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 They are made using an old design with out-of-date sailcloth technology and they don't last long enough.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."
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.