The OK Dinghy In South Florida, A Brief History

by Fritz Mueller, February 1997

Details of the OK Dinghy’s true origins are sometimes disputed, however there will never be any doubt that there has always been a strong Danish-American connection. Consensus has it that the collaboration in the late 50’s between Knud Olsen in Denmark and Axel Dangaard Olsen in Seattle produced the original drawings and prototype, and ultimately launched the class in North America. The real oddity in this story is the birth of an intensely competitive fleet of OK’s racing at the geographical antipode of that hollowed ground Seattle……

In the early 1960’s, and beyond the nucleus of the class established in Seattle, the OK dinghy class had already achieved reasonable success and distribution throughout the United States – quite an achievement considering the distances involved. By 1964, there were about 650 boats registered nationally – with the largest concentration of fleets in the Pacific Northwest, and Southern California. There were other active fleets formed in the USA’s midwest, which benefited greatly from occasional participation from a very strong Canadian contingent based in Ontario.

It was in the second half of the decade, that OK dinghy racing got its start in the idyllic Biscayne Bay area of South Florida. There, it flourished until the mid-seventies. In Florida, the earliest small groups of OK sailors were spread around the northern half of the state, and were chiefly influenced by the California fleets. The earliest sailors were concentrated on the upper west coast near Clearwater, with another small group of boats active in the West Palm Beach area, on Florida’s east coast. Interest in the class rapidly moved southward toward Miami, which was already recognized as a center for world-class yacht racing. As early as 1968, there were about 20 boats seriously racing in the greater Miami area. Among South Florida’s early pioneers in the class were Fred Bremen, Bill Blood, Ted Long, Emory Kamps, Paul Lindenberg, and Rick Grajirena.

Most of the early hulls in South Florida were either home built or brought in from the west coast of the USA. Paul Lindenberg, of West Palm Beach, built a mold, and eventually became the local builder of glass boats. By mid 1968, he had completed 6 boats. They were beautifully constructed with Baltek balsa core, were extremely fair, and had state-of-the-art glasswork. Moreover, they were fast, and rapidly overtook the demand for Clark-built hulls coming from the Pacific Northwest. As interest grew in the area, more and more sailors started building their own boats – the Coyner brothers (Wayne and Doug) built theirs according to conventional techniques, while the Ostlund brothers (Stelland & Goran) opted for the composite technique using fiberglass taped seams, a relatively new method at the time which was becoming popular in Europe. Spars were most often either home built, or built by Bill Blood. A National Airlines pilot and captain, Bill was somewhat of a visionary who carved out quite a reputation for lightning fast Optimists made from aircraft grade materials and construction methods – Sitka spruce, super-light plywoods and epoxy resins – with a minimum of fastenings. His OK spars were works of art, and technologically highly advanced. Sail design was rapidly being developed by Fred Bremen of Bremen Sails in Miami, and at Levison Sails in Clearwater, Florida.

Racing interest in the class took off rapidly, and was fueled by keen competition amongst the locals, many of whom already had significant racing experience on an international level – Rick Grajirena, Gary Carlin, Ding Schoonmaker, Fred Bremen Jr., and Sennett Duttenhoffer were the ones to beat. For almost a decade, the OK was perhaps the most competitive racing class on Biscayne Bay, except for the Star Class or Snipe. For many of the local “Rock Stars”, the OK was a second boat, something in which to hone single-handed dinghy and tuning skills, and a venue providing an opportunity to compete against those who were already well recognized in other international classes. The extreme level of local competition also drew many younger sailors to the OK Dinghy, and most came directly from the well established Optimist and Sunfish class junior programs in Miami.

The class was well organized at the local level, and several of the top sailors traveled to participate in nationally organized events or those such as CORK in Kingston, Ontario. One year, the group returned from racing in Canada at CORK, dumbfounded by Ib Andersson’s blazing downwind speed in drifting conditions…sailing backwards! The fleet had a local newsletter, called “Telltales”, published once a month. Bi-monthly “meetings”, i.e. parties, were the norm.

The fleet founders embraced all newcomers, and there was a remarkable sense of fraternity, competition and sportsmanship for all. Many racing sailors will acknowledge that since the Olympics in 1968, the sport of yacht racing went into world-wide period of transition – in virtually all classes. For the South Florida OK sailors in the 60’s, it was still a time of no real weight carrying limits, sailing by the rules, and no professionalism. In those days it was not unusual to see the OK tyros coming up from junior programs, attempting bravado and wearing 20kg of wet sweaters, courageously sailing their OKs with stiff wooden masts.. all the time emulating such Finn greats as Carl Van Dyne, Joerg Bruder, and Willy Kuhweide.

Boats and equipment evolved in Florida over several years, and by 1974 the fastest hulls were Lindenberg (W. Palm Beach), and Kjolhede (Denmark). Technology originating from the Finn Class was always to have a dominant impact on speed developments immediately transferable to the OK. Bruder spars, imported infrequently from Brazil, were coveted. A few sailors even used the then-new delaminating masts which he developed originally for the Finn, and which were adapted for the OK. In general. spars built by Bill Blood, and some home built, were still quite competitive. The best sailmaker was Bremen who developed a unique luff rope system for distributing tension according to chord length, and who had a very special talent for matching mast and sail combinations for the OK …. in the days of wooden spars, this was really and art form difficult to duplicate.

The South Florida fleet was fortunate to achieve several milestones in its relatively brief period of existence. The Bremen Challenge Cup, intended as a World Team Racing Championship, was started in 1969 by Fred Bremen Sr. and was open to registered fleets worldwide. For the first few years, this trophy exchanged hands several times between the South Florida and Barbados fleets. The last known winner was the Alamitos Bay fleet from California, sometime during the early seventies. It could be a real benefit to the class if this trophy could be resurrected, with a possibility of including a short team racing series in conjunction with the World Championship.

In 1970, the South Florida fleet began hosting what is called in the United States a “Mid-Winters”, actually, something of a winter National Championship. An annual event which had tremendous success (considering geographics), it often drew as many as 40 boats from all over North America. Past winners were Chris Boome from California, Rick Grajirena, Fred Bremen Jr, Sennett Duttenhoffer in 1973, and Fritx Mueller in 1974.

Nineteen seventy-one was the year in which the South Florida fleet inaugurated its most prestigious award, the Ted Long memorial trophy, to honor the fleet champion. A beautiful OK Dinghy half-model, it memorialised the local Englishman and pioneer of the class who died tragically of a heart attack while at the helm of his OK during the U.S. National Championships on Lake Erie, Ohio that year. Joe Kolisch was the last to win that distinctive honor in 1975.

The United States sent a small team to the World Championships at Falmouth in 1973, made up entirely of South Florida sailors: Joe Kolisch, Glenn Carlin, Tom Stocks, and Fritz Mueller. It will always be remembered as a real blow-out, with winds consistently in the 20-35 knot range, huge seas, and a two hour trip to the starting line. There was never a light air race, not even a medium breeze. Clive Roberts from New Zealand showed everyone how it was done under those extreme conditions, and won convincingly. The US. contingent was somewhat hindered by inexperience, borrowed equipment, and breakdowns. None the less, the team had a wonderful time, learned tremendously from the international competition, and forged many friendships which continue to this day.

By 1975, the South Florida fleet was beginning to feel the same pressure that all other OK fleets were feeling worldwide – the popularity of the Laser. The Laser’s simplicity, with a strong network of dealers, made it the boat of choice for those who were looking for a single-handed sailing dinghy – right out of the box. The writing was on the wall for the South Florida OK fleets, and eventually as newcomers became scarce to the OK, most sailors moved onto other popular dinghies such as the Lightning, Snipe, Finn, and Laser.