig on a boat with an unstayed mast is different than on other boats. It starts before you attach the sail on the mast; first measure your mast rake—from the top of the mast to the edge of the coaming on the transom—and then move the adjustable mast step until you get the right rake measurement for your weight. This is your “base” setting. The process is detailed in the North Tuning Guide. The Tuning Guide also covers the critical process of tying the sail to the boom, mast, and sprit, and connecting the sprit correctly to the mast.

Opti sail set up
Properly eased outhaul tension shows wrinkles at each sail tie giving ample power to the lower part of the sail.

What control systems are unique to the Optimist?

Having a sprit pole, and a line to change the tension on it, is not the norm on most one-design racing boats. Sprit tension controls leech tension, but if you have too much, a wrinkle will appear between the tack and the peak of the sail. A sail that’s set right for upwind sailing often develops the same wrinkle when you turn downwind, so you’ll often need to ease the sprit tension at that point to get rid of the wrinkle.

Preventers are another unusual concept on the Optimist. They are needed because of the way the sail, boom, and sprit are connected with the mast. The top preventer keeps the sail from popping off the top of the mast, and in heavy air, it can be tightened to force the sail to set lower on the mast. The lower preventer, called the boom preventer, maintains boom position on the mast and helps you set the right luff tension for the conditions. There are strict rules about how high or low the sail can be on the mast—a mark on the sail must fall between two marks on the mast to be legal.These controls are described in the Tuning Guide as well. We recommend the Guide to every new sailor and Opti parent.

Optimist sprit tension
A modest wrinkle from the top of the mast extending toward the end of the boom indicates correct sprit tension.

Optimist Dinghy Upwind Sailing

How do you trim the sail upwind in light air?

Here’s a checklist to run through if you’re sailing upwind in light enough air to be sitting in the boat. Set your mast rake a bit aft of your base setting, since your mast is probably not going to bend under this wind condition (see Tuning Guide). Ease the outhaul until any horizontal crease in the foot disappears and some vertical creases show up above each sail tie; the creases should not pass above the first seam in the sail. Luff tension should be eased enough that as you sail into a puff, horizontal wrinkles appear at the sail ties along the mast. To be sure you’re not closing the leech too much, ease the sprit pole just to the point that a wrinkle appears from the top of the mast to the clew. Focus on where to trim the boom relative to the corner of the transom—a good general rule is no farther inboard than the corner, or leave it just outside.

Opti sailing upwind
Shown sailing in a clinic (without sail numbers), these Optimist Dinghies show off the design’s distinct profile with sprit rig and squared off bow and stern.

When sailing in medium winds, how should the sail be trimmed upwind?

Move the mast rake back to your base setting when you move to the rail, and in choppy conditions, pull the outhaul tight enough so the vertical creases at the boom sail ties extend only up to the first seam. Smooth out the wrinkles in the luff by removing one twist in your boom preventer, so you achieve a round, deep nice shape for the entry. You want moderate luff tension, but you don’t want it tight. Trim the sprit so the sail is very smooth, and trim the mainsheet so the boom is right over the corner or just inside the corner of the transom.

In hiking mode or heavy air upwind, how do you trim the sail?

When hiking, rake the mast a bit forward from your base setting to compensate for how the mast will bend. Have your outhaul tight enough that a crease shows in the foot, until you fill the sail with wind. Take another twist off the boom preventer to get good tension on the luff. Sprit pole tension should still be tight and the sail, smooth. When trimming, ease the boom to the corner of the boat and sometimes just outside the corner.

When the Optimist is sailing upwind, overpowered, how should the sail be trimmed?

When you’re fully hiking and still overpowered, you want to have the mast raked aft (2 cm from base setting, as per the Tuning Guide). You should also have more tension on the outhaul—on shore you may have a crease in the sail, but when the sail fills it should be deeper than that from the foot to the first seam. The key depowering technique is to loosen the sprit tension, take another twist off the preventer, and push the boom down hard to pull on the vang—then, pull only some of the sprit tension back on, which leaves the sail with a wrinkle from the top of the mast to the clew. This indicates that the top of the sail is flat and the leech is open, which will help you keep the boat upright. Check that when you flick the luff of the sail with your fingers, it is super tight. Tighten the bridle safety line to the boom so it is also super tight; now your mainsheet tension will start bending the boom a bit, further flattening the bottom part of your sail. The other way to depower is to pull the daggerboard up a little, but use this as a last resort.

Optimist close up
Demonstrating good upwind sail trim, this Optimist sailor is flying her leech telltales and has the boom trimmed at or near the transom corner.

What are the key gear changes in an Optimist when sailing upwind?

The Optimist sailor’s focus when sailing upwind is primarily on body movement, mainsheet trim, and steering the boat. None of the sail controls are adjusted. When there are choppy conditions or a big wave, bear off and ease the sail to stay powered up. In a flat spot, trim harder to improve your pointing. Because the Optimist is a hard-chine boat, keeping the boat flat is critical—the boat makes leeway and the rudder works like a brake when you allow heel.

What else is important upwind?

One important technique to learn is “sailing and bailing.” Two buckets are attached to the boat with bungee cords, and the technique is to scoot aft and squeeze the bailer bucket between your front leg and the bulkhead, rocking the boat to windward to fill the bailer by feathering the boat up and hiking at the right time. Move your mainsheet and tiller extension to the same hand and use your free hand to toss the water in the bailer overboard. Don’t forget that a full bailer of water weighs 8 pounds, which is quite a bit of weight working against you when it’s sloshing around the floor of your boat.

Optimist Dinghy Downwind Sailing

Where do you sit when sailing the Optimist downwind?

Heading downwind, you always sit on the rail, heeling a little to windward to lift the leeward chine out of the water and to tilt the sail a little higher. In light air and until you’re surfing, stay forward, with your shins against the bulkhead. Effectively, you’re staying in the middle of the boat. In surf and big waves, move aft quite a bit to avoid submarining the bow under a wave and then move forward again. The amount of fore-and-aft body movement is greater in an Optimist than in some other singlehanders because the bow is blunt, so in waves you need to work hard to keep it above water.

How do you trim downwind?

As a general rule when heading straight downwind, let the sail out until it’s about 90 degrees from the boat’s centerline. In very light air, it’s good to sail by the lee, letting the main out past 90 degrees, because it helps the boom to stay out as you heel to windward. Otherwise, the most important adjustment is your sprit tension. In light to medium winds, ease the sprit slightly when you round the weather mark so that the sail looks smooth. You’ll also raise your daggerboard fully out of the water, unless you need to hike or you have surfing conditions; then we recommend having a third of the board in the water to maintain good steering control.

Opti sailing downwind
This sailor’s downwind trim shows slight windward heel, mainsheet eased to 90 degrees, and daggerboard fully raised.

How much pumping of the main is fast downwind?

Pumping the main is fast any time there’s good wind and waves. Top sailors grab the sheet at the ratchet block and pump it by extending their hand up over their heads. You are allowed one pump per wave, and at major regattas there are on-water judges keeping count.

How do you shift gears when sailing an Optimist downwind?

Think about how far in or out you have the boom, and think about how much you should be moving fore and aft. In max light air, the daggerboard is up, the boom is out past 90 degrees, and you’re focused on keeping the boat as quiet and at as steady an angle of heel as possible. In 20 knots, it’s completely different—the board is only two-thirds of the way up, you are pumping on every wave, and you are moving all over the place.

Optimist Dinghy Boathandling

What are the keys to starting well in an Optimist?

It’s important to get into the front row and hold your position on the line in advance of the start. It’s also key not to get flagged for sculling with your rudder. This takes practice, always keeping the boat moving but at the slowest speed possible. You want just enough flow across the leech of your main to hold your spot. The boats tack quickly, so we recommend that you learn to do a quick double-tack; sometimes when there’s space to windward, you can tack twice and gain valuable room on your lee side for acceleration.

What are the keys to tacking an Optimist well?

In light air, the key is rolling at the right time. Be patient, and wait until the boat is head to wind before you start the roll. Start from sitting inside the boat. As the boat passes head to wind, move to the old windward side to initiate the roll. Then hop across to the new windward side, trying to land inside the boat so as not to over flatten.

Optimist tack
Steering from behind your back, move what was your forward, mainsheet hand aft to hold the tiller extension as well, then bring your other hand around and take the mainsheet.

In all conditions, over-trim the mainsheet when you start your tack until head to wind so you maintain flow on your sail, then ease it through rest of the process and finally trim the sheet afterwards, usually after the boat has been flattened.

In medium air, you make the same move, but it happens faster and you’re moving from rail to rail. The main trim is the same. When it’s windy, you hardly roll the boat and simply move quickly across, grabbing the rail with one hand to get there. Ease the main during the tack once you pass head to wind and then trim when fully hiked.

What are the worst mistakes in tacking an Optimist?

Over-rolling the boat and filling it with water is easily the worst mistake. In light air, be sure not to use too much rudder. That’s slow, and so is not getting enough roll. We have one word to describe finding the right amount of roll for each condition—practice!

What are the keys to jibing an Optimist well?

In light air, keep it smooth. Have the boat rocked to weather already, then just lean in and grab the parts of the mainsheet, lean out, and pull the sail over. Stand up and walk across the boat to avoid a big splash, then transition to heel the boat again to windward. In medium winds, your roll jibe is the same but involves a quick hop across the boat (as you would in a tack).

In heavy air, the jibe is different. Your main goal is “Don’t flip over.” Try to pull the boom across while surfing a big wave because your sail will be less loaded and you’ll be more in control; however, you’ll often find the boom still has enough load on it to require a strong pull. A common mistake is to get stuck—you’ve turned the boat part way, but the main is too loaded to come across. When you are ready to jibe, jibe with confidence by making a decisive turn at the same time that you pull the main over. As the sail comes over, cross the boat quickly to the rail and steer back to leeward on the new jibe. Make sure the main doesn’t get eased beyond 90 degrees as you jibe, or you’ll surely flip.

Do you have any other suggestions for jibing in heavy air?

The chicken jibe (also known as “tacking”) is popular when it’s blowing. If you’re a less-experienced heavy-air sailor and not sailing in the top 20, this is a great way to be sure you’ll stay in the race.

Can you recover on your own from capsizing an Optimist?

An Optimist sailor can “self-rescue” because the boat has three air bags. Make sure they are fully inflated so less water gets in the boat. If you flip, right the boat from the windward side and spend at least one minute standing in the boat and bailing hard with both bailers, which are attached to the boat with bungee cords. At that point you can start sailing and bail out the rest as you go.

What boathandling drills do you recommend?

Practice making 720-degree turns. Doing circles not only is good practice for when you may have to clear yourself from a foul in a race, but also teaches you to sail the boat well, using your body weight to trim and turn the boat. The Optimist has a huge rudder, which also makes 720s fast, but good movement and trim is the key.

Optimist dinghy leeward mark
The board is down and the main is powered up for the turn at the leeward mark. A bit of leeward heel would reduce the amount of rudder required.

What are the most common Optimist boathandling mistakes?

Let’s start with not capsizing. It takes practice to learn where the edge is in heavy air.
Other mistakes we see include using too much rudder instead of doing smooth roll tacks and roll jibes. This applies to sailing in a straight line, too. For example, avoid using too much rudder downwind. If you start heeling to weather too much, the boat wants to head down. Instead of pushing the tiller to compensate, shift your body weight to leeward and trim the main.

What’s the coolest thing about the International Optimist Dinghy class?

The Opti class is by far the largest and most dynamic one-design class, in part because it has the most variables on the planet. Parents, coaches, and thousand of young sailors, growing up through a super-sensitive time of their lives. The basic strategies and tactics the class requires are a great outlet and an excellent way to learn the values of discipline and conservative decision-making. Whether you travel and learn about getting through airports and how to make friends in other countries, or you simply learn to take care of your own boat and sail on your own, Optimist sailing is a chance for you to learn a whole lot about yourself in a supportive, fun, rewarding environment.

The Optimist is sailed all over the world and has a half dozen continental championships. After sailors age out, some go on to contend for Laser Radial and 4.7 world titles, and many become leading competitors in doublehanded classes such as the 420 and 29er. A final testament to the class: the great majority of skippers at the 2016 Olympics got their start in the Optimist class.

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