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Looking Glass or Crystal Ball?

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail-World AUS 26 Feb 16:08 PST
Laser sailor Tom Burton © Richard Langdon / Sailing Energy

It is the European anti-trust ruling of 2017 that has forced the upcoming World Sailing review of the equipment used in the Olympic single-handed dinghy class for Paris 2024 and beyond. This will no doubt cause heartache for the World Sailing Council when they assemble for their November 2018 meeting.

To ensure that a default equipment monopoly is not maintained, the named equipment will be reviewed in what is a yet to be determined procedure. It is WS' Equipment Committee that has been tasked with determining guidelines by the May mid-year meeting BTW.

Now the question for the decision makers inside Sailing's peak body is do you stick with an aged design, or do you cut to the 21st century?

Designed in 1969 by the very talented Bruce Kirby, the singled handed Laser was conceived as a cartopper, first called the Weekender, and launched in 1970. It has proven to be the runaway success of all the thousands of dinghy designs from the last 50 years. A quarter of a million units is the quantum that stands way above them all.

Although the Laser design and construction method might be frozen in 1969, as it turns out, the Laser is only quite young as an Olympic boat. The Laser Standard only became the single-handed men's dinghy for Atlanta for 1996, and the Laser Radial was first an Olympic boat for Beijing 2008.

The Class is gently advancing elements of the 49-year-old design to improve durability. There were things like a new radial cut sail that was allowed for the one design class from 2015, and the carbon fibre topmast was introduced in 2016.

Laser Class President Tracy Usher says, "ILCA policy is to aim to introduce changes to the boat that don't alter the performance or sailing characteristics, but do address issues with durability or quality. One outstanding area is in the durability of the Radial lower section, so there is an R&D effort ongoing to address this issue, like the new top section this would be of composite construction. If successful I would assume this would be introduced to the Olympic level athletes after 2020."

It could be the very success of the Laser, and the overwhelming desire to maintain the existing weight and performance characteristics of the boat, that is its greatest weakness.

Olympic class equipment has evolved, notably with the heavyweight, single-handed Finn, and more recently with the Nacra 17, which now foils. Yet the total numbers of boats in these classes are miniscule when compared with the Laser.

There is no doubt technology exists for a major upgrade, but who is strong enough to push that though the Class and World Sailing, with the existing design being sailed in 131 countries worldwide?

Oceanic and Australian Lasers Masters 2018 - photo © Nic Douglass / <a" />
Oceanic and Australian Lasers Masters 2018 - photo © Nic Douglass /

Over the last year Lasers fitted with prototypes of a new, fully carbon raked back rig have been sighted on the water. It is likely that such a rig would deliver a significant power boost for the boat.

Should at some time in the future there be a complete rig and sail change, it would have a dramatic effect for lighter weight sailors. It could allow for the development of a lightweight women's class, and would materially assist young sailors, the largest group that exists who cannot sail the 4.7 dynamically upwind, sitting as if they are on ships, having to learn new techniques when they move into the Radial.

Bruce Kirby is now 89 says that if pencilled 'The Weekender' today, with carbon and epoxy materials, then the boat would be a much lighter and different hull, and therefore deliver radically different performance characteristics.

An equipment review might consider the Laser against the Byte CII, the Melges 14, and the RS Aero.

Of these, the RS Aero seems to have the greatest momentum. Here of course we are very interested in the lead up to the 20109 World Championship. Richard Furneaux from Sailing Raceboats said, "The RS Aero was introduced to Australia soon after the boat was released, with the first boats delivered to customers in early 2015."

"Growth has been steady with two distinct customer profiles. There is the older, experienced sailor still looking for performance and competitive sailing in a modern lightweight design, and then the youth sailors, primarily interested in club sailing and having fun."

"The three rig choices make it extremely easy to cater for a wide variety of experience and weight range. We hold stock of boats in both Melbourne and Sydney. The growth of the class is expected to surge with the announcement that the Aero Worlds will be held at Port Stephens, NSW in December 2019."

RS Board Chairman, Martin Wadhams, gives us some insight into the development of that design, which was launched in 2013.

"RS Aero designer, Jo Richards, saw the opportunity for an ultra-lightweight craft, leading to another level of responsiveness and handling. The Aero is about the same weight as an Optimist, so half the weight of the Laser, which results in a dramatic difference when loading, launching, and sailing."

"This delivers dynamic sailing for sailors of all sizes. Even the lightest sailor will weigh more than the boat so, big, or small, you can sail the boat in the same way using body movement. You are not changing sailing style when you go from one size of rig upwards."

"The Aero 5 rig works for young people and the lightest of women, and then the 7 and 9 rigs carry on right through up to 90 plus kilos."

"The materials that we use to make the boat light also give it competitive longevity. Epoxy resins are stiffer and stronger, and have pretty much zero water absorption. Carbon fibre is used in critical areas around the gunnels, the daggerboard, rudder and hiking areas, providing a web of carbon fibre that ties the boat together."

"Mind you, if you hit the Aero hull with a hammer you may dent it, but you can fill a dent, and make the boat competitive again. However, you cannot repair a hull built from older, low tech materials that has lost its stiffness, or got heavy." (Although there are reports that Kiwi Laser Master sailors are oven drying old hulls to keep them light. Ed)

"The boat is naturally quick, so during the development, most changes that were made were much more about enhancing the user friendliness, and the enjoyment of the vessel, rather than searching for more speed."

"Stackability of the hulls saves container space, reducing shipping cost, and for sailors, four boats can be stacked on a single road trailer behind a normal sized car, meaning four sailors can head off to an event together. A halyard helps reduce sail wear, and a rudder that pivots all the way up means you don't bang it on beach or slipway."

"We have a very detailed construction manual that sets out the materials, the processes, and the weights of each stage. There is process quality control throughout, leading to final quality control."

"Currently, we work with just one Aero hull supplier, one spar manufacturer, and one sail manufacturer. In the case of the Aero hull manufacturer, for example, their core business is making composite parts for the aerospace and automotive industries, so they absolutely understand process control and consistency."

"We're already producing a lot of boats, but if the volume was set to grow, then we are open to analysing the pros and cons of licensing further manufacturers in other world regions. We do, however, already have dealers in over 40 countries to facilitate new boat orders, and they also have good ranges of spare parts."

"We believe the Aero can be a really important boat for the future of sailing. Just like in cycling, weight makes a massive difference to the excitement and enjoyment. We've worked hard on every design detail because we think that sailing needs to compete through the sheer pleasure of taking part, as we think sailing is competing not only within the sport, but also with other sports."

"The RS Aero is simple and exciting at every touch, and it can help sailing win the enthusiasm of young sailors, boys and girls, and keep them hooked as they grow within the sport."

And therein is the rub. The Laser is an old design with old materials, a messy manufacturing and distribution history, and a boat blamed for a lot of the youth transitional dropout. Above all of that it has been an incredibly successful boat, and the basis for sailing in many developing countries worldwide. So as a World Sailing Councillor what do you do?

Do you vote by seeing down the past with your looking glass, or gaze into the crystal ball to determine the future?

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