TIME TO UN-RIG AND TAKE A PAUSE: THE LASER AT THE CROSSROADS
Major developments have come to the fore in the past weeks relating to the Laser – so far the most successful one-design sailboat ever, with the Optimist. These developments, including the announcement of not less than 5 new rigs, come at a time when the Laser is being evaluated against 3 other single-handed dinghies for the 2024 Olympics.
These developments are complex and hard to fully understand. Yet one thing is clear is that the thousands and thousands of Laser sailors around the world have not been consulted. Those in charge of the class, along with the manufacturers, are making decisions that, although in theory well-intended, may have huge repercussions, including adverse ones. The Laser is at the crossroads.
The future of the Laser is in fact at stake. So the message of this article is that it’s time to pull the plug, to put all these 5 new rigs and other changes on the back burner until the Olympic future of the Laser is known, for the class to reconnect with its membership, and then to make the right decisions for the class, will it remain Olympic or not.
What did we learn in the past weeks?
three new rigs have been announced in Australia – called C5, C7 and C8 – intended to ultimately replace the 4.7, the Radial and the Standard — these rigs have been in development for several years by Julian Bethwaite, who was also behind the design of the 29er and the 49er. The publicly available pictures and videos of the c5 rigs show lots of resemblance with the 29er: no vang but a gnav instead; an apparently non-adjustable outhaul, a mylar sail; and carbon/composite mast and booms. The prices of these rigs have been announced respectively at AUS$ 2,000; 2,600 and 3,600.
Two additional new rigs have been announced by Laser Performance (USA/UK), which is the dominant Laser manufacturer in the world. They are called the ARC rigs – intended to ultimately replace the Radial and the Standard. Little is known about those rigs except some pictures taken of apparently carbon masts along with laminate sails made by Doyle, in New England. The pricing for those rigs is unknown, but they are supposed to go on the market as early as in May 2019.
The Australian manufacturer is also working on a new composite bottom mast section for the current Radial rig, with an extra cost of some AUS$560 compared to an aluminum section).
The International Laser Class Association (ILCA), via his President, Professor Tracy Usher, is seen on videos about the C5 rig advocating for such rig changes and asserting that there is no future for the Laser with white sails and aluminum spars. ILCA has been closely associated with the development of the C5, C7 and C8 rigs, but not the ARC rigs.
other issues include the negative impacts of Brexit, an unsigned 2020 Olympic contract, an expiring licence to operate for ILCA ending August 2019, perverse impacts of litigation issues, lack of agreement on intellectual property rights, requests to move ILCA to the UK and appoint new staff, and the list goes on
expected sea trials of the Laser, along with the D-Zero, Melges 14 and RS Aero, under the auspices of World
Sailing, will be held in the coming months to determine which boat will be Olympic in 2024, potentially replacing the Laser Standard for men, and the Laser Radial for women.
How the Laser became the Dominant Single-Handed Dinghy World-Wide
The Laser became Olympic for men in 1996 (Standard rig) and for women in 2008 (Radial rig). The class was already successful, as developed as an affordable strict one-design car toppable boat. Over 200,000 units have been produced, which makes it, along with the Optimist, the most successful dinghy ever produced.
While the Laser was a logical choice for a single-handed strict one-design Olympic class at that time, the situation today is very different. The Laser has indeed competitors, including the three boats that are in contention to replace it for the Paris 2024 games. These boats have all been designed within the past 10 years, compared to a Laser design that is now 50 year old. These new designs improve substantially on the Laser, both regarding the hull and the rig, and are widely seen as better, and obviously faster, boats than the Laser.
Today, the main force of the Laser lies with the large number of sailors sailing it worldwide, particularly youth sailors, and with its Olympic status. The Olympic goal is indeed key to the sailing career of junior sailors. Olympic campaigns take several years. It can take 4, 6, 8 years or more to reach the top 10 in the world. With the Laser, an Opti sailor dreaming to go to the Olympics has a clear single-handed path forward. First, he/she will jump into the 4.7, then transition to the Radial, and for male athletes, to the Standard.
The system is far from being flawless, however, as many female athletes don’t ever reach the 150 lbs or so needed to sail the Radial. Some male athletes don’t reach the 180 lbs needed to sail the Standard, and others will exceed say 190 lbs, and then the only avenue for them is the Finn – which is presently withdrawn as an Olympic class for 2024, although this may not be final yet. But despite these flaws, the Laser system works pretty well and is a key to the continued popularity of the class with youth sailors.
While the very top sailors need to change equipment very regularly, as the Laser hull is not lasting more than 1 or 2 years before it gets softer, there is lots of breakage of spars, and sails are not very long-lasting, many junior sailors will sail several years with the same hull. And then the transition from the 4.7 to the Radial, and then to the full rig, are not particularly expensive, as only the mast bottom sections and the sails need to be changed. Despite the relatively low longevity of the hulls at the top competitive level, the boats presently keep a decent resale value. So overall, the system works reasonably well, despite a range of pitfalls.
As an indicator of how the system reasonably works, one can mention the huge fleets competing for events such as the Junior 4.7 and Radial Europeans and Worlds. One talks about 300, 400 or even more entries at such events. This is huge, and actually much bigger than what the Optimist, the Europe, the 29er, the 420 and any other class is able to achieve. While initially not intended as a junior boat, the Laser is now fulfilling that role more than any other dinghy.
This was not at all an instant success. There was hard work involved, spread over decades, to introduce and popularize the Radial, and then the 4.7. Such work happened mostly in Europe, in France, Italy, UK. In other countries such as the USA and Canada, efforts were geared towards the Radial, not the 4.7, and Laser sailing therefore mostly involves the Radial and the Standard in North America.
It’s worth commenting here about older – say 40 year old+ – master sailors. At the club level, the Laser remains popular, and non-class, much more affordable equipment (sails at US$150 for example, instead of US$600 when class legal) helps keep these fleets reasonably alive. For the competitive master sailors, there are obviously a range of master regattas organized by the Laser class.
But that’s where there has been somewhat lower participation. Indeed, boats such as the D-Zero, Melges 14 and RS Aero have mostly attracted, until now, master sailors. These boats are typically bought by previous Laser owners, who prefer a more modern, lighter, more reliable, faster design, with carbon spars, and with better ergonomics than the Laser. There is also competition from other single-handed platforms such as the foiling Waszp.
It’s important to note that several of these new designs typically support a higher sailor weight than the Laser – allowing sailors say of 190 to 200 lbs to participate without being automatically relegated to the back of the fleet. This is of particular importance with the highly uncertain future of the Finn as an Olympic class and the consequent de facto exclusion from the Olympics of the male sailors over 190 lbs, for whom there are no suitable Olympic dinghy to sail. Also, the lighter hulls of the Laser alternatives make their small rig, such as the Aero 5, attractive to adult light weight female sailors. The 4.7 is indeed a junior class, and the Radial rig is simply too powerful for most women.
Implications of the Upcoming 2024 Olympics Decision on the Laser
World Sailing announced on May 25th 2018 its intention to proceed with a review of the equipment – i.e. the boat – for the single-handed dinghy for the 2024 Olympics. It published tender documents with a range of criteria which the various candidates would be evaluated against. On October 4, it announced that there were 4 contenders that would be recommended to undertake trials: the Melges 14, the D-Zero, the RS Aero, in addition to the Laser.
What World Sailing is looking at is what it termed to be a universal single-handed dinghy, like the Laser, which works for both male and female sailors, with different rigs. With the current approach of World Sailing, either the Laser is maintained, or it is completely replaced by one of the 3 other dinghies. A different approach could have been taken, with different equipments for male and female sailors, but that did not occur. So, in 2024, it will be the Laser Standard for male athletes and the Laser Radial for female athletes, possibly with other rigs than the current ones, or it will be one of the three other boats, with a different rig for male and female athletes. The Laser stays or it goes: World Sailing has not envisaged a soft exit strategy.
When the Laser became an Olympic class, the Olympics needed it. Today, one can argue that the Laser may need the Olympics to remain a meaningful class. Let’s imagine what will likely happen if the Laser loses its Olympic status. It will mean that all the sailors seeking to go to the Olympics, or aspiring to do so in future years – will opt for the dinghy selected for the Olympics. A big share of the top senior sailors – typically aged 18 to 25 /30, male and female, will opt for this new dinghy.
Don’t forget, top Laser sailors change hull very regularly, so moving to another dinghy is really not much of an issue. Today, the price differential between the Laser and its competitors is from negative to relatively small. For example, in Europe, the price of the D-Zero, is slightly lower than the price of the Laser. The purchase price of the Aero and M-14 are just a bit higher.
The three new designs have already modern rigs with carbon spars, while the Laser is still struggling to update its spars and sails, adding every time costs to the process. For top sailors, abandoning the Laser is expected to be a near instantaneous process. The top sailors will probably draw the medium level sailors in the process, as those typically sail in the very demanding senior fleets with the objective to improve and ultimately become top sailors themselves.
Now what about the other sailors. Let’s check first with the Master sailors. Most of them typically keep their hulls a longer time, and may be less harsh on their equipment, using for example less vang. Those who still sail competitively today in the Laser Master series have resisted so far to move to one of the three competitors, which have attracted, as indicated previously, mostly master Laser sailors.
So one can anticipate that there will continue to be master sailors in the Laser, but those are not the sailors who consume that many hulls, spars and sails. And they represent a smaller group compared to the juniors and the seniors. And for the casual club sailors, who can sail on hulls that are 10, 20 or even 30 years old, the widespread usage of non-class cheaper equipment, particularly non-class sails, also suggests that they will do little in terms of generation of sales of Laser boats, sails and parts.
For the Junior sailors, things may be different. In Europe, and in a range of countries, the transition path from say the Optimist to the 4.7 and the Radial are very well established. As there would certainly be shortages of boats in the beginning, for say at least 1 or 2 years, in case of a replacement of the Laser, a likely scenario is that the Laser will be maintained for youth sailing, in the 4.7 and the Radial. Many youth Laser sailors actually sail second-hand boats, and there would be plenty of those, so that it could further strengthen Laser youth sailing, at least in the first years.
For the Laser to remain a well-established platform for youth sailing after say 2 or 3 years following the replacement of the Laser, critical conditions will need to be met. First, the Laser needs to fix its key problems, that are well known, both at the hull and the rig level. The boat must become much more durable, not loose performance after just one or two year. And the spars must stop breaking as frequently as presently. The hull must become truly reliable.
Second, the cost of the new Lasers will need to be kept under control, and kept cheaper than the competition. Remember, today, the price of a D-Zero, with an elaborate hull, carbon spars and laminate sail is similar as the Laser with mostly aluminum spars. The price of the M-14 and the Aero may be a bit higher, but this is quickly compensated by the savings done in terms of not having to replace the hull and various parts as regularly.
So the two key conditions to keep the Laser as a youth sailboat are a) to make it truly reliable, and b) cost-competitive. And it is not clear that it will be feasible. First, there will be reduced production, because less demand due to the switch to another single-handed dinghy for the 2024 Olympics. So there will be fewer economies of scale. Second, fixing the problems of the Laser may prove to be expensive. For example, the price announced for the new c8 rig in Australia is AUS$3,600 which may mean adding US$1,000 to US$2,000 to the existing retail price of the Laser.
This would make the Laser even more costly. And third, there is the issue of the location where Lasers are being manufactured – UK, Japan and Australia. These are three high factor cost countries. For the UK, there are great uncertainties with Brexit – with possible tariffs on UK exports towards Europe, the US, Canada and other countries. And there are antitrust issues with the European Union on top of that. Plus issues of fluctuating exchange rates, Plus issues of disagreement among manufacturers, intellectual property questions, etc.
If the Laser is not Olympic in 2024, its future is expected to mostly depend on youth sailing, and for that the boat must become a truly attractive choice for youth sailors, in terms of both quality and price. Otherwise, even youth sailors will lose interest in the Laser. So the current developments, with completely new rigs, and the potential of substantially adding to the price of the Laser, may be counter-productive.
There may be other ways to fix the Laser, that will help keep its price down, without disrupting the successful 4.7 and the Radial fleets, while making it an irresistible choice for youth sailors (and their parents footing the bills).
The other scenario of course is that the Laser remains Olympic. It’s hard to believe it could when one analyzes the various criteria set by World Sailing. See this article for details. Indeed. the existing size of the fleet is not a criteria, and that’s about the only element in which the Laser clearly has an advantage in. The three competitors, although none is perfect, are largely better boats, because they are more modern designs that draw from decades of lessons learned from the Laser. There is more technology, know-how with those boats. The hulls are lighter, use composite and carbon. The rigs are modern. The sails have more modern designs and are reported to last longer. And production costs seem more in control than with the Laser – with 2 out of 3 production units located in lower production cost, yet EU / Euro Zone, countries.
Despite its weaknesses, many observers think that the Laser will remain Olympic for 2024. If that is the case, then the question of the rigs selected by World Sailing will be of critical importance. Right now, we have the Radial and the Standard, and those are in principle the ones to be used for the upcoming World Sailing sea trials. But the other options will be available, in theory, to World Sailing: c5, c7 and c8, which are supported, even if unofficially, by the Laser class ILCA, and the two ARC rigs developed by Laser Performance. For male sailors, World Sailing will have to choose between the current Standard, the c8 and the ARC-Standard rig. For female sailors, it will need to choose between the current Radial, the c5 (light weight), the c7 (medium weight) and the ARC-Radial. World Sailing may require modifications to the rigs too. There is no way to say which rigs will be selected, if the Laser remains Olympic. And don’t forget, there is disagreement and intellectual property issues among manufacturers, which support different rigs, so that their global distribution may be problematic.
It’s Time to Unrig, to Take a Pause and to Reconnect with the Sailors
Today, after 50 years of service, the Laser is at the crossroads. Yes it will be Olympic in 2020. But its Olympic status in 2024 will define its future.
If the boat loses its Olympic status for 2024, it will need to become an irresistible choice for youth sailors in the next decades. Or the boat will possibly discontinued by its producers, as little demand is to be expected from senior and master sailors. Remember, the Laser II was discontinued while it was still pretty successful. What is needed is a more reliable and more cost-effective boat than today. For sure, an improved boat would be even better, and some new rigs would help in that regard. But such change must remain cost-effective, keep the Laser price below that of its competitors, and the membership of the class needs to be widely consulted before any choices are made, as this will deeply impact the class for the next decades.
So there is a strong case to take a pause and to wait for the 2024 Olympic decisions, instead of making hasty decisions and bringing new rigs and other features on the market – as already announced in Australia.
If the boat keeps its Olympic status for 2024, then it is likely to remain for a while the dominant boat for both senior and youth sailing. It will be critical to know what will be the changes to the Laser that will be required by World Sailing. This clearly includes which rigs are to be used at the 2024 Olympics, for both male and female athletes. At this point, this is unclear, and it would be normal for World Sailing to test the various rigs before making any decision. Actually, there should ideally be wide testing of the rigs by Laser class members. For Laser manufacturers and the class to promote new rigs, before the World Sailing sea trials and equipment decisions have been made, and before any wide testing and consultations with the class membership, seems highly unwise. It may actually be contrary to the very constitution of the Laser class.
Yes the Laser is at the crossroads. There is a strong case for the Laser class to take a pause, to reconnect with its membership, and to wait for the outcome of the trials and the World Sailing decision regarding the 2024 Olympics. It will then be time to make the tough, and hopefully wise, decisions for the future of the Laser, as an Olympic class or not.
Copyright Jean-Pierre Kiekens. The author is an engineer and an economist, having sailed the Laser back in the 70s as a junior sailor (picture) and in the past 10 years as a master sailor. He regularly writes about youth and Olympic sailing.