CHEAPER AND MORE ONE DESIGN - A HISTORY
The following article by Robert Wilkes appeared in the November 1998 issue of the ISAF newsletter.
A 5–year exercise by the International Optimist Association (IODA) has resulted in a price reduction averaging around 25% and a return to strict one–design principles.
The project started in 1992 when IODA president Helen Mary Wilkes was called before the I.Y.R.U. Executive. The Optimist, she was told, had become too expensive. What could the Class do to reduce prices?
The problem was both technical and commercial. The technical problem was a common one, one-design no longer meant one-design. Boats from certain builders were, or were perceived to be, faster than others. As a result they were exported worldwide, incurring transport costs and dealer mark-ups. A boat that cost $1,000 at the factory could sell for $3,000 from an exclusive agent on the other side of the World.
For commercial advice IODA consulted the professor of International Marketing at Dublin University. He felt that the price problem was very like in the pharmaceutical industry, like aspirin. Almost anyone could make the generic product: but customers paid highly for a "named brand" and could be sold a "NEW! IMPROVED!" product without any evidence that it was actually better. The result was a long distribution chain. The answer was to ensure that all builders made the same boat to a strict but freely available published specification.
First the specification had to be tightened. Fred Kats, a member of both the IODA Technical Committee and the IYRU CBC, led a team which devised a specification that could be built to tight tolerances by any competent builder and would be exactly the same speed as the best existing boats so the latter would not become obsolete. It was also essential to establish a system for measuring prototypes from each set of moulds including laminate samples, and to make regular checks thereafter.
Many, including highly-placed figures in the sailing world, believed that it could not be done. Everyone knew that the only way to get one-design boats was to have a single manufacturer or consortium. However in 1994 the IODA AGM decided to go ahead and secured IYRU approval. The 1995 Worlds saw the first production models. "Old-style" boats still won but there were "new-style" boats in top places.
The problems were not over. The first boats, maybe because of rarity value, were even more expensive than the old ones. Most builders adopted a "wait and see" policy and six months before the 1 March 1996 deadline for the changeover, only two had approved prototypes. The breakthrough came in November 1995 when the largest Optimist builder in the World secured approval. Suddenly there was a scramble to follow and nine builders got approval within the following seven months.
The strain on the prototype measurement system was intense. One of the Class International Measurers(IM's) David Harte, himself a qualified boatbuilder, effectively gave up other work and spent 86 nights abroad measuring prototypes and advising builders. Other IM's assisted, particularly with re-measurement. The cost was high, but fortunately IODA had secured major sponsorship from Nesquik.
By mid-1997 the International Measurers KNEW that all builders, by now 27 of them, were building identical boats. But would results prove this? The answer was a resounding yes! At the Europeans ten builders had boats in top ten places, boys and girls, and the Worlds was similar. The case was proved.
The effect on the market and prices has been immediate. If any builder's boat could win, why pay a premium? If a boat built in one's own country could compete with the best, why import? If this year's boat is identical to last year's and is durable, why buy new every season?
So, with now 30 builders in 23 countries on five continents, at least 40% of sailors are already buying boats built in their own country. And in most of the world prices in real terms are 25% lower than in 1992, a global saving of around US$1.25 million.
And the young sailors have a true one-design to sail.