Monday, March 14, 2016

Death of a One Design: the Clearwater Optimist Pram

One my first writing submissions was to Sailing World magazine in April, 1987, about the impending demise of the Clearwater Optimist Pram. Written after the last Clearwater Optimist Pram Association sanctioned regatta, held in Key Largo, it was my second submission to a sailing magazine. The mostly-a-rejection letter from editor Chris Hufstader was encouraging however, asking for a shorter, less detailed article and better, higher detailed black and white photos to be used in a later issue.  The article never happened [ed note: at least to the best of my knowledge.] 

A recent meeting with a youth sailing group in Port Charlotte led me to dig out my old files and the article about youth sailing was one of the files I found stuffed in an old envelope. Here is the original article, complete with the originally submitted photos. 


"They didn't invite prams!” my daughter wailed as she read the racing flyer for the 1985 Junior Orange Bowl Regatta. She had taken 2nd place in her age division the previous year in the Clearwater Optimist Pram class. This year, however, the event was only for International Optimist Dinghies.

The previous Jr. Orange Bowl regattas had separate competition for each class, the prams and the dinghies sailing for separate trophies. The regatta organizers, the Coral Reef Yacht Club, fearful of a small turnout in prams, elected to concentrate on the dinghy, called the IOD, [today universally called the "Opti"] and drop the pram altogether.

Two separate classes for the funny little 7 foot, spit-rigged, blunt-bow boat that has been familiar in Florida waters for many years? Yes, the Pram and the Dinghy are different boats, with separate USYRU governing bodies to sanction their respective events. Both classes are identified by the 0 with the over-struck I. The pram sail, however, is identified by it's affiliated club or group. LYC for Lauderdale Yacht Club, MYC for Miami Yacht Club, SSS for the Sarasota Sailing Squadron for example, followed by the assigned number. The IOD sails are all identified with a country's letters followed by the nationally assigned number.

International Optimist Dinghy, sailed by Josh Rosen and Clearwater Optimist Pram, sailed by Monica Mindling

The boats seem identical to the casual observer. In fact, many skippers can't tell a wooden IOD hull from a fiberglass pram hull when they are down-rigged and sitting side by side. Everyone is accustomed, however, to seeing the two boats built the other way around, as the IOD today is usually fiberglass and the traditional pram a varnished mahogany. Both are racing boats. Anyone who has ever attended one of the many youth regattas on the Florida circuit can attest to that fact. The pram, however, is facing a shorter schedule with fewer and fewer regattas. Why? What has happened and what is happening to the boat that started one of the most popular racing classes in the world? How did the odd predicament of two boats with the same insignia come about anyway?

The "Soapbox Derby" was directly responsible for the creation of the original pram. Optimist Club of Clearwater member Ernie Green had been promoting an idea of a "waterborne orange crate derby" as an alternative to the four wheeled, home-built creations that would more aptly suit Florida's climate and mostly flat terrain. Colonel Clifford McKay spoke to the club in August, 1947, suggesting a year-round activity to occupy the local boys and girls. With plenty of sailing water at it's disposal and a want for a project to combat juvenile delinquency (remember those days?), the Optimist Club of Clearwater found the answer. The timing was perfect. Local boat builder Clark Mills, who also designed the Windmill, another one-design, had the answer in a design that a father and son (or daughter) could build in the backyard and sail in a fleet of boats that were all built to the same specifications. The club quickly voted on adopting the pram as their youth project and the Clearwater Optimist pram was born. To build a fleet of boats was a task that would need help. Local merchants were asked to sponsor boats. For $75.00 a sponsor could have his trade name or store name painted on the side of the hull. No one was concerned about USYRU officials, who today would be gasping for air, when the fleet set sail with 29 boats boldly emblazoned with names of proud sponsors.
The last sanctioned COPCA regatta
A similar fleet soon was formed in nearby Dunedin. Col. McKay traveled Florida widely extolling the virtues of youth sailing. Ernie Green loaded prams in one of his moving vans and visited neighboring towns where youthful skippers put on sailing and racing demonstrations for interested parents and potential sponsors.

The Clearwater group was to suffer a major setback in April 1949 when a fire wiped out 20 of the 29 boats in it's fleet. An appeal was made over local radio station WTAN by Howard Hartley. The marvelous response from the people of Clearwater not only replaced the original 20 lost in the fire, but added 22 more! The launching ceremony was held July 2nd, 1949, and a new chapter in sailing was opened. The popularity of the pram spread quickly to Florida's east coast. The Miami Yacht Club started pram classes in 1951 that have been held twice a year, for 5 months each, ever since. The Lauderdale Yacht Club, Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Coral Reef Yacht Club, and the Biscayne Bay Club became involved and before long, regattas were sprouting up on both coasts. In Ft Myers, the Royal Palm Sailing Club, and further north, the St. Petersburg Yacht club. An interesting observation is that four of the mentioned clubs are members of SORC, the Southern Ocean Racing Conference.

The Clearwater Optimist Club was the sanctioning body for the class. Rule changes were voted on and generally accepted as proposed by club members. The popularity of the new, inexpensive boat was spread by several magazine articles extolling the virtues of the pram and the benefits of youth sailing. The Clearwater Optimist Prams even caught the eye of the City of Miami and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. The second Pram National Championship was held in the Miami Marine Stadium in 1970. Unlimited hydros do very well there because the wind-protected facility was designed for power boat racing, but it was a disaster for the prams. The preliminaries for the Nationals were sailed in Biscayne Bay, but the finals were sailed in the Marine Stadium. The young sailors simply sat in the protected waters and floated aimlessly in front of the grandstands. It was an one hundred boat float. First time sailing spectators were less than impressed. The pram, however, was firmly entrenched with the sailing groups that used them.

Back in 1954 Axel Damgaard, a Danish architect, introduced the pram to the Vordingborg Sailing Club of Denmark. Several were built according to the standard pram plans and it wasn't long until the boxy, hard chined little dinghy spread across sailing groups throughout Denmark. Olympic champion Paul Elvstrom became involved in 1957 and in 1959 the first regatta between Denmark and Norway took place. Sweden joined them in 1960 and a governing body was formed in Denmark to control the increasingly popular class. Regattas spread to Germany and England. An American delegation even competed in Denmark in 1964 and it was becoming more and more obvious an international body would be required to govern the burgeoning class. Viggo Jacobsen of Denmark became the first chairman of the International Optimist Dinghy Organization in 1965. The first International regatta held in the U.S. under IODA sanctioning was held in Miami in 1966.

However, several major changes were made to the original Clark Mills design in the migration to the International rules. First, the sail was slightly larger and the shape was altered to allow the use of two battens. There are no battens in the original Clearwater pram sail. The main sheet was no longer controlled from the end of the boom but from a center boom ratchet attachment, much as a Laser style versus the Force Five style of control. The dagger board was redesigned and the rudder was completely new. Instead of the pram's round inverted P shape, the IOD rudder now was a squarish, angled shape with the same width, top to bottom. The most important changes were made to the control the skipper had over running adjustments while under sail. The pram skipper could adjust sprit tension, down haul, vang, outhaul and even a jibe tensioner. The IOD skippers worked only the sheet. The changes to the hull were minimal, but enough that a properly built pram would fail to measure in against the stricter requirements of the IOD.

The American clubs were impressed with the speed the dinghies had over the prams and the fact the skippers could concentrate on racing tactics. Also, of course, it was a truly international class. As the lOD caught on with Florida skippers, many of the clubs began adding two classes to the youth regattas. Having separate starts over the same marked course for the prams and the 10D's. The Clearwater Optimist Club elected not to adopt the IOD rules and decided not to modify the pram to the new format as one factor was obvious; cost. The new IOD's with certificate were far more expensive than a pram, and they tended to be far harder to certify if home built. Trying to refit all of the current prams would not only be next to impossible, it might have killed the class altogether. The pram group suffered its second major setback as the IOD became more and more popular because of its international organization. By the middle of 1971, the pram group was for all practical purposes dormant. But enter Susan Bankston, of Largo, Florida. Susan's daughter, Debbie, became interested in pram sailing. It wasn't long until Sue became the spark-plug for the prams revival. Due to Sue's efforts, a real organizing body was founded specifically to govern the Clearwater Optimist Pram.

The Clearwater Optimist Pram Class Association, or COPCA, applied for USYRU membership. It scheduled four sanctioned events a year in addition to the multitude of individual club regattas. Each club had a delegate member in addition to the club officers. COPCA elected to tighten the rules, requiring rigid control of hull numbers and the Measurer's design rules. Strict rules were put in place to insure standardization by the boat builders. The pram class was designed to develop progressive sailors, not progressive constructors. Several well documented and publicized blatant admissions of cheating by some of the young skippers did the pram group no good. COPCA faced the problems by stiffening the signature over a COPCA stamp on strictly measured sails. The rules were still not as rigid as the IOD, but they solved the problems. At the 1978 Championships in Dunedin, Florida, Chief Measurer Fred Dinger noted that of 47 boats measured for specification tolerances, 23 boats, or 48% of the fleet, were rejectable to IOD tolerances. Judges and race committee members were enforcing the "no sculling, no rocking no ooching" rules with new enthusiasm and the protest committees became as proficient as anyone design class sailed anywhere. Most of the skippers were as knowledgeable of the rule book as the adult club members. As one protest committee member once told me after a particularly long drawn out protest, "Do you know what its like to be in a room full of twelve year old Ted Turners?"

The four events were the Florida State Championships, the Pram Nationals, The Pram Internationals, and the Clark Mills regatta. Several clubs became annual sponsors for these events and began a lasting association with the venerable pram. By the Early 80's, 60 boat pram fleets were again common. The Annual Miami Yacht Club December regatta in 1981 registered 103 boats, 60 in prams and 35 in IOD's, with the remainder in Laser M-rigs. The 1986 Nationals, sailed at Key Biscayne Yacht Club, had over fifty prams. That year was the current zenith as pram registration has gradually slipped backwards against the IOD.

Last year's (1987) Florida State championship had only 35 entrants. Today, the clubs that like to promote youth sailing are still using the wooden pram as a training boat but finding the competition is finer tuned and more visible in the IOD class. As one past US National champion in prams once remarked, "No one is interested in buying my pram, a championship boat, just because it is a pram."

While the COPCA pram regatta schedule seems to be full, missing a regatta isn't a traumatic event. Missing an IOD event is. Many parents find it hard to devote the time and money necessary to run the full IOD schedule, particularly if there is more than one skipper in the family. The pram group, while just as fervent in their support of their skippers, tend to make the outings a tailgate party rather than an event of Olympic importance. However, most of the IOD skippers still find prams to race when it comes time for the pram states and nationals. Almost all of the top IOD skippers have shelves filled with pram trophies. The age groups for the two classes are the same, eight through the year of the 15th birthday. COPCA has traditionally sponsored the fifteen to eighteen year olds in the Laser M rig, now switched officially to the Laser Radial, at the same regattas. Various groups pressure COPCA at times to change boats, depending on who sells what and when, and whether a particular boat favors a particular club, or even a particular skipper. 

Consistency has been COPCA's strong point, however, and maintaining the pram as the sanctioned design has been its strength as well as its weakness. In the last several years, traditional sites, dates and clubs have slipped away from COPCA. The Pram Nationals are no longer held at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club on Easter weekend. KBYC now hosts an IOD event that weekend instead. Coconut Grove Sailing Club has dropped the Clearwater prams altogether, even from their annual October youth regatta. New clubs are cautiously picking up the open dates. The newly revived youth group at the Royal Palm Sailing Club held the 1986 State Championships, and the Upper Keys Sailing Club of Key Largo, Fl, hosted the 1987 Nationals. At the Key Largo National event there were 22 prams and 7 Laser radials, a far cry from past Nationals. At the Key Biscayne regatta the week before there were 35 IOD's. The cost of traveling and staying on Florida's Gold Coast is not cheap, especially at the height of the season, and many parents are finding themselves making a choice between the pram and the IOD.

This isn't the first ebb the pram youth program has suffered. It has rebounded from inactivity as each successive group finds this inexpensive, safe and reliable little boat. It has withstood attacks from new designs, schedule changes, financial binds and rules changes. It will be around a long time to come. It would be interesting to survey the adult sailing population to see how many learned to sail in Clark Mill's little square boat
George Mindling
Chief Measurer, Clearwater Optimist Pram Class Association 1986-1987
Miami, FL

1 comment:

laserandy said...


That 1987 Nationals was my first Pram regatta. I won the Commodore's fleet and the trophy still sits in my house.

Email me if you have a chance.

Andrew Cole