An order for 20 Optimists placed last week by the Sailing Foundation of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles (AHO) marks the latest step in the programme to get Optimist fleets established in all the six countries of the southern Caribbean.
These are Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and now AHO.
Local enthusiasm is the key to this success and the latest development in AHO is driven by former Sunfish world champion and Laser Olympian Cor van AANHOLT.
Anyone who has cruised the islands could not help but see the potential. Five years ago the International Optimist Association IODA started to talk to local enthusiasts. Most islands had a few rather battered boats of various types to teach a few kids to sail but there was little incentive for them to progress further.
IODA identified three essentials: Optimists, coach-training and local regattas.
Starting with St. Lucia in 1999 IODA began to offer subsidies to islands that were prepared to buy batches of Optimists, with the guideline of one free boat for every five bought. Some eighty boats have been subsidised in this way to date, always with the proviso that they must be freely accessible. Builders on three continents were keen to tap this new market and low prices were further helped by the willingness of most governments to waive import and sales taxes.
Coach-training was initially centred in Trinidad but as numbers grew it made more sense for the instructor to travel round the islands. In early 2003 IODA sponsored Peruvian coach Fernando Alegre, aptly nicknamed "Happy", to spend five weeks touring the region. He is now based in Trinidad and IODA has been helping other islands, most recently Grenada last month, to hire him to raise the standard of coaching.
The third element is local regattas to provide incentives for the young sailors. The existing Schoelcher Week in Martinique was the first chosen, again with small IODA grants to help with travel. Last Christmas Trinidad hosted its first "Caribbean Invitational" with 34 entries and in 2005 Tobago will host the IODA North American Championship, so young sailors from all over the islands have a big incentive ahead.
The potential remains huge. Barbados has even succeeded in getting sailing recognised as an official school sport and a medal or two in the Panamerican Games (already achieved by a 17 year-old ex-Optimist from nearby Guatemala) could attract more government help.
Sailing in the Caribbean could take on a whole new meaning!