In just two weeks at Perth 2011, the combined largest fleet, the Laser Radial and Laser Standard, will be sailing their 2011 World Championships.
The Lasers are a supplied-equipment class that requires athletes to lease brand new, identical boats for the Championships. The 275 brand new Lasers for the World Championships were completed by Performance Sailcraft Australasia (PSA), which has been building Lasers for 30 years.
PSA CEO Chris Caldecoat is angry ‘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. And we are powerless to fix the problem. All we can do is have 300 spare mast tops at the event.’
Clive Humphris, the International Laser Class Association (ILCA) technical officer, explains the issue ‘There have been some approved equipment changes in the Laser class, which now means the mast tops are the weak link in the rigging chain.
‘In early Laser history, there was 3 or 4 to 1 vang and some people beefed it up, but you couldn’t pull it on like you can today now.
‘The vang is much more efficient now with roller bearing delivering an equivalent of 16 to 1. Lots of people are using 10 to 1, and a lot of the sailors are down to 6 to 1 but are using roller bearing blocks.
‘You do see a significant proportion of masts, particularly in radial fleets, that suffer from permanent bend problems, and the experienced people have ways in being able to deal with it. They always carry multiple tops and bottoms and rotate them and make sure they don’t use them for too long. The top competitors, they can deal with it, but some of the people that are using older equipment are seeing unreliability problems because they don’t know how to deal with it.
‘In 2008 at the Worlds in Canada and in Hayling Island, I was monitoring the problem as the technical officer: There was a significant issue at both events and from equipment point of view there had to be a solution.
‘I have been auditing these sections as technical officer for the class, and the extrusions are manufactured to the specification in the Laser construction manual.
'We don’t want to change the performance characteristics of the mast system in relation to the sail. That has been one of the strengths of the laser class that you are able to use old equipment and mix it with new equipment and basically be competitive. Therefore, increasing the thickness of the aluminium mast section is not an option. It changes the characteristics completely.’
Caldecoat, an 18-footer sailor in his early days and now a Finn campaigner, knew there had to be a carbon solution.
‘We approached John Clinton from Southern Spars. We started with the detailed technical specifications.
‘Any replacement mast top had to have a high yield point so it can bend beyond the limitations of the sail so a sailor is not going to make it go any faster so it is not a competitive advantage.
‘The good thing is that we prototyped it and we pre-production prototyped it, and we had it out there within two months. It was very heavily tested, and we took it to the World Council, who approved it subject to its appropriate incorporation through regular process into the Laser Construction Manual.’
Humphris said ‘This carbon mast top – as a like-for-like part, is an incredibly successful solution to the problem. You can put almost double the deflection on the top beyond the aluminium break point. It’s all about durability. It’s getting a system that’s a lot more robust, and you can throw anything at it and it will come up smiling.
ILCA Secretary Jeff Martin said today ‘Previous World Council policy with regard to the introduction of new equipment is that new equipment should have the same characteristics as the existing equipment and the new equipment should not give a performance advantage when raced alongside existing equipment.
‘The World Council is working with the builders to progress the development of a more durable top mast. Following ISAF regulations, a new top mast would not be allowed at the 2012 Olympic Games or the qualifying events for the Games.’
Caldecoat again ‘We have approval from all parties except we can’t get the last box ticked, and it is a shame because the sailors know this is the solution.’
U.S. Olympic aspirant Clay Johnson said in a detailed report ‘The top section is amazing. It weighs the same as a current top section and has the same bend characteristics, but is made of carbon fiber instead of aluminium. Everything is the same except that it does not bend at the end of the day!
‘When this top section becomes approved, you will no longer see people trying to straighten their mast after a windy day, people won't have to twist their spars precisely to line up the rivets (there are no rivets with the carbon fiber spar because the collar is epoxied on), and you won't have to purchase a new top section every other regatta!
‘During our training, we rotated the spar around to a few different sailors to try out, and they all said that they didn't notice any difference in performance. More importantly, our coach said that he couldn't even tell who had the spar and who didn't when looking at our rigs on the water. This thing is LEGIT!’
U.S. Laser Class President Dr. Tracy Usher is of similar opinion. ‘One of the carbon mast top prototypes was sent to me last June to evaluate, and I immediately started using that for the training that I was doing ahead of the Master Worlds last August and any sailing that I am doing.
‘The idea that this was supposed to be a one-for-one replacement in the sense that it has the same static and dynamic bend characteristics, the same mast and all that sort of stuff. From my point of view I couldn’t tell any difference to having this spar on the boat than having an aluminium one. I sail the same way. The sails seem to behave the same way. Everything was the same.
‘From my point of view, it certainly met that criteria, but more importantly to me is it is a no-worries spar. I don’t have to worry about it because obviously it is not going to develop a permanent bend and things like that.
‘I was actually quite impressed at how quickly, from the time that the specs were first put out to the time that they had these spars. It was clear that the company that had produced them was able to just take those specs and turn out the spars almost immediately. I was really impressed with that. It’s clear that it’s not like ground-breaking technology. Since it does, so obviously, solve a longstanding issue I just don’t understand why everyone does not want to move forward.
Caldecoat is resigned to problems ahead. Who knows when the change will occur, certainly not before the Olympics, maybe 2013-2014?
‘We have just flown an extra three hundred mast tops into Perth, to try and address the situation.
‘We all know the problem, we all know the solution, and the World Council wants it to happen.
‘But we cannot get Bill Crane from Laser Performance to talk to ourselves and the Laser builder in Japan about it. Once Bill signs, then it can be properly incorporated into the Laser Construction Manual. Then Laser Performance, we and the other Laser builders can begin supplying this mast top.
‘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 mast top and the new sail.’
Asked if he believed Olympic selection could be missed because of mast failure he responded ‘It is a situation that we really don’t want to have to be in, but it’s a risk. The consequences of failure for that person could be career altering.
‘I don’t think any of the builders would argue that something needs to be done, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to get the builders to act in unison on the subject, to update the specification.
‘Sadly, all we can do is ask all the sailors and coaches to sign our petition.’
In the interests of balance, the author once again sought Bill Crane's viewpoint. After a month of asking, with repeated emails and phone calls there has been no response.
Similar deflections at alloy break point - Southern Spars
Laser Sailors reports after recent NZL training camps.
Mike Bullot: NZL Olympic Squad Laser sailor
I used the lighter section for our final two days of training. I found little to no noticeable difference in feel or performance from my Aluminium training section which has a weight of around 2.8kgs.
I usually go through 2-3 tops per year. The problems that most of us find with aluminium sections is they bend. even when the utmost care is taken with originally work hardening they will almost always have at least a slight bend.
This leads us to rotate the section 180 degrees each alternate sailing session which therefore limits its life due to the eventual corrosion at the rivet point.
The other problem is the huge variation in weights of sections. batches have varied enormous amounts over the last few years. I've had top sections at less than 2.7kgs and sections up around 3kgs. The variation ends up putting a lot of pressure on testing and trialling for the right mast combinations.
Andrew Maloney: NZL Olympic Squad Laser Sailor
I used the softer series of the composite mast for two days and I couldn't tell a difference between having that on versus my current alloy top section, which I think is ideal. The bend creases coming from the mast where the bottom section meets the top was the same as when using my alloy top section. It also felt the same when hiking in the boat.
Currently I go through a number of top sections a year which is expensive. Each new alloy top section also has to be work hardened in light conditions before racing/training hard with it which is a real pain. The composite top section doesn't require this as far as I know.
If the composite top lasts a lot longer and is not ridiculously expensive making it worthwhile then I am definitely all for the change.
Miranda Powrie: NZL Radial Sailor
First day sailing was in 12-18 knots of breeze on a choppy day. I found the top sections to be very similar to an alloy section. I used a stiffer section, 19 I think, which I found to be stiffer than my current alloy top section, which is a soft one. I found in the puffs that I had a heavier helm than usual and so I used more Cunningham, once I did this the helm lightened up and the boat felt good, but I wouldn't expect this to be any different from a stiff alloy section. I lined up against Sara Winther who had an alloy section on and there was no noticeable difference in speed.
Downwind I didn't really find a difference, except for some small changes in the amount of vang that I used, possibly to compensate for the fact that the mast wasn't bent.
Second day sailing was a little lighter and I used the softer section, the 24. This was felt closer to my usual alloy mast but was probably a little stiffer as I noticed I was hiking a bit harder than usual. My performance against Sara was the same as before.
At the moment I use about 3 top sections per year, I end for end them and use them with the rivet facing the wrong way on light training days to try to get the most out of them that I can. If I could afford it I would buy more, as I inevitably end up using a bent top section.
Mark Howard: Yachting NZ Laser & Radial Olympic Coach
As a coach the top sections that we use are always a worry. You have to waste time breaking them in. Every day you have to re-bend them and there is always doubt in my mind that they will break. Which means always having a spare top sections and sail in my coach boat. We will use 4-5 top sections a year and try to find a good one and keep hold of it for the peak events. Pre world training is always dictated with the weather 'i don't want to go out cause ill break/bend my top section' which shouldn't be the case.
The new carbon sections don't look any different in the boat, but it will give us more confidence to sail in the breeze and not think about how much money we will lose when the 'old' sections break/bend.
I feel this will also make the class a better 'one design' boat. So there is no difference in the euro vs. aus sections.
Sam Meech: NZL Olympic Squad Laser sailor
I thought the sections were great. I could not tell the difference between the carbon and the old sections and in our speed testing there was no obvious advantage. I think they will be a great move for the class and will hopefully mean a) more consistency between sections/ batches and b) not having to buy sections all the time. It would be really nice to be able to send one overseas and not need to take spares.
Andrew Murdoch: NZL Olympic Squad Laser sailor
Ok so my thoughts on the new top sections.
I recently used both the 19 and 24 series top sections during a training camp with some other top Kiwi Laser sailors.
Both series seemed to respond very similar to control adjustments and in a blindfolded test you would struggle to feel a difference compared to an alloy top mast. They both seemed to display similar bend profiles as alloy tops, mast collar creases and the difference in stiffness of the two was very slight however still noted.
One massive improvement the carbon sections 'could' offer the Laser class is tighter tolerances in top section bend characteristics, as with anything new though this still has to be proven, however I was impressed with how close we all were using a mixture of 24, 19 series and alloy sections.
Currently campaigning a Laser I expect to go through 3 or 4 top sections a year. This is due to the fact that once bent then straightened- rebent- straightened, they aren't suitable for racing due to work hardening making them brittle and more likely to snap. Corrosion also puts a life on the alloy sections. Sailing with bent top sections is slow and you lose height upwind. Also some sections are just duds and bend first time out in light winds with minimal controls.
One thing I believe is very important at this stage of the Olympic cycle is that nothing suddenly changes the game, especially as far as weight range goes. Sections also need to be reliable. The stakes are high and competitors don't want sections bending/breaking mid event, especially during selection/qualifying events.
Carbon top sections 'could' be an improvement in this area.
I welcome any further questions or clarifications from the Laser Council.
Molly Meech: NZL Radial Sailor
I would go through roughly 2 or 3 top sections per year, as the sections bend easily.
I think that the carbon top sections will improve the quality of the Laser equipment.
I think that it may have caused me to be slightly more powered up, but I think that this would be an easy adjustment to get used to.
I found that I had to use more Cunningham in the session that I used it for - although I am unsure of which section I used.
Hope that helps. I think that this would be a good change for the Laser class.