If you’ve had even the smallest involvement with the dinghy sailing scene, you would have come across what is now one of the iconic dinghy models, the Laser.
Conceived in Canada after a conversation between Bruce Kirby and Ian Bruce back in 1969, the idea the two men discussed was the possibility of designing a performance dinghy that could be carried on the roof rack of a typical car, instead of the car having to tow a trailer with the boat on it.
From this simple concept came what was to become one of the most popular dinghies in the world, selling over 200,000 since its inception. So much so that the original drawing that Bruce Kirby sketched out on a napkin became known as the ‘million dollar doodle’.
The original Laser broke new ground in many ways – it didn’t have a conventional ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ like most dinghies of the time, it was made entirely of glass fibre with the sailor effectively sitting on a flat surface with his feet in a tiny footwell, under a footstrap so he/she could lean out. The mast was slotted together and simply lifted and dropped into a hole in the body, and almost everything else was kept simple and easy.
Even though Kirby came out with the concept in 1969, it wasn’t until 1970 when it was built to take part in a regatta for boats under US$1,000 called ‘America’s Teacup’, organised by One Design and Offshore Yachtsman magazine. The Laser won its class, although under a different name, as it was originally called the ‘Weekender’ with a sail displaying the letters TGIF (for Thank God It’s Friday).
It made its official debut at the New York Boat Show in 1971. Things snowballed from there – the first world Laser championship was held in Bermuda in 1974 and the Olympic Laser class kicked off at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Interestingly, it may be that the success of the model around the world has been helped by the way the dinghy has been marketed – instead of having one central global manufacturing base, Lasers are manufactured under licence around the world, with licence holders in the UK, North America and in Australia, each making slightly different variants to suit local market conditions.
The Laser has been the racing dinghy of choice for many Australians, none more so than the current Olympic gold medal holder, twenty seven year old NSW champion Tom Slingsby, who has also won the world championship five times. Many Laser sailors have gone on to bigger yachts and continued success in oceangoing races, as the excitement of sailing the Laser hooked them into the sport.
One of the features of the standard Laser rig, which can be an upside as well as a downside, is the comparatively larger sail area compared to other dinghy classes. What this means in practice is a faster boat, but in order to keep a Laser flat and working optimally, the person sailing needs to be around 80kg at least, which knocks out a lot of smaller people (including your author when he was younger, who capsized his Laser outside the sailing clubhouse about 18 times before finally righting the boat and sailing in, much to the amusement of the salty sea dogs).
To compensate for this, Laser has introduced another model, called the Laser Radial, where the optimal weight is just 55-72kg. This model is now used in the Women’s Singlehanded Dinghy class at the Olympics.
A Laser comes into its element when sailing before the wind (i.e. where the wind is coming from directly behind the boat and the boom is let out with the sail almost at a right angle to the boat) – when you shift your weight to the back and pull up the dagger board a Laser pretty much surfs along. This technique is now used to great effect by competitive sailors where, instead of just enjoying the ride, they now seek out waves to surf downwind in their search for that elusive race win.