Monday, October 04, 2010


On the Saturday after my return from the UK I headed off to race in the New England Laser Masters at Third Beach, Newport, and was looking forward to sailing with my brand new lower mast section which I had recently purchased from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island (a.k.a. the boat shop next to the Laser factory in Portsmouth) for only three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax, after breaking my old mast.

The wind was blowing from the SW at 15-18 knots and it was a pleasure to sail on some nice regular rolling Sakonnet River waves instead of those "nasty, unpredictable, monster, cockpit-filling, boat-bashing, short wavelength, square waves" we had at Hayling Island.

I was going pretty well in the first race and finished just above the middle of the fleet. But in the next couple of races I was awful. I couldn't work out what was wrong. I just couldn't hang with the fleet going upwind, I couldn't point, and in both races I slipped back and back in the fleet as each race progressed. The wind picked up a little for the fourth race but I was so ticked off with my poor performance that I decided to skip the final race and head for the beach. What was wrong with me?

Back on land I discovered that it wasn't me that was wrong. It was my new mast. My new bottom section that I had recently purchased from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island for only three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax, and which I had never used before was now... permanently bent. And not just slightly bent. Bent into a curve of 10-15 degrees.

Now I was really ticked off. How could this happen? A brand new mast used once in conditions that were by no means extreme for Laser sailing shouldn't have a permanent bend like that after one day's sailing.

As luck would have it, the helpful gentlemen from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island were attending the regatta with their van and had been doing a roaring trade selling clothing and boat bits to many of the old Laser geezers at the event. So on Sunday morning I took my brand new mast bottom section (have I mentioned it cost three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax?) across to one of the helpful gentlemen from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island and plonked the mast down on his table and said, "I bought this from you three weeks ago and used it for the first time yesterday. It shouldn't bend like that, should it?"

I was not a happy camper.

The helpful gentleman from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island looked at my mast. I'm pretty sure that he was one of the helpful gentlemen that had sold me the mast but he didn't seem to remember me. Did I have my receipt? Well, no, it's at home, I don't usually bring receipts for every boat part to a regatta. I was pretty sure that the other helpful gentleman from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island at the regatta would remember selling me the mast and eventually he was tracked down and did indeed confirm that I had bought the mast only a few weeks before from Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island.

The helpful gentlemen looked at the mast. They weren't sure they could help me today. Maybe I could come to the shop on Monday? The company has a policy. Bent masts have to go back to the factory to be tested to see if they are within specs are not. If they are out of spec then I could have a new mast under warranty. If not....

I stood my ground. I explained to the helpful gentlemen at Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island that it seemed to me that I had already "tested" the mast and it had failed the test. You are supposed to be able to sail a Laser in 15-18 knots without giving the mast a permanent bend of 10-15 degrees, aren't you? And, in any case, I want to sail today.

The helpful gentlemen were sympathetic. They would like to let me have the new bottom section that they had in the van but there is that little policy problem. If the factory says my bent mast is in spec then they won't reimburse the shop and so I would have to pay for the replacement mast.

What kind of test does the factory do? The helpful gentlemen didn't seem to know exactly.

In the end I had no real choice but to accept their terms and to agree to pay for a new mast if the bent mast was found by the factory to be within spec (using a test that nobody present seemed to be able to define.)

As a consumer, it seems to me that I bought a consumer product and used it for the purpose for which it was intended in conditions for which it was designed, and it failed to work as expected, and is no longer usable after one use. Naturally I feel that I am entitled to a replacement at no cost to me.

But I can also see the manufacturer's point of view. They build (or sub-contract the building of) Laser masts according to specifications in the Laser Construction Manual which is a document controlled by the designer (Bruce Kirby) and the manufacturers (and which, by the way, is not available to the general public.) If they make a mast section which meets the specifications in the Laser Construction Manual then they probably think that they have met their obligations, irrespective of whether or not the mast breaks or bends on its first outing.

Watch this space. I guess I'll be writing one more post on this subject when I hear the results of the mystery test.


O Docker said...

Is the part stamped with a country of origin?

Some marine hardware now being made offshore (I'm thinking of the example of swivel hooks for anchor rodes and other such bits) looks identical to stuff previously made in other factories, but lesser grades of alloy are being used.

Any indication that's the case here?

Of course, after paying three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax to an 'authorized' dealer, you shouldn't have to worry about where the part was made, but such is life in our brave new world.

It's not like fried chicken. Parts ain't parts.

Tillerman said...

No, O Docker, I don't believe the mast is marked in any way with a country of origin. There is much anecdotal evidence on the Laser Forum that "they don't make Laser masts like they used to", that European Laser spars are different from American Laser spars are different from Australian Laser spars, and that individual spars do vary quite a lot in wall thickness, weight and bendiness.

That's all kind of troubling to hear about what is supposed to be a strict one-design class (and an Olympic class too.) Personally I don't worry too much about variations between spars; I don't think my standard of sailing is high enough for it to make any difference for me.

I just want stuff that lasts for more than one day! Not much to ask, is it?

Baydog said...

No. It's not too much to ask. The Laser that's been kicking around in my family for 33 years has the original mast, although the last 20 years have not seen much use.

And it's not like fried chicken either. That never lasts in my house.

bonnie said...

Makes me all the more appreciative of the GoreTex lifetime guarantee & the way Kokatat implements that warranty. I got a brand new suit from them last year when my 3-year old, heavily used one proved to be delaminating & seeping heavily, no questions asked.

Sam Chapin said...

Find an old junker Laser. Try to buy it for 300 dollars even and use its lower mast. Should last as long as you want to sail a Laser and you have saved twenty five dollars and eighty two cents, plus cheater the gov out of the tax.

Tony said...

That's insane. I've never heard of a standard rig bottom section bending, let alone on the first outing. It has to be out of spec. Did the wall thickness look right to the naked eye?

If they claim that it was your fault, make sure you shake your fist at them, good and proper.

Tillerman said...

Thanks Tony. I've never heard of it either. Though one of the guys from the shop said he had seen it happen to a new mast on a charter boat at the North Americans. The mast thickness looked OK to the naked eye but of course you can only see the thickness of the wall at the bottom, not in the middle where it actually bent.

There was some discussion with other sailors about whether aluminum needs "age hardening" but I'm not convinced any of us knew what we were talking about. In any case, I've never heard any official advice along the lines of "don't use a new mast in over 10 knots on the first 3 outings." And I really wasn't using extreme vang tension, only slightly more than block-to-block, and I didn't capsize so it didn't seem like I was abusing the mast in any way.

I have some sympathy for the shop guys. They are just caught between the customer and the factory warranty policy. But I may be unable to restrain myself from some "virtual" fist shaking at the manufacturer if they say this particular mast was "in spec".

Anonymous said...

I though you guys in the US had 'lemon laws' around 'fit for purpose'. In the UK we would not worry about the warranty - limited or otherwise - in these circumstances. As a retail customer our beef is with the retailer. Goods not 'of merchantable quality' i.e. not fit for the reasonable purpose purchased would be entitled to a full and immediate refund from the retailer. How he deals with his supplier is his problem!

I kind of guess that the shop next door to the factory has a reasonable working relationship with said factory?


Tillerman said...

Good point Poesje. I know that several American lawyers (who are also sailors) read this blog. Perhaps they would like to comment on how US consumer protection laws apply to this situation?

Pandabonium said...

It's not like fried chicken. Sounds more like Chicken McNuggets.

Pat said...

But I thought the Laser class regulated parts so tightly that it's impossible for Laser sailors to get junk parts, sails, etc.! Isn't that why you're paying the big bucks to Laser Performance Sailing and why competition in providing parts to Laser racing sailors is banned?

Surely all the high prices and monopoly are there to protect you and make sure you always have the best possible equipment.

SoxSail said...

From my (unnamed) friend who works at the Laser Performance store in Bristol, I learned that many of the lower sections are indeed defective. I guess it's mountains of paperwork, and they're trying to get the manufacturer to foot some of the bill. In any case, I'm wondering if you've heard back from them regarding the one you tried to return?

Post a Comment