Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fairness


Next week is the New York Boat Show. At that show, 40 years ago, a simple little single-handed sailboat called the Laser was launched. And the rest is history.

The Laser has become hugely popular as a racing sailboat for the masses for a number of reasons, the most important of which are...

1. It's fun.

2. It's good value for money. As sailboats go, the Laser is relatively cheap to buy, requires minimal maintenance, and retains a strong value in the second-hand market.

3. It's fair. The strict one design rules enforced by the Laser Class, tight manufacturing standards by the builders, and a reluctance by the class to allow change for the sake of change have created a level playing field for racing which means, that as far as is humanly possible, the outcome of a race is determined by the skill of the sailor rather than by the size of his bank account.

But all is not well in Laser world.

There are two issues facing the Laser which could seriously threaten the future popularity of the class by undermining two of those drivers of its success in the last 40 years; two areas where those who are prepared to spend more money on their racing can easily secure an immediate and unfair advantage over those who do not choose to spend their money that way; two cancers that are eating away at the fundamental fairness of the Laser racing game.

The two threats are Mommy Boats (of which I have written here often) and Sails.

Mommy Boats - my deliberately derogatory term for the practice of some sailors of paying coaches to drive around in motor boats in order to give them extra assistance at regattas - are a pestilence on our sport for all sorts of reasons: mommification (or pussification as Scuttlebutt so brilliantly called it), nuisance, safety, but most importantly of all... unfairness. Of course having a Mommy Boat gives a competitor an advantage. That's why he is paying the Mommy Boat driver. How does that fit in with the fundamental principle of a level playing field for all Laser racing?

A very wise commenter on my last post on this subject Mommies Gone Wild, made a good point about this practice of "coaching" at regattas...


I suggest that it is no more an unfair advantage than that gained by a boat buying new sails for every second regatta.


He is right. But as my old Mum used to say, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

Official legal Laser sails are crap. Worse than that they are very expensive crap. They are made using an old design with out-of-date sailcloth technology and they don't last long enough. We can argue about whether they last one regatta or one year. It all depends to an extent on whether you are trying to win a spot in the Olympics or just be competitive on the local regatta circuit. But there is no doubt that they wear out too quickly, and soon become slow. Sailors with deep wallets (or with generous sponsors) buy new sails frequently and thereby secure another unfair advantage over those who cannot afford to spend so much.

It wouldn't be so bad if legal Laser sails weren't so ridiculously expensive. APS will currently sell me a North Laser sail for $563.50 ($615 if I want it rolled) or a Hyde Laser sail for $595. (Hyde and North are the only makers of legal Laser sails.) The same company APS will sell me a Laser "practice" sail (functionally equivalent but not class legal for racing) for $179.95. Intensity Sails will sell me a similar "practice" Laser sail for $179.99 (or without bag, numbers, clew strap, tell tales or battens for the knockdown price of $134.99.) Wow!

So why is the price of a legal sail more than three times the price at which the same dealer can sell me a "practice" sail? The answer is murky but clearly the high price of legal sails is driven largely by profits made somewhere in the distribution chain from sailmaker to boat manufacturer to Laser dealer. Not that I begrudge these guys making a profit. We need them all to prosper and stay in business... especially the dealers who provide so much support at a local level to our game.

But this business model is not sustainable in the long term. And it's not fair. Already one of the premier Laser fleets in the country, the Cedar Point YC fleet, has voted to allow Laser "practice" sails from Intensity Sails to be legal in all their fleet racing.

Shock! Horror! Everyone will buy one of those cheap Intensity sails (which by the way are rumored to be more durable than the more expensive class legal sails.) Maybe most of the fleet will buy a new Intensity sail every season? Just think what that will mean! It will mean that the whole fleet is racing with sails that all perform well and are all equally fast and that no sailors in the fleet are gaining an advantage by shelling out 600 bucks for a new sail for every frostbiting season. How terrible! A level playing field!

Unless the class and the manufacturer address the sail issue in some way, this trend will continue. More fleets will vote to allow Intensity or APS or other "practice" sails. Those fleets will run regattas where those sails are allowed. Effectively a parallel class of "Intensity Lasers" will be created. Sails of legal sails will plummet. Something will have to give.

So what can be done?

Well, the Mommy Boat issue can be fixed very easily. The Laser Class simply needs to vote to adopt a class rule like the one recently introduced by the International Star Class

31.1.4 For Gold and Silver events a yacht shall receive no outside assistance from support boats or otherwise once she has left the dock for the day until the finish of the last race of the day, except in the case of emergency and/or towing supplied by the organizer and available to all participants.


The sail issue may be harder to fix. It's one of the most frequently discussed topics on the Laser Forum. A couple of weeks ago one regular contributor to the forum (who happens to be a former Executive Secretary of the class) floated a couple of ideas...

What would happen if we, the members of the class, decided next week to adopt the Intensity sail as the only legally sanctioned sail for all our races? What would be the impact? Would everyone at the upcoming Midwinters buy a new Intensity sail? Yes, they would have to. Would that be so terrible? If you do the math, it would cost some sailors a bit more money and save some of them (who were going to buy a new sail anyway) a lot of money. Why not go further and include the cost of a brand new Intensity sail in the price of entry to the North Americans this year? Most competitors are probably buying a new sail for that event anyway so they would actually save money. Result: "Our North American Championships would be a more one design event than it has ever been."

Hmmm.

Update 17 Jan 2011: Yarg at Apparent Wind has written an excellent commentary on the "sails" part of this topic. Check out The Path to FAIRNESS.

31 comments:

Joe said...

Even though I'm not a Laser sailor, this is a great post. I think it is relevant beyond the world of Laser sailing. The idea of racing is a to have fun, not break the bank and win at any cost. But don't tell that to the condo developer who is bringing the America's Cup to San Francisco. He can't even be bothered to fund a community sailing program....even though he learned how to sail at one.

O Docker said...

Even though I'm not a Laser sailor, this is a great post. I think it is relevant beyond the world of Laser sailing. The idea of racing is to have fun, not break the bank and win at any cost.

"What would happen if we, the members of the class, decided next week to adopt the Intensity sail as the only legally sanctioned sail for all our races?"

I think, the very next day, Intensity sails would cost $563.50 ($615 if you want them rolled).

Brent J. Burrows II said...

Great post! I hope you don't mind me linking it to my blog...

Carol Anne said...

I agree with O Docker on that one. My guess is that the currently legal sails have a significant markup because they ARE the only legal ones, so sellers can ask a much higher price without fear that buyers will go elsewhere.

In the Etchells class, the rules limit how often new sails can be bought. Still, sailors, I am sure, time their purchases to be prepared for major regattas, and they still get new sails often enough that we not-so-serious sailors can get good deals on nearly-new sails.

Mojo said...

O Docker is an astute student of Microeconomics.

Tillerman said...

No problem Brent. You are quite welcome to link to this post. The wider these problems are understood and discussed the more likely it is that we will hear some good solutions to them.

Tillerman said...

O Docker your grasp of the economic theory of monopoly pricing is impeccable. But I'm pretty sure that gouvernail's suggestions on the forum were more meant to challenge conventional thinking and stir up some discussion of radical solutions to the issue, than to be actual concrete proposals for immediate implementation.

Considering what it would mean to move away from the current monopoly supplier, how such a change could be implemented, how it would affect the cost of the game for sailors... are all topics worth mulling over.

I take the suggestions in the spirit of my wife's solution for the problem of teenage drunk driving in America. She would lower the legal drinking age to 18 but raise the driving age to 21. We all know it ain't going to happen but it makes you think differently about the problem, and maybe better solutions will emerge from that process.

Baydog said...

I just had a flashback of my friend and me pedaling our ten-speeds home from the Osprey Hotel after 50 cent drinks at happy hour.
Leave the lawn tractor at home - take the Schwinn Varsity.

Wait, weren't you talking about sails?

P.O.H. said...

I started sailing Lasers a year ago - bought an intensity sail online for $130 with $30shipping to Australia (sails here are $850!!!) and saved my 'class legal sail' for regattas.

All season long I got harassed by a few of the sailors in the club (the same ones who buy new sails at least once a year) that my results didn't count as I was using the intensity sail. I couldn't care less - at the club I was there to sail, not to get a shiny name on a plaque.

Used the class legal sail at one regatta (week long nationals) and it is pretty much shot.

So ... fully agree!

Solution to the microeconomics problem is simple: set the sail design, put it out to tender and pick the lowest bidding supplier - WE (the class) own the monopoly, not the sail makers - WE should be able to dictate the price.

ChrisP said...

The idea of including a new sail in the entry fee for nationals (and making its use compulsory) is very powerful. The regatta organisers could shop around for the best price, encouraging more sailmakers to offer Laser sails. Competition is the key.

Sam Chapin said...

Who said sailing was "fair". Maybe the masters thing, so the kids don't take your trophies. Maybe limit the sailors to the number of years they have been sailing and how old there boats are. Everybody is allowed to buy a cheapy and/or official sail. Old boat new boat. Hire a coach if you want. Some people travel the world. If you want to spend more money- how about a J111. If you want to spend less start a Puddle Duck fleet. The Lasers have a world wide spread that runs pretty well-- who else has that??

Tillerman said...

Sam asks, "Who said sailing was fair?"

Not me Sam. A lot of sailboat racing isn't fair. In many classes the people who are prepared to pay more for better cut sails or faster hull shapes win the races. In many classes you can hire a professional to drive the boat for you and they win the races. All this is within the rules of those classes and so is OK by the people in those classes.

But I sail the Laser partly because one of the fundamental principles of the class is that we sail the boats using our own skills (not with help from paid professionals.) And another fundamental principle of the Laser class is that all the boats are as identical as we can make them. That's what I mean by fairness.

The premise of my post is that this type of fairness is one of the reasons the Laser is so popular. And that if we don't protect the fairness our game will change and that the people who like this kind of fairness will go off and find another game. And that will be a bad thing because I like playing the game with as many friends as possible.

O Docker said...

I'd guess the class association originally constrained sails to one spec to both level the field and to prevent exactly what has now happened - the need to buy expensive sails to be competitive. But their plan was flawed by also limiting the number of suppliers, which, in effect, allows price fixing.

In other classes, with fewer constraints, you have to buy super-expensive high-tech sails to be competitive.

So, why not keep the design spec tightly controlled (i.e. 3-ounce dacron only, etc, or whatever it currently is), but allow sails from any supplier that meet that spec?

Or why not simply set a cost ceiling - any sail that costs less than $300 is legal?

For comparison, a North cruising main for my 30-footer, which is twice the thickness of a Laser sail, two and a half times the area, and a much more complicated design, costs only about twice what they're charging for a Laser sail. And those sails will last 5-10 years in normal use.

Something is definitely rotten in Denmark, or wherever they make North sails.

Tillerman said...

Sri Lanka. Not Denmark.

Brian said...

Actually, we ( the class) do not own the monopoly. That's owned by the rights holders - the manufacturers in each region.

We have some influence through class rules but that's it. Once those are set, regional manufacturers do the rest.

BTW, a new sail design is in testing. Due to the Laser being an Olympic class, more delays than ever are involved in getting it approved and out to the masses.

Tillerman said...

Good point Brian. In theory the class cannot arbitrarily change the maker of the Laser class sail as suggested in that forum post.

And yet... the fleet at Cedar Point have taken a step in that direction. And if you look closely at that video I posted earlier this week of the Newport fleet racing you will see some "practice" sails there too.

So if some of our top fleets are voting to allow Intensity sails for racing, or turning a blind eye to them, then it seems that many Laser sailors are ignoring the official class and declaring that Intensity sails are permissible for the racing they do.

The post on the forum that I paraphrased was really just taking that trend to its logical conclusion.

Sam Chapin said...

I think you folks are whining about the wrong stuff. For a few months I owned and sailed an MC scow here in Eustis, Florida. The sail is twice the area of a Laser full rig and costs 1,ooo dollars. If you are a hot shot, you need a second sail so you can change sails when you change the spreaders for the different wind speeds. Then there are different brands that you might want to try. The hot Laser sailor maybe buying a new sail every year and he will also be buying a new boat ever two or three years.

Local fleets are free to sail with intensity sails. Our fleet has a mix and our faster sailors are fast with intensity or official sails. I have a new intensity and a new Hyde hanging up in my garage and in a couple of years I will tell you which I like best.

Part of the higher cost of the Offical sail of course goes to support the fleet or builders, etc.

You can say they are cheating you, but what if they stopped building new Laser boats?

Now I will go back up to the top and check out our friend Manny, the girls and the catfish. Can you find some U-tube of Manny and the sharks for next Friday??

Tillerman said...

Sam, OK so Lasers are fairer and cheaper than M Scows. I won't argue with that. All I'm saying is let's strive to keep the Laser sailing game as fair and as economical as it possibly can be so lots of people will want to keep playing that game for another 40 years, which will be long enough for me I think.

You say that "part of the higher cost of the Offical sail of course goes to support the fleet." It does? I used to be a Laser fleet captain. I don't recall North Sails or Vanguard (as they were then) sending me big fat juicy checks every year to support my fleet, even though I did head off a threat to their business from a local sail-maker who wanted to make replica sails for our fleet. (I think I did ask Vanguard once for some support for a regatta I was running and they sent me a few key chains.)

I don't think I said anyone was cheating me. I said that the various parties in the distribution chain are making a healthy profit on the sail and I am glad that they are because I want them to stay in business and keep making Lasers for me.

What I am saying is that the current lack of durability in the sail and the availability of an alternative at a third of the price are threatening the current business model and the fairness of the Laser racing game. Unless the class and the manufacturers come up with a good answer then we are all going to be sailing a new boat called the Intensity Laser three years from now.

Mojo said...

Just asking, but would it be a bad thing if you were sailing "a new boat called the Intensity Laser" in three years?

Sounds like the rights holder (Laser Performance) and its licensees, the sail makers, have been milking their monopoly/oligopoly status to the detriment of their loyal and passionate customers...

("I'm shocked, shocked to find that [profiteering] is going on in here")

What is the downside of market competition, albeit "unofficial", if the alternative product is as good as (or even superior to) the official brand, as some of the fleets are apparently deciding?

Witness the ascendance of private label brands vs. the national brands on the supermarket shelves.

You're on to it, Tillerman.

Tillerman said...

Would it be a bad thing if a huge number of Laser sailors were racing with Intensity sails in three years time?

Well, not for my friend Jim Myers who owns the company that sells them. But leaving that aside for now...

Yes and no.

I'm sure that the post from the forum was meant to explore some of the upsides of what it would mean if we all had sails from Intensity.

But there are downsides too. Currently Intensity sails are not recognized by the class for officially sanctioned Laser regattas (whatever that means.) So, if Intensity sails become more and more prevalent at the club level, more and more people who don't understand the way the class works are going to be turning up at regattas with an Intensity sail and they are going to be very pissed off when they are told they can't sail in the regatta.

Secondly the Laser class has tried to maintain the strict one-design philosophy by having a rule saying that you have to buy your sail from the manufacturer. Once that is breached where will it end? People will have sails from North and Hyde and Intensity and APS and Joe Sailmaker and Bill Makingaquickbuck. Are all those sails the same? How will we know? Will we have to have sail measurers at every regatta to check that all sails are legal? Not the direction that most of us want to go.

Thirdly, if it's true that the manufacturer and local dealers make a big chunk of profit from selling official sails, what's going to happen to their businesses when that revenue goes away? I don't want the local Laser dealers to go out of business. I don't want the Laser boat manufacturer to go bankrupt. (I think North and Hyde will be OK.)

So it's not all as simple as my post implied.

Mojo said...

It seems to me that so long as the class wants to maintain the rule that you have to buy your sail from the manufacturer, there is no way to introduce effective competition that might lower the price (or improve the quality) of the sails.

If that is the case, vendors of the official sails will continue make profits in excess of those that could be earned in a competitive market.

That may be the price (really a tax, or subsidy) that laser sailors have to pay for the ability to easily determine the legality of sails at regattas, and to ensure that the manufacturer and the dealers stay in business.

(If they were adding value (price, quality), they should be able to survive in a truly competitive market anyway-- or be replaced by those who can.)

My guess is that laser sailors can have it one way or the other, but probably not both.

Tillerman said...

I think you summed it up very well Mojo. The problem is that, at present, we are heading to "both".

Antolin said...

Timonel, you are right in all accounts. And what fails to be realised is that as more and more local club racing start allowing intensity sails, one fine day there will be a gentleman agreement in local areas as thing go...etc. and once that happens....the change will be set...non-laser class blades will follow...etc. there goes the "one design" class and we all lose. The solution is for that manufacturer to sailor model to be changed so that we can get a class legal sail for the actual price of making a laser sail (which intensity has proved is under 200 dollars and still make their profit). we will see.

oh by the way, I am a fleet captain at my local club and my ear is very close to the ground

Tillerman said...

Dead right Antolin. I think things are going to get very messy in the class over the next few years if we don't have an "official" solution along the lines you suggest.

Yes I know you are a fleet captain. I also heard that you are now the Godfather of Laser sailing for all of Florida. Congratulations!

Tweezerman said...

Sheesh!

Just another example of how the Chinese business model, with their skewed currency and low, low labor rates is rapidly becoming the benchmark price for every product we buy! Those absurdly cheap "recreational" Laser sails are Chinese made. How cheap are they. If I went out to make my own Laser sail today, the sail cloth would cost between $85-$90 low end or $120 for some nice Dimension medium 3.8 oz. And they are selling a sail shipped from China for $130 with China and APS all making a profit at this price! Go ahead, have the class switch to cheap Chinese sails. Kill the class association which operates off sail revenues; kill the dealer network which depends on profits from parts service.

Mojo said...

Interesting comment that the class association operates off sail revenues. Is the ILCA a not-for-profit organization? If not, who owns it?

Tillerman said...

I think Tweezerman's information is a bit off the mark. I don't think it is accurate to say that the class "operates off sail revenues."

The North American Laser Class's main source of income is member subscriptions with some smaller level of support from the manufacturer.

The accounts of the International Laser Class Association show that their main source of income is from running championships, but then their main cost is running those championships too (on which they do make a modest profit). Their other main sources of income are member subscriptions (a toll on the regional and national associations essentially), plaque fees on new boats, and fees from sail buttons (that certify that sails from North and Hyde are legal.)

So yes the Laser class does obtain some income from sails, but it is not a large part of the cost of the sail or a large part of the income of the association.

I don't think anyone has ever published who makes what percentage profit off the sale of official Laser sails but I think we can safely assume that the manufacturer and the dealers and the sail-makers all make a profit from the trade. Of course most Laser dealers don't just sell Lasers, they deal in many boats and parts from multiple manufacturers, so I don't know if many of them would really be driven out of business if they lost their profits from selling Laser sails.

I also think the "cheap Chinese sails" accusation at APS and Intensity is a bit of a red herring. The official Laser sails are made in the Far East too (in Sri Lanka and the Philippines I believe) so I don't think the cost of manufacture is all that different between the legal and "illegal" sails.

I know there is work going on in developing a new official sail which should be more durable than the current sail. Even if this sail turns out to be no less expensive than the current sail it will be a major step in the right direction of making our game fairer so that we can all sail most of the time with sails that are equally fast.

But the process of testing and approving a new sail design is painfully slow, measured in years not months.

Tweezerman said...

I'll bow down to Tillerman's more extensive knowledge of Laser class funding and admit to a teensy weensy bit of hyperbole in my comment. But I still wonder at a new price point of $130-$180 for a Laser sail. The feeling I get from these comments is that the Laser sailors are starting to feel unfairly gouged if they pay much more than that. It seems the rest of the singlehander world still feels they are getting a fair value even when spending (gasp!) $500, $600 or even more for their sails. Can anyone tell me has the percentage cost of the Laser sail as compared to the cost of the complete Laser, has this percentage changed dramatically over the years? (i.e in 2011 a $500 Laser sail is approx 10% of the current cost of the Laser; what was that in 1970's, 1980's etc)

Tillerman said...

I think that's a good point Tweezerman. My guess is that you are right in saying that the ratio of sail cost to boat cost hasn't changed a lot over the years. It has been the availability of a much cheaper alternative that has started people asking questions and feeling dissatisfied.

Brass said...

I'm sort of glad this thread has drifted away from coach boats towards sails, but I'll offer some coach boat comments anyway.

The last two events I have been at (Laser State Champs, and Moth Nationals and Worlds), coach boat behaviour was absolutely IMPECCABLE. And there were no more than a handful of coach boats for fleets over 100. So bad coach boat behaviour is not a universal problem.

Starboats have banned coach boats at Gold and Silver events. Gold and Silver Starboat events are World and Continental championships, so the Stars have banned coach boats at the highest level of competition. This is a little odd, Stars have banned coach boats at the level where:
1) the sailors are least in need of coaching, but
2) conventionally, it is nearly always available.

Stars have NOT banned coach boats at any level below Continental champs.

What may be right for keelboats, isn't necessarily right for centreboard dinghys. Are you sure that the Laser Class would want a rule that effectively puts all the responsibilty for support boats onto the Organising Authority? That flitter-flutter sound you hear is rule 4 going out the window, and a massive assumption of liability risk by the OA.

Like it or not, sailing is a 'coached game'. What would you think if the Yankees decided to go into a play-off game without their coach(es) on the field?

So the problem seems to lie with inexperienced but enthusiastic parents and coaches who don't know any better. That doesn't look like glaring unfairness to me.

Prohibition didn't work with alcohol, doesn't work with other drugs, and therefore won't work with coach boats.

Spell out the do's and don't's in a Code of Practice and communicate it to parents and aspiring coaches.

By all means, especially for junior events, write SI that make it a condition of having a coach boat that the coach boats and coaches go into a pool and provide equal coaching and support for all.

Anonymous said...

With the fleets that are "voting" to use the less expensive vendor's sails, what right do they have to do this? Class rules are 'rules' and rule 87 prevents changing class rules; unless the class rule itself allows this or the class gives written approval.

A fleet doing this, right or wrong, should read the Basic Principle - Sportsmanship and the Rules. Another example of our moral compass losing its way?

What about if I can build a less expensive hull too? What is the difference with just using another sail?

Last, what is the legal aspect of this? Could the class have an injunction filed with these manufactures and have the sails seized as counterfeit? Will jackboot agents be kicking in the doors of mommy boat minivans and suburbans looking for these illegal sail stashes.

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