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America's Cup champion set to launch O-Pro internationally

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 27 Sep 2018 01:38 PDT 27 September 2018
The additional power in the O-Pro rig is apparent in this shot © O-Pro

Just over a year ago, 12-year-old Emma Mason faced the Annual Conference of World Sailing and explained why she felt the sailing world needed the O-Pro.

12 months on and the O-Pro, a retrofit kit for the Optimist dinghy is about to go international.

O-Pro designer, Mattie Mason, a four times America's Cup winner and well-known figure in professional sailing circuits says two European based Optimist manufacturers are on board, along with another key corporate backer - keen to expand the sport.

The O-Pro concept began in response to a question from Mason's son, William, while coming back from a day at the sailing club: "Why don't Optimists have a pointy bow, Dad?"

"That was a very good question," Mason recalled.

Between regattas, Mason got home flipped their Optimist upside down, laid some fairing battens around the hull and started designing and building the prototype in full scale.

"The initial bow was made of foam, but that wasn't successful, so I made a female mould - and it worked well from the first sail."

Then the whole project started to snowball after Mattie Mason took some photos to Bermuda and showed them around sailing friends at the J class regatta held in conjunction with the America's Cup.

From there the O-Pro quickly found its way into the upper echelons of World Sailing and an invitation soon followed from the President, Kim Andersen to address the upcoming Annual Conference in Mexico last October.

Mason was very concerned that he couldn't handle the speech on his own, and Emma took over. She put together the Powerpoint presentation and addressed the delegates, with Dad putting in only a cameo performance!

Now the world's most popular single hander is about to enjoy a second life, with the potential for older boats to be rejuvenated with the addition of a bow extension and a new rig.

That will expand the uses of the O-Pro into being a two-hander, a more challenging single hander, a more forgiving training boat, and a more weight tolerant boat.

Harking back to his America's Cup days, Mason describes the O-Pro effect "the bow is out of the water, but it works in many ways and looks a bit like the old Version 5 Cup boats when it just starts working in a seaway."

Watching Mason's son and daughter put the O-Pro through its paces a couple of months after the World Sailing meeting, it was hard to believe that it was being sailed by a couple of sailors with less than two months sailing in their logbooks.

It was a typical, nasty Auckland day, with a strong and squally offshore breeze blowing. The sort of day when you would never send junior sailors on the water - unless you wanted to cull the group - and get a high percentage to have a few real frights and walk away from the sport.

Instead, the O-Pro took everything the fierce southwesterly could throw at the boat, without a hint of a nosedive, as the volume in the bow section just drove in and then lifted up and away as the O-Pro planned easily in the gusty 25kts breeze.

While one does have to factor in the fact that Emma and William are probably a chip off the old block, it was a very impressive session - and even more so when the diminutive William weighting 45kgs sailed alone. For a lad with a couple of months sailing experience, the O-Pro was a handful but was also very forgiving.

There was none of the rapid acceleration bow-down charge at the sea that happens in a regular Optimist when a novice sailor gets caught a little too far forward in a sudden gust. Instead, the O-Pro just drove in, picked up and lifted and sailed faster.

A close look at the bow in action shows that Mason's crude lofting has worked well to produce a nice waterline which intersects very nicely with the water, and the O-Pro's performance should really come as no surprise.

With the session over it was time to have a close look at the O-Pro kit - which just consists of a bow-piece held in place with four bolts through the flat bow section of the regular Optimist.

The mast uses the standard Optimist rig with the addition of a carbon top section - providing slightly lighter weight, and flexibility to allow the sail to have a proper gust response.

The only conundrum with the O-Pro is which is the more critical component - the bow or the rig? But one cannot work without the other, and together they work very well indeed.

Like all great concepts and sailing boats - the O-Pro is simple. In fact so simple that it is hard to believe that the two pieces of design could have made such a difference to the performance of the Optimist.

"Kim Andersen and World Sailing have recognised that we are losing too many kids from sailing, there is not enough fun, and there are too many kids sailing by themselves for too long on the waster - and it's not enough fun," Mattie Mason explains.

"Often they are on the water for hours at a time and with a coach, or a dad, like me yelling at them. What's the fun in that.

"They quickly drop out and go and do another sport, with a team and their mates. The idea with the O-Pro is that it gives two little kids the opportunity to sail together, who might not be so confident."

"On a light day they might want to sail alone, but on a heavy day, they can ring up one of their mates who might not be a sailor, and they can sail two-up."

Mattie Mason uses statistics to underline his concern about the drop out rate from sailing. "If you look at the stats from Yachting New Zealand, of kids going through the [Optimist] Nationals, out of an average of 200 kids, 20% of those kids are carrying on sailing."

"There is an 80% drop-out rate."

Mason's idea is for all junior sailors to get their first year's membership for free at a yacht club, and is convinced that in the second year they will come back, buy a boat and become a full sailing member.

"The O-Pro is the perfect way to introduce kids to sailing,' he adds.

In New Zealand, the junior sailing wheel is about to turn the full cycle, with the first Optimist bought into the country by Clive and Ralph Roberts in 1975, which will get a coat of paint, be fitted with an O-Pro kit - and will enjoy a second sailing life.

Switching from Optimist mode to O-Pro takes about 90 seconds, with the fitting of the rig being the more time-consuming part of the exercise. The bow is held on with a single fastening. The rig is put together the same as a Laser, with the sleeved sail being slid over the two-piece spar, after which the standard Opti boom is attached, and a new mainsail downhaul and boom vang fitted.

"It's great fun for me," explains Emma. "Because I am older, heavier and learning to sail the O-Pro is a great boat for me to get into sailing because I don't have the skill level to go into a real class and start racing straight away.

"It has made me really interested in sailing, and I want to start with the Club."

Remarkably at the time of the test session, Emma had only been sailing two months in total and was fully confident sailing the O-Pro in squally 25kt winds and flat water.

"When I was eight, I did a course in the Optimists, but I didn't enjoy it, I didn't like it, and I stopped straight away."

"Then the O-Pro came about.."

"It was really fun out there today," she said looking back on the session. "I was a bit nervous. I like it better when the wind conditions are more stable."

In response to the obvious and usually embarrassing question - "William and I have capsized it when we went out sailing together in 25kts', she laughingly admits.

"We were a bit on the heavy side at 85kgs, but it is fantastic that you can have so many ages, so many groups of people, and with people of different abilities doing different things with a single boat."

"Because you can convert from an Optimist into an O-Pro just in a matter of minutes, it is like a two-in-one boat."

"The O-Pro is a cheaper solution for people who might be struggling to get into sailing, but the cost of a new or competitive Optimist is holding them back."

An O-Pro kit consists of a carbon tip extension that plugs into an Optimist bottom section; a new sail that is 1.2sq metres bigger than an Optimist; and new sail controls (downhaul, outhaul and vang).

The cost of an O-Pro kit is NZD$1,700, add that to an uncompetitive Optimist hull for $1,000, and the sailaway cost is $2700, plus a coat of paint, for a virtually new boat, with a long sailing life. That is a big reduction in entry price for the sport.

"The cost is a big thing - coupled with not having enough fun, " says Mason, repeating the junior sailing mantra that everyone knows.

"The O-Pro extends the life of an Optimist sailor for another 18 months without having to go to a newer or bigger class," he adds. www.opro.co.nz

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