At the Sydney Olympics 2000 there was a major drama when the 49er sailors found their event supplied spinnakers, with national flags dyed into the fabric, were completely disintegrating. Sailing was cancelled for a day as new spinnakers were built.
There could be a major drama looming at Perth 2011, the key sailing qualifying event for the London Olympics, with large numbers of mast equipment failures in the Laser class possible, a known problem plaguing the Olympic single handed dinghy in recent years.*
It is a technical story that could have influence on the outcomes in both the Laser and Laser Radial class. Although one hopes not, we are back grounding the scene.
At the Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships, the largest fleet (in combination) will be the Laser Radial and Laser Standard.
The Lasers are a supplied equipment class requires athletes to lease brand new, identical boats for the Championships. The 275 brand new Lasers for the World Championships was completed by Performance Sailcraft Australasia (PSA) on the Central Coast, north of Sydney in New South Wales.
PSA has been producing Lasers since 1973 and for the last five years a not very secret project has been aiming to deliver a better, more durable Laser sail. (there is no suggestion that Laser sails will fail at Perth 2011- this is about how the class operates or does not, in this case). The final prototypes have been tested for more than 18 months and have passed with flying colours.
It is reported that the World Council unanimously voted for a routine equipment change which could have meant the new sails would be in use at the Perth 2011 event and the upcoming Olympic Games but now this project and an even more important mast top project is very much stalled, a by-product it seems of a bitter battle over intellectual property rights between the original Laser designer Bruce Kirby and his company and one of the Laser manufacturers, which has been transfixing sailors and paralysing the decision making process within the class for the last two years.
The Sail project originator was PSA CEO Chris Caldecoat. ‘The beauty of the Laser is that is a very strict one design class with over 200,000 boats being built. That is why its easily the largest class at Perth 2011. There has been a constant quest for greater durability because that improves affordability, vital to increase the world-wide sailing participation rates.
'Over five years ago we started development work with the aim of producing a more durable Laser sail. There has been a ton of effort. We initiated it and worked closely with Hyde Sails in the UK, with Pryde Sails in Asia and with Australian sail maker Ian MacDiarmid to make sure the overall characteristics were unchanged.
‘It is a heavier weight, more robust Dacron sail with both the normal front luff and a luff pocket.
‘Sailors have asked ‘why did we not go to Mylar?’ From my own 18 footer days and now with the Finn class, we know that Mylar shrinks significantly. With 18 footers we used to do a luff just about every week.
‘Sticking with Dacron, a cost effective cloth, we went through over 20 versions, testing and testing. The final version was tested with the front, middle and the back of fleet and there is agreement that this sail does not render the old sails obsolete. The new one will last longer.’
US Laser Class President Dr Tracy Usher is of similar opinion. ‘The goal of the Laser sail project was to produce a better quality, more durable sail that didn’t change the game. Hence the idea of being to extend the lifetime of the sail, but make sure that if you had the old sail you could still compete.
'I love that new sail. It is a bi-radial construction Dacron sail and it is a little bit heavier cloth. The goal was to better reorient the stress loads along the cloth, giving it a much better flying shape overall.
‘When you see the sail out sailing, all the distortions that you see in the current Laser sail are gone, there is no flutter in the leech and it looks like a really beautiful sail for the boat.
‘We have had prototypes available now for almost a year and a half. Here in San Francisco I took one of the prototypes and I spent an entire season using it in practice and even in some local regattas, just to see how it shaped up.
‘I stopped logging the hours I had on the sail but I would guess that there are probably 150 plus hours of sailing on it and it still has good shape. The cloth is starting to show signs of a little bit of age and it is starting to get a little stretchier but it still doesn’t have the distortions in it. The leech is still nice and the sail still looks competitive. I think for the average sailor this could be a real boon because the sail has a tremendous life time (in it).
‘Recently some of the New Zealand Laser squad who will be in Perth, including Andrew Murdoch, took the sail out, used it a few times and came back and said that as far as they could see the sail matched very evenly with the current sails. So there wasn’t any advantage or disadvantage to having the sail, but it was obviously a much nicer sail and clearly more durable.
‘This is a routine equipment change so the change goes through the Laser construction manual. Yes it had to be evaluated, it had to be costed and then it had to be voted on by the World Council (it received unanimous approval) and its been awaiting signatures from all of the Laser builders. Unfortunately it seems it will have to wait awhile until the current disagreements are resolved.’
Clay Johnson, the leading US Laser contender going into the 2011 Perth Laser World Championships, reported after a West Coast training camp 'in my opinion the (new) sail is a 'no brainer' for the long-term success of the Laser. The sail is made from 4.5 ounce cloth (an upgrade from the 3.8 ounce cloth that we currently have) and is radial cut. It has a bigger window at the bottom to make vision on the course easier. It's also much more aesthetically pleasing, that is there are no ugly wrinkles between the joint of the top/bottom section and the end of the boom.
'When we did the testing we used two sails - one new and one that had over 150 days of sailing on it! It was incredible to see that the new sail and the old one both looked and performed similarly. Most importantly though, I think the sail was very comparable speed wise to the old one.
When will the new sail be able to be used?
Certainly not in time for Perth 2011, perhaps after the Olympics?
Chris Caldecoat, just back from the International Laser Class World Council Meeting in London last weekend, shook his head. Incredibly it’s clearly going to be 2013!
‘Sailors are getting very frustrated, everyone wants more durable sails. There has been unanimous support at the World Council for this equipment change but for the last two years we have been waiting for Bill Crane from one of the Laser builders, Laser Performance from the USA, to come to the table to discuss. Once Bill signs, Laser Performance, ourselves and the other Laser builders can begin supplying this new sail.
‘At the upcoming ISAF World Championships at Perth 2011 where we (PSA) will be supplying all the Lasers, we will be asking all athletes to sign a petition requesting Laser Performance sit down with us to discuss this new sail (and the new mast top).
‘Right now it’s very clear the new sail will not make an appearance before 2013 and that will be seven years after we started development. The new carbon fibre mast top is similarly held up.'*
In the interests of balance, the author sought Bill Crane's viewpoint. There must be a second side to this story, but in the last two weeks we've not received a response. Hopefully we can provide one when we report on the mast top issue, which will probably dominate Laser boat park frustrations at Perth 2011.*