Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where Can I Learn to Sail in a Laser?

I received an email a few days ago with a question about sailing that I couldn't answer.

Dear Mr. Tillerman:

I too am 60-something.
I too would like to die in a Laser.
But I am a prairie boy from Calgary, Alberta who knows nothing about sailing.
I recently bought a Laser.
I need to learn to sail it.

If I could wait till next summer, I'd go to the Laser Sailing School in Weymouth, England and make a holiday out of it. But I can't wait. Nor can I face another winter in the cold frozen north (Canada) without a break.

Do you know of any schools where a guy could attend for a week or so to learn how to rig and sail a Laser? I mean, anywhere in the world, though Florida or California would be the most convenient. But convenience is not as important as learning how to sail; so I'd go anywhere, preferably in February when winter is at its worst up here.
Hmmm. You would think that would be easy.

But then I realized that I don't know of any sailing schools that teach total beginners in Lasers. In fact, most of the schools I know start beginners out on keelboats or on two-man dinghies, with an instructor in each boat with the students.

There's a good reason for that I suspect. When the instructor in is in the same boat as the beginners, it's much easier to show them what to do, and to correct their inevitable mistakes before one of those mistakes causes them to capsize, or broach, or crash into another boat, or head off uncontrollably in the general direction of Bermuda. Shouting from a nearby motor-boat is a poor second to (literally) hands-on instruction.

It's also a lot easier for raw beginners to learn the various elements of sailing a boat separately at first. Where is the wind coming from? What course do you want to steer? How should you balance the boat? How should you trim the sails? How should you steer? In a single-hander on your own you basically have to learn everything at once.

In particular I always found when teaching kids in Optimists and Sunfish that it was almost essential to have them learn the two skills of (a) steering and (b) trimming the sail separately at first. It was just too much for most kids to learn those skills simultaneously in the first lesson. I suspect it's even harder for older brains.

There's also the factor that the total beginner in a lively single-hander like a Laser has none of those self preservation instincts that are natural to more experienced sailors after a few hours in the boat. They don't automatically ease the sheets and/or hike harder when a puff hits... so they capsize to leeward. And if the boat accelerates to a scary (to them) speed on a reach they don't know that heading up or easing the sheet will slow them down. They are just as likely to panic and bear off and end up in a death roll. You can tell them this stuff on the land but until they've had a few capsizes like that they just don't have the quick reactions to avoid trouble.

No big deal, you might say. Let them go out in a 20 knot breeze and capsize a few times. Well, I guess that's one way to teach sailing but it's not a good feeling for a sailing instructor when a gust hits his class of 6 or 8 kids in single-handers and they all scream off out of control in different directions and execute wild capsizes in random places about half a mile from each other, and then start crying for help. Been there, done that. Got the T-shirt. Learned the hard way. (The parents of New Jersey sleep easier in their beds now that I am no longer teaching their kids to sail.)

To be sure, there are some schools that teach beginners in single-handers but they usually use a boat a little more stable and forgiving than a Laser. For example, Minorca Sailing (of which I have written here) uses the Laser Pico for instructing beginners.

My correspondent referenced the Laser Sailing School in Weymouth in the UK (which is operated by the manufacturer of Lasers and other boats: LaserPerformance.) Judging by their website they don't use Lasers for beginner classes either. They teach the first two RYA levels in the Stratos (keelboat), Bahia (dinghy for up to 4 adults), and Pico (single-hander). Once you have passed those two levels you can move on to their Introduction to Lasers course.

It's not that the Laser is especially hard to sail. But it probably is a bit too lively for most raw beginners in any wind above 10 knots, say. I'm sure some people do teach themselves sailing from scratch in a Laser, by starting off in lighter winds and then going out in stronger winds as they gain confidence. But I don't know of any sailing schools that use the Laser as a training boat for people like my friend who "knows nothing about sailing." Sorry.

However, the skills of sailing any dinghy are basically the same. So I would encourage the writer of the email to attend any good sailing school in whatever boats they have. And then go out and use what he has learned in his own Laser next summer. That's what I did.

Alternatively he could go to a school (like the one in Weymouth and Minorca Sailing) that has beginner classes followed by an intermediate class in Lasers... and plan on enough time to cover both classes.

Or can any of my readers give my friend a better answer to his question?


EscapeVelocity said...

I believe the Pico is designed to be a Laser with training wheels, and you can get two adults on one--the boat will be half-swamped unless they are pretty small adults, but they still float like that. I *have* taught with two people on a Sunfish, but I wouldn't want to try that in any very wide range of wind conditions.

YellowLaser said...

This brings back great memories of teaching my kids to sail on Lasers. I would lie on my back on the bow with a leg on each side of the mast. Gripping on for dear life, I would talk my kids through tacks and gybes. And then came the day to teach them to capsize and to right the boat...
Over we went and my head went into the water with my two legs pointing up still stradling the mast. With the life jacket pushing my crotch into the mast it took a while to get myself out of this position.
The great memories.

Tillerman said...


yarg said...

Tillerman is right, of course, about the teaching process. I like the idea of ramping up to a laser fairly early in the process (not first) because the Laser allows you (or makes you) develop a sense of FEEL in sailing. In many bigger, heavier boats it is hard to get this. I have two suggestions for early lasering. Warm water. You will be swimming so make it enjoyable. And samller sails - radial or even 4.7. Reduce the horsepower. It can feel a little like having a 450 cu. in. V-8 engine in a go cart at the beginning.

Sam Chapin said...

Send him to Eustis, Florida, but have him read a good learn to sail book first so he know the parts of the sail, the boat, what close hauled, reaching and running means, the difference between tacking and gybing,and where the no sail zone is.
I will find a certified instructor and a Laser with a 4.7 sail, a 3 to 4 mile an hour wind and we will have him sailing in no time.
We can have an instructor on the Laser with him.
All this if he weighs less than 250 pounds.


Anonymous said...

Maybe have him check out SailLaser Miami (or any of the other locations: Chicago, Connecticut, Holland, Hong Kong, Scotland & Weymouth). Miami seemed to be one of the warmer options for February.

tillerman said...

Thanks my2fish. I wasn't aware of that Miami operation. Sounds as if LaserPerformance, having bought Vanguard in the US, have now introduced to the US a similar "Laser school" concept to what they were doing in Weymouth. Again, judging by their website, they don't do beginner classes in Lasers, but if Weymouth next summer suits our email-friend then Miami would be a way to access similar training this winter.

O Docker said...

Not much to add to the good advice already here.

But I'll say that I did teach myself on a Laser in the beginning, and so had a very patient teacher who understood all of my insecurities.

I found a good book and really studied it before I got near the water. I was then able to bluff my way through a 'check-out' drill and rent a boat, and managed to take my wife out for an hour in a sheltered cove (less than eight knots) without capsizing.

So, it IS possible to start that way, but, that said, I'd still recommend the first lessons be with an instructor in a 'family-style' daysailor made for a crew of at least two. Warm water would be a real plus.

After that, I'd think an adult could stay out of serious trouble on a Laser until they could get some real, dedicated Laser instruction.

EVK4 said...

I've found that growing up sailing really helps if you aren't going to take lessons. You learn very well just by being on boats your whole life. Maybe your reader can try that?

Failing the second childhood approach advocated above, use the winter to read up on sailing and just go out on a lake the second it thaws.

Janna Cawrse Esarey said...

Took a Laser sailing course as a kid. Did OK. Until my test day when it was blowing like a nose in flu season. Wind kept knocking my Laser down while my 70-pound-self scrambled overboard. (Was a mighty fine dry capsizer by then.) Finally, they put a crackerjack kid onboard with me and she kept yelling, RELEASE! RELEASE! RELEASE! That eventually did the trick.

Of absolutely no help to your reader friend, to be sure, but a nice sail down memory lake. Thanks!

Zen said...

Here is the answer: buy or rent a laser, launch it on the Calgary river in January, wearing only your shorts.You will die!

If that does not work try it in Feb. take a sledge hammer, once in the middle of the river break all the ice around you, jump back in the boat, still wearing your shorts only... you will die!

Carol Anne said...

Of course, someone in Calgary can just hop in the car and drive south. If you go far enough, you get to New Mexico. The New Mexico Sailing Club used to have a dinghy-sailing class that used a variety of vessels, two of which were Lasers. Last I heard, both that club and the Rio Grande Sailing Club (even further south) were trying to get dinghy programs restarted.

(verification word: ramptan. Is that what someone gets when it takes so long to launch the boat that there's no time on the water?)

Post a Comment