SailCraft Pt 1.22: “We just wanted a nice little boat!” The story of the Laser

In the late 1960s, the world’s dinghy sailors were watching the long process of selecting a new International singlehander. For years, the world’s best designers drew plans, made prototypes and sailed them in three trials in front of the IYRU and the sailing press.

But while the world was watching the triallists in Europe, the singlehander that was to be the biggest of them all was brewing in North America. The Laser didn’t come from any serious attempt to create a major new class, or from the tense singlehander trials in Europe. It came from a very different regatta – a light-air weekend of fun racing on the private lake of “Playboy” magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, towards the end of the great dinghy boom.

The year was 1969, and successful Canadian industrial designer Ian Bruce had a sideline building Contenders and International 14s. Ian Bruce was an Olympic Finn sailor and a winner of the Prince of Wales Cup, the greatest title in I-14s. The I-14s he produced to designs by compatriot Bruce Kirby were not only fast, they were famously simple – the mast on his PoW winner was made from a drainpipe. “All my earlier boats were rigged very simply and people used to look at them and ask me where I’d hidden the strings to pull!” he remembers today.

But Ian Bruce realized that he could not build a full-time boatbuilding career from specialized racing machines like 14s and Contenders. He phoned Bruce Kirby and asked him to design a “fun boat” to suit recreational sailors. It had to be simple and cheap, easy to car-top, and fast enough to attract people moving up from the Sunfish-type “boardboats”.  “I just wanted a little boat that I could build enough that I could actually make a living building boats” he recalled at an interview in the Bethwaite factory in Sydney, when he was redesigning the rig for his Byte singlehander. “I figured, 400 a year and I could retire. It was going to be a cottage boat – that’s why we called it the Weekender.”

Like Ian Bruce, Kirby was a Canadian Olympian, in Finns and Stars. When he took the call he was working south of the border, editing One Design and Offshore Yachting, the magazine that is now Sailing World. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how it was designed on a napkin. Or the back of an envelope” Kirby told me by email. “The original sketch, which hangs above me as I type, was done while I was on the phone talking to Ian Bruce in 1969. And it was done on a lined, yellow legal pad – the type of pad I use for nearly all my conceptual drawings.”

“Ian asked for a ‘cartop sailboat’ and that was pretty well the total commission. That little freehand sketch looks surprisingly like the final boat. I took the sketch home that evening and began expanding it to the one inch to a foot scale at which the final drawings were produced.”

Laser
The million-dollar doodle.

“When we did the Laser, the idea was to be very, very simple” recalls Bruce Kirby. “In the original drawings I did, the Laser was a bit too simple. We didn’t even have a proper boom vang. There was a bracket at the gooseneck that was supposed to be the vang, and the mainsheet was attached to the top of the rudder so there was no means of using a traveler. If you look at that boat, that tells you what it was designed for. It was not designed to be what it became.”

Ian Bruce was responsible for the spars, deck layout, and construction, while the sail was produced by a third Olympian, Hans Fogh. An expatriate Dane, he was one of the early movers in the OK class, a Flying Dutchman silver medalist and Paul Elvstrom’s former training partner and helmsman. Like Ian Bruce and Bruce Kirby, his heritage was the comparatively light International classes, not the traditional hard-chine North American one designs that Kirby had once described as “overweight and clumsy” when compared to the “lighter, faster and more enjoyable craft popular in Europe.”

The sailplan was minimalist in size as well as in fittings. The standard Laser carries just 7.1sq m (76 sq ft) of sail, about 10% less than most comparable boats, because Kirby felt that the narrow, light hull would not need any more, and possibly couldn’t carry any more.

The project stagnated for a while as Ian Bruce tried get the backing of the huge leisure-goods manufacturer Coleman so they could compete with the major companies that had been lured into the booming dinghy market and were throwing vast resources at promoting their own brands of singlehanded beach boat. AMF, a conglomerate that built nuclear reactors, intercontinental ballistic missiles, Head skis and Harley Davidson motorcycles, had taken over Alcort and was promoting the Sunfish. The retail giant Sears had its own Sunfish competitor, the Jetwind, which was built in ABS plastic like many windsurfers of the ‘80s. MFG, manufacturer of car parts and a huge range of powerboats, was selling the Copperhead designed by famous British catamaran designer Rod Macalpine Downie and US boatbuilder Dick Gibbs. The prolific duo created about 75 sailboat designs for major manufacturers, who churned out over 225,000 of them[1].  Chrysler itself, then the third largest car maker in the USA, was selling the Man O’ War, another Macalpine Downie/Gibbs production that Gibbs later described as “not as effective as the Laser as a performance boat, a bit weak in the bow”.[2]  Chrysler’s marine division was promoting its dinghies with all the might of corporate America – a team of 75 salesmen on the road, five warehouses, four sailing simulators on boat trailers, and an advertising budget to match.[3]

After Coleman turned the concept down, the trio decided to present their creation to the world at the ‘America’s Teacup’, a regatta organized by Ian Bruce’s magazine at the Playboy mansion on inland Lake Geneva  to promote the emerging breed of fun boats costing less than $1200. Among the 51 entries were three craft that changed the sport – the Laser, Hobie 14 and Windsurfer. It included events like a slalom and a rigging race and was plagued by light winds, but rarely has any event such a window to the future. The first race was only 40m long and started with the boats unrigged and on the trailer.  The Man O’ War won because the Chrysler Corporate team gave it a mighty shove off the beach.[4] They were to find that corporate might was less useful when it came to sailing and selling.

Launched on the first day of the regatta, the Laser (still racing under the “Weekender” label) raced very closely with the Banshee (“a very good little boat, a Flying Junior with the sheer cut down and the deck and rig changed” recalls Kirby; “very light and slightly inelegant” was the verdict of Macalpine Downie) before an overnight recut to the sail gave Fogh the winning edge. Competing designer Macalpine Downie described it as “a simple and attractive little singlehander, rather reminiscent of the Contender” which was “going beautifully” after the sail was recut. The two ended up tied for first in the “high performance” mono division. [5]

the-weekender-tgif1-prototype-laser-1969
The prototype Laser/Weekender, complete with “TGIF” (Thank God Its Friday) sail logo. From the very start, it was a  boat that not only was simple, but looked simple. Perhaps the fact that the Laser is so obviously simple is a significant factor in its success.
bansheesf
The Banshee, the Laser’s early rival, was a good boat with a useful cockpit, but a more complicated appearance. It still has some small club fleets. Photo from the class association site.

The Banshee and the Laser were almost dead even on the water, and in fact the Banshee was to beat the Laser in their next high-profile duel at a “one of a kind” regatta. But the simple, modern-looking Laser caught the eye of world-class sailors who had gathered for the regatta. The reaction of sailing legends like Peter Barrett showed Kirby, Bruce and Fogh that they had a potential market they could reach without corporate backing. “What I noticed was that the really good sailors looked at this and said ‘what a neat little boat, does that look good and fast” remembers Ian Bruce. “At that point I said ‘jeezers, I don’t know how we would ever advertise a recreational boat to replace the Sunfish without spending zillions of dollars. But we could talk to this little peer group of ours. In one paragraph, we could say all they needed to know. We all saw it as a fun second boat.”

sail-2
The Chrysler Man O’ War (above) was supported by the might of the Chrysler corporation and had some interesting features, but it never reached the Laser’s popularity and was soon dropped by the manufacturer. Pic from Chryslersailing.lizards.net

 

Once they had realized the potential of the design, Kirby, Fogh and Bruce settled into a period of intensive development to turn the beachboat into a simple performance machine. “The fact that Kirby and Fogh and I were all Olympic sailors meant that once we started to work on it, we instinctively got things better and better” remembers Ian Bruce. Because Fogh felt that the first prototype had too much weather helm, Ian Bruce fitted the second prototype with a mast step that could be moved fore and aft to develop the balance across the wind range. The final version ended up with the mast 3” further forward, with 3” more luff length, a 2” shorter foot, and less rake. The Weekender’s flexy bottom section was replaced with a longer and stiffer extrusion that moved the maximum bend further up. A foam sandwich deck, one of the first to be seen in a production boat, reduced weight while the solid ‘glass hull and rolled gunwales reduced cost and increased durability.  After two hard-sailed prototypes (one at 50kg/110lb and one of 54kg/118lb) proved too light, they settled on a production weight of 58kg (128lb) – slightly heavier than the original target but much lighter than comparable boats.

The industrial design expertise of Ian Bruce – a man Julian Bethwaite calls a genius – can be seen in the deck design and fittings. They are almost too Spartan (as the many who have struggled with the self bailer or capsized because of the mainsheet arrangement will agree) but many of them worked better and lasted longer than the systems on comparable boats of the time. The stark lines of the low hull and small cockpit didn’t just make the boat look modern; they also made it look sublimely simple.

The final work on the rig was completed in late November 1970. Kirby, Bruce and Fogh sailed the two prototypes in a cold and windy weekend, then stood in the showers for an hour, thawing out and toasting the new boat with hot buttered rums. At a party later that night, a young student asked “why don’t you call it something scientific the young people will identify with?” Ian Bruce replied ‘do you mean something like Laser?’ and the final piece came together.

The “second generation beach boat” turned racer was an immediate success.  One hundred and forty one boats were sold at the launch at the 1971 New York Boat Show, setting a new record for the show.  “With Ian Bruce as the builder (he did a great job in the detailing and in running the prototype program) and Hans Fogh as the sail developer, we were able to use all three names in our promotion. All of us had been Olympic sailors, and were reasonably well known in the international racing community. It was all good friends and good vibes” remembers Ian Bruce.

The hot-shots of North American dinghy sailing helped to kick-start the new class by buying Lasers as their second boat – the one they sailed when they weren’t racing in the “serious” classes. “Once that group developed, a bunch of younger people looked in at the elite of sailing in NA at the time, and saw that we all had Lasers as a second boat” remembers Ian Bruce. The younger sailors moved into the class to take on the established stars and the Laser became the hot new class in North America. From there, it snowballed into today’s phenomenon. Within a few months of the public launch, there were 4500 Lasers afloat at $650 each, and the plant in Montreal was running double shifts to build 16 boats per day. It was barely enough; “the dealers supported the company during the first summer of production through horrendous delivery problems, but they made it very clear that they couldn’t face the same problems again” claims one 1973 account.

People like Rod Minchner (who worked on the production side of the rig design) say that much of the credit for the Laser’s success has to go to Ian Bruce’s efforts to lift the production standards well above most of the competition, and also maintain the strict one-design ethos. He developed laser sail-cutting machines to ensure that sails were uniform, and developed foam-core foils to replace the wooden rudder and centreboard which were inherently variable. To meet the demand for new boats, he started up factories in Europe, Australasia and the US West Coast.

Today, some say that the Laser’s success relied on intensive promotion and support, but looking back it’s striking to see how little publicity the Laser had in its early years; so little that its initial growth is hard to track. “My position at Yacht Racing at the time did not do us any harm, although we never discounted an ad” says Bruce Kirby. “A Banshee sailor wrote a letter complaining that I was giving the Laser more ink that the Banshee.  My assistant editor did a careful count and found that the Banshee had in fact had more editorial space in the previous year than the Laser.” The builders’ support went mainly into other avenues – the class association and their own networking.

Although the Laser had beaten its earliest competitors, like the Banshee and Man O’ War, it still faced stiff competition from the big corporations. AMF produced the hard chine Force Five to complement the Sunfish and attack the Laser market.  Chrysler and the Macalpine Downie/Gibbs duo brought out the Dagger. Japanese giant Yamaha copied the Laser hull, added a larger cockpit with rounded edges, and created the Seahopper.  Christian Maury, designer of the 420, created the X4 which was basically a Laser-clone modified with a bigger cockpit and built by a wide variety of builders, from professionals to clubs.  Despite being supported by the French national sailing authority, the class collapsed; it’s been said that the larger cockpit collected too much water and the variation in builders destroyed both the structural integrity and the one design characteristics. Even Communist Russia had a Laser clone, the Luch (beam or ray in Russian).  Although the Seahopper remains strong in Japan and fleets of Luchs and Force Fives survive, none of the classes backed by big organisations threatened the boat built by the three Olympians.

SONY DSC
Like many boats “inspired” by the Laser, the French X4er (above) had a larger cockpit. Some say that the bigger cockpit’s tendency to fill with water and restrict the skipper’s movement was one of the reasons why the class failed despite the support of the national sailing federation. Pic from the regat vaires sur marne site.
800px-luch-standart_dinghy
The Luch, a Soviet-era Laser clone.
start1
The Force 5, created by Sunfish manufacturer AMF Alcort as a Laser competitor and one of the few hard chine examples of the genre. Like many Laser competitors, it had about a metre of extra sail area and a few kilogrammes extra weight. Perhaps the success of the Laser and the Radial indicate that the Laser’s small rig was one reason for its success. Pic from the Force 5 class site.
14292361_895878260542336_4453346184909017304_n
The 99er, a South American Laser copy so-called because it’s 99% like a Laser. The boat is apparently popular because of the high price of a real Laser in the area, due partly to exchange rates.

So could the Laser’s success be cloned to rejuvenate the rest of dinghy sailing? “Something happened with the Laser in those early days which is impossible to account for” says Bruce Kirby. “I like to think it was a good little boat, and the builder did a great job of quality control and distribution (compared to other boats of the time) but there was some sort of cult that built up for which I certainly cannot claim credit.  The little thing just seemed to grab people, and before long it was the boat you had to sail. Sailmakers and ex-Olympic sailors were buying it.  It was a magic that would be virtually impossible to capture again – a good boat, the right time, the right people.”

Apart from its initial appeal as a second boat for the elite, Ian Bruce is also at a loss to understand the extent of the Laser’s success. “I wish I had the answer to that, because it would be the secret to an enormous marketing success. I used to be called upon to go and talk to places like schools of business and universities. They were all looking for a magic bullet – how did you find the niche, how did you market it. And I’d always say, you don’t understand – we just wanted a nice little boat!”

Enter the Radial

In the Laser’s early days, sailors of medium height and weight were competitive to top level. That changed as specifications to spar temper and sailcloth were made, and as sailors started throwing their weight around to force the boat over and around waves.

The M rig of the mid ‘70s was the first attempt to create a smaller Laser rig that would appeal to lighter sailors, especially women. It used the stiff lower section from the big rig, with a shorter top section. Initial trials in light winds were so successful that the rig was launched without extensive testing. As soon as the wind picked up, the M rig turned out to be a failure. “The minute we started taking roach out of the sail, we got lee helm” remembers Ian Bruce. “So it had a closed leach, to get the balance right, but in a breeze the closed leach made it actually harder to sail upwind than the full rig.”

The failure of the Laser M scared the Laser corporation from further development. Fogh, whose son Morton had tried the M rig without success, and Ian Bruce decided to develop a better small rig by themselves. They decided a more flexy bottom section would give the boat an open leach without upsetting the balance. They investigated making a mast that was thinner from side to side, like Bruder’s Finn masts, but it turned out to be too expensive, so they turned to another Finn idea. “I sailed Finns a lot in my days with Paul Elvstrom” says Fogh. “We had wooden spars and I knew how we used to adjust them by planing them down. We found that a soft spar at the bottom allows the sail to twist off very early.”

“Hans and I were talking one day and I was looking at my old (Bruder) Finn spar. Right about the gooseneck we planed them in, to get them to hinge back,” recalls Ian Bruce. “That’s when I started talking to Hans, I said what we really need to do is to peel off the back end of the sail. I went back to the original section on the original Weekender which sailed in the original Teacup regatta, which happened to be the original section of 4 metre 2 3/8” outside diameter irrigation tube.”

Fogh, who had earned an FD silver medal with one of his radial-cut mains, used the same panel layout for the new rig. From its first outing, when Morton Fogh sailed competitively at the CORK regatta in 20-25 knots, the Radial was a success. It is now a candidate for the title of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing class. “I made the prediction that one day it would be sailed more widely than the Laser, because it fits more people” recalls Bruce. “It’s just about there now…..”

To read more about the Laser design, go here

 

[1] Dick Gibbs interview 02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zidgdZKO5fU, retrieved 11 August 2015.

[2] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[3] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[4] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202

[5] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202.  Other winners included the Hobie 14, Sunfish and three classes never heard of again.

 

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Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

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