I began my boating life as a sailor. When I was ten years old my father signed me up with the Clearwater Optimist Club’s pram sailing fleet.
If you’re from up north you’re probably more familiar with the Optimist Club Soap Box Derby. Young people build homemade downhill racers and compete in many cities across America. The operative word here is “downhill.” Florida’s Gulf Coast has a distinct lack of hills, and since a Soap Box Derby creation has no engine it’s pretty tough to race without one.
Back in 1947 the Optimist Club of Clearwater Florida began organizing the first pram sailing fleet. Major Clifford McKay got the idea to bring sailing to boys and girls in the same way the Soap Box Derby was introducing build-it-yourself downhill race cars to youngsters. The idea was to have kids race each other on the water instead of down a hill that doesn’t exist.
Major McKay contacted Clark Mills, a local designer and builder of small boats, and asked him if he could come up with a low cost sailing dingy suitable for kids from 8 to 16 years old. Soon after that meeting the Optimist Pram was born. It was eight feet long from stem to stern and had a single sprit rigged sail that looked more like a lopsided bedsheet than a sail, but it worked.
By the time I joined the pram fleet in 1963 these little sailboats were all the rage along the entire west coast of Florida. I soon perfected my sailing skills while racing in the beginner’s fleet. After a few first place wins, I was moved up to the A-fleet and began racing against clubs in other cities. More ribbons and trophies were earned, but more importantly I was introduced to sportsmanship and the amazing world of sailing. In one way or another I’ve been on the water ever since that beginning back in 1963.
I believe that teaching a child how to sail is instrumental in assuring their future ability to handle just about any watercraft skillfully and safely. I’ll never forget the first time I was pushed away from the shoreline by my father in that small boat with only a sail and a rudder to navigate Clearwater Bay. Scary at first, but liberating soon after the initial “oh-my-gosh!” moment. I was on the water in a boat all alone. There was no one there to tell me what to do or where to go. I was suddenly an explorer like the ones in the books I loved to read.
Looking back I can’t imagine not having sailing in my life. I’ve met so many interesting people and sailed on some truly amazing boats. I’ve crewed for the rich and famous and raced all around Florida with some of best sailors in the world. I once crewed for a Russian sailing team, but that’s another story for another time.
Do you have a youngster that is looking for something to do, especially during their summer break from school? Look into the programs offered at the Edison Sailing Center located on the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers. They have sailing lessons for youngsters from 8 to 17 years of age. They offer a one-week class at the Mound House each summer. Everything from mastering the wind to fellowship and teamwork are taught in classes and on the water. You can get more information at edisonsailingcenter.org.
Perhaps you’re an adult that unfortunately missed the opportunity to learn to sail in your younger days. Not a problem. The Offshore Sailing School located at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island or the Pink Shell Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach offers sailing lessons and courses for adults. Check them out at offshoresailing.com.
Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman and retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association.