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An interview with Robert Dunkley about the 2019 Optimist North American Championship

by David Schmidt 25 Sep 2019 08:00 PDT September 27-October 4, 2019
The USA's Griggs Diemar, winner of the 27th International Optimist Regatta, presented by EMS Virgin Islands. © Dean Barnes

For most junior sailors living in North America, the venerable Optimist is the first sailboat that they are given to learn a beautiful art that, if properly mastered, will carry them through life. Naturally, some of these juniors are more driven to compete and distinguish themselves from their peers, and, as a result, a seriously robust racing culture has developed around this tidy pram that was originally conceived as an alternative to Soap Box Derby racing.

These days, it’s not uncommon for Opti sailors to travel domestically and internationally and to have starting-line and fleet-management skills that are sharper than those possessed by sailors many decades their elder. Moreover, these sailors are applying lessons of athleticism learned from their youth, and are pushing their boats-and their competitors-far harder than their predecessors ever thought possible.

While there are arguments that can be made about “letting kids be kids” on the water, the flipside of that same coin leads to the kind of development programs and talent pipeline that can eventually help both Canada and the United States improve their recently lackluster Olympic sailing results. Moreover, high-level youth sailing can also help prepare junior sailors for the rigors of high-level college and Corinthian sailing, while also helping to teach them how to engage life’s big challenges.

I checked in with Robert Dunkley, Director Bahamas National Sailing School, about the 2019 Optimist North American Championship (September 27-October 4), which are being hosted by the Nassau Yacht Club in the Bahamas, via email, to learn more about this exciting youth-level championship regatta

How many Optis are you expecting at this year’s North Americans? Also, do you expect most boats to hail from the greater Bahamas/Caribbean/Florida/SE USA areas, or will you see sailors from across the country? What about other countries?

We will be expecting 170 competitors in Nassau in 2019. These sailor athletes will be between the ages of 12 and 15, and all will be sailing new McLaughlin Pro Series Optis.

The member countries eligible to attend are those in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. Sailors from Antigua, Argentina, Bahamas, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Ecuador, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Netherland Antilles, New Zealand, Peru, Switzerland, Turks & Caicos, USA [including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands], and Uruguay have registered so far.

What kind of weather conditions can sailors expect in Nassau in late September/early October? What are the best-case and worst-case scenarios?

This race location is highly regarded internationally for dinghy and small boat racing. The sailing conditions in Nassau’s Montagu Bay are among the very best in the world, the reason Star Sailors League Finals are held here every year.

The best case: Weather conditions are ideal at this time of year. On September 30, average air temp is 84oF. and average water temp is 82oF. Wind direction is predominantly east at an average of 10 knots.

The worst case: Although there is no way around it, and which we all monitor carefully, is the prospect of a tropical storm or hurricane. But, statistically, the chances of a hurricane or tropical storm hitting The Bahamas in late September/early October are very slim. A hurricane passes near The Bahamas, on average, every two years. A hurricane makes a direct hit on the islands, on average, every four years.

Do you have an idea as to what percentage of the sailors will have competed on stages as big as the Optician’s North Americans before? Or, in other words, will this be the first really big regatta for most of these sailors, or are they used to competing on an international stage at this point in their sailing careers?

No question this is a big event for Opti sailors and is the largest fleet regatta held in The Bahamas. Most of the entrants will have sailed through a series of medium to large events to qualify for the North Americans. It’s reasonable to estimate over 80% are experienced international sailors with many having just competed in the 2019 Optimist World Championships held in Antigua July 6-16.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) sailors, what would it be?

Don’t miss it. Come and enjoy sailing in our Montagu Bay where, according to Augie Diaz, Olympic great and renowned US Star sailor (who started in Optimists in Cuba when he was 8 years old), ‘When God goes sailing, He sails in Montagu Bay.’

In the ideal world, how many races do you and the other organizers hope to score? Also, how many races will you run per day?

Nine races are planned over four days, with team racing on one of the middle days, making the event a five-day regatta. A maximum of three races may be held on any one day.

Given the ages of the sailors involved, will there be a balance of fun events and serious racing, or will this be more of a junior regatta that sails/feels like an adult regatta in terms of how serious all sailors take the competition?

This is The Bahamas after all! There will be fun events and local activities mixed in. However, this class is one of the most serious youth sailing classes in the world. Over 85% of those who competed in the last Olympics started their sailing in this class. Currently, around the world, over 250,000 junior sailor-athletes are racing these boats.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta’s environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

Our Regatta Organizing Committee formed a Green Event Sub-Committee to encourage sustainable best practices. We will follow the guidelines set by Sailors For The Sea’s Clean Regatta criteria and World Sailing’s Sustainability Agenda 2030 initiatives. To promote environmental awareness and ocean conservation by the participants in the regatta, all our 2019 Notices of Race (NOR) contain the stipulation: “[SUBJECT EVENT] is a ‘Clean Event’ All sailors, coaches, families and friends are asked to help protect the environment on and off the water, and to keep surroundings clean. Efforts will be made to limit plastics and non-biodegradable materials.”

Anything else about the regatta that you’d like to add, for the record?

This is a big, important international event, with lots of distractions, and with many of the sailors representing their countries for the first time. To be successful, focus is essential. Sail in the present, keep your head out of the boat, and sail smart

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