Neil Akkerman likes to build things. He is an engineer by training, and when he couldn’t find a good boat to teach his granddaughters how to sail, he decided to build one of his own. He launched his new boat with fun and fanfare to the delight of everyone around him. This is a great story, we hope you enjoy the interview.
When did you get the idea to build this boat?
When I was commodore of the Houston Yacht Club in 1995, the Optimist International sailing dinghy had recently become popular on Galveston Bay. The Optimist soon displaced the Sunfish as the youth sailing boat. Though there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm among boys, I noticed that there seemed to be fewer girls sailing. All of the emphasis was on racing and almost none on simple fun sailing.
The Optimist International is a wonderful single handed youth racing boat. It is stable, responsive and not overpowered. At regattas the experienced youth sail in 20+ knots of wind.
Teaching kids to sail in an Optimist is much different that in a Sunfish. I taught my two daughters to sail on a Sunfish. We would go out sailing and I would, very casually, request help sailing the boat. They soon knew all the parts of the boat and how they worked. Before long “lazy” dad was a passenger and the girls were sailing the boat.
I noticed that it was very difficult for an adult to get onboard an Optimist with a child. I could not have used my “fun sail” teaching technique on an Optimist.
The most common teaching method with an Optimist seems to be to put the child in a boat and shout instructions. Inevitably in an emergency, shouts become even louder.
It seems that no matter how diplomatically a child is told that the instructor is speaking loudly because the wind makes it hard to hear and that the instructor is not mad at the child, the child’s first reaction is to cower down and want to go home.
Back then I knew a “coach boat” that was large enough for an adult to fun sail with a child was needed; a comfortable boat with all the same strings and foibles of the Optimist.
Are you pleased with the final product?
Yes, very much. Recently my granddaughters — with their mother, their aunt and granddad — all went out together on the boat. Later the sailing coach took out 10 beginner sailors in groups of five at a time for their first ever sail. By the way, the boat is named the EL&EM for my granddaughters.
The response from coaches is very encouraging. One of the sailing instructors said, “You have changed sailing forever. Some beginners go all the way through sailing camp and refuse to go out on a sailboat. The entire group just went out on the first day of camp.” That sounds like success to me.
It is a little early to call it a product as only one has been built. Another is under construction now. The plan is to have one for the sailing instructors to use at Texas Corinthian Yacht Club and the other at Houston Yacht Club. The young sailors swarm all over the boat. The in-your-face demand “How quickly can I buy one” from one grandmother was unanticipated. The ladies’ sailing director reserving the boat for ladies’ sailing camp was a pleasant surprise. When a friend and I took an 80-year-old gentleman for a fun sail and he commented “it has been a long time since I last boarded a dinghy, this boat is more comfortable than any dinghy I know of and many larger sailboats.”
Do you have any plans to build more boats?
Having a production mold makes it possible and practical to build more boats. I have brand named the boat “GO” which has no formal meaning but is derived from “go sailing” bumper stickers; though some guess the moniker comes from granddads obsession or grand opti or whatever….
The short answer is yes; if people want one, it will be built in much less time than the first one.