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Lasers, L30s, the Olympics and their paths forward

by David Schmidt 2 Apr 10:00 PDT April 2, 2019
Action from the Volvo ISAF Youth Worlds at Busan, Korea © Peter Bentley

The summer before sixth grade, I ran headlong into my first serious case of puppy love. It was not, however, my memorably attractive sailing instructor that caught my eye, but rather a Laser. Mind you, this wasn't a fleeting emotion, but a screaming demand from my subconscious to rid myself of the awful Blue Jay trainer boats that my parent's YC used to torture their junior sailors with, and instead trade up to something that (circa 1988) my sailing instructors (even the cute one) deemed a high-performance boat.

An easy parental sell, or so I thought. After all, my dad was no stranger to eye-watering bills from his sailmaker and his boatyard, so why would he possibly object to expanding his fleet by one 13'9" planing dinghy?

My dad, being much smarter and wiser than I, instantly realized that I had willingly dangled my own carrot on the end of a mighty long and powerful stick, and that all he'd have to do to instil serious lessons in entrepreneurship, frugality, and capitalism was to decline to write a check.

While our initial negotiations didn't progress well (at least from my point of view), it took me less than 48 hours to make up fliers advertising my new-found (invented?) skills as a lawnmower, handyman, leaf-raker, and low-skilled landscaper (I was 12), which I deposited into our neighbors' mailboxes from the comfort of my 10-speed. The phone started ringing, and I quickly learned that it takes a long time to save up $1,000 to buy a boat when an hour of one's labor is only valued at $5.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my first regatta. I learned about gumption, determination, and how to adjust the blinders just so, in order to remove any and all other distractions, and I learned exactly how hard one has to work to make a dream come true. All valuable lessons, of course, and it also had the corollary effect of teaching me the importance of really taking care of a boat, equipment and sails.

While it's fair to say that my dreams of Laser-sailing greatness outweighed my racecourse realities, I learned more from my Laser than I did from my entire high school career. Not only did I learn the intricacies of roll tacking and gybing, but I also got an indelible lesson in basic economics, customer service, and - most importantly for my professional life as a freelance scribe - the importance of time management and self-generated drive.

So it's with a heavy heart that I have watched the Laser's slow decline over the past several years. But, unlike other classes where the sailors have simply moved on to better equipment, the Laser's bloodletting has been the result (from my perspective at least) of builder-inflicted wounds, largely stemming from supply issues that aren't currently satisfying the demand from North American and European markets for identical hulls, spars and sails.

Then, just last week, Eric Faust, the long-serving Executive Secretary of the International Laser Class Association (ILCA), sent out an official communication stating that the class is actively seeking new builders, after their official builder, Laser Performance (Europe) Limited (LPE), allegedly breached the terms of the class' Laser Construction Manual Agreement (i.e. the construct that keeps all Lasers identical).

"We're disappointed to see such a long and productive relationship come to an end, but we had to move ahead in order to protect the level of competition and the investment for the 14,000 members of the International Laser Class and the more than 50,000 sailors around the world who regularly sail the Laser dinghy," said Class President Tracy Usher, in this official class communication.

"The very heart of our class is the ability for any sailor to race any other on an equal playing field, and the only way we can guarantee that level of parity is by ensuring that all builders are producing the boat in strict accordance with the Laser Construction Manual," continued Usher, who explained that the class has now terminated their contract with LPE. "It's the same for every class of One Design racing boat: if we can't be sure that they are all the same, we have no class left," said Usher.

While this raises a heck of a lot of red flags just a tad under 18 months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the good news is that there are two other licensed Laser builders who have long honored the Laser Construction Manual Agreement, and who are prepared to step up and help fill any production voids.

While this feels like a bullet dodged, the ILCA, class builders, and all Laser sailors would be wise to remember that the venerable Laser is now a 50-year-old design and there are newer, faster and more technologically relevant boats afloat (read: RS Aero and Melges 14s, for example) that would love to take the Laser's spot on an Olympic starting line. And while not all sailors believe that the Olympics are vital to maintaining a class' lifeblood (case and point: the mighty Star class), the reality is that the Olympics bring a ton of talented sailors to the boat, (ideally) help to ensure that all boats are identical and in good supply, and on the yonder side of Olympic campaigns create entire fleets of highly competitive sailors who know how to the make the boat jump.

Loosing all of this positive momentum because of a failed builder contract seems insane, and Sail-World wishes the Laser and its great international class association the best of luck in negotiating these waters and ideally landing a wonderful partnership with a builder who understands the gravity that this simple boat commands in the hearts and minds of sailors in so many countries.

Speaking of Olympic sailing, news also broke last week that the L30 has been selected as the supplied equipment for World Sailing's Offshore World Championships, starting with the 2020 event, which will take place on the waters off of Valletta, Malta, in October 2020.

Rodion Luka, an Olympic medalist and Volvo Ocean Race competitor, and yacht designer Andrej Justin, who worked closely with Sir Russell Coutts on the design of the RC44, created the boat. To date, it's has been sailed by luminaries including Charles Caudrelier (FRA), Ian Walker (GBR) and Abby Ehler (GBR), and their feedback was purportedly crucial to the boat's final design.

Interestingly, boats will be charted to national teams and will be made available to sailors a week ahead of competitions using a draw method to eliminate worries of "fast" or "slow" boats. Moreover, there's wide internet speculation that the L30 will be adopted for double-handed Olympic offshore racing, starting with the Paris 2024 Olympics.

"The L30 Class share our ambition to grow double handed offshore sailing globally," said Kim Andersen, President of World Sailing, in an official press release. "The boat is well-designed to cater for the demands of offshore sailing and will provide the sailors competing in Malta next year with a stern challenge."

Rodion Luka, CEO of L30 One Design, said, "Our team is proud to be a technical partner of World Sailing's and to support the Offshore World Championship. I have no doubt that this event will bring our sport to a new level, engaging a wider audience and opening new horizons for offshore sailors around the globe."

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens with the L30, and as someone who can never smell mulch without remembering the hundreds of wheelbarrow-loads worth of the stuff that I had to shovel, roll and spread in order to buy my first boat with the venerable Laser, and we wish both classes the best of luck as they navigate their upcoming challenges.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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