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The Laser - Perfect Small Sailboat for Racing or Intense Recreational Sailing

An Olympic-Class Sailboat for Athletes

By

Laser Sailboat
Tom Lochhaas

The Laser is likely the most popular adult racing-class sailboat in the world. Introduced in 1971 as a one-class racer, by 1974 world championships were being held, and in 1996 Lasers became an Olympic class. The Laser continues in the 2012 Olympics as the men's one-person dinghy race boat, and the Laser Radial as the women's one-person dinghy boat. Lasers are raced at all levels from individual yacht clubs and collegiate events to world events.

The Laser is better known as a race boat but is also used by many recreational sailors because it is fast and fun for sailors who are reasonably athletic and skilled. Sailing is simpler than with a boat that also has a jib sail, but the size of the Laser sail requires the weight of a full-size adult to ballast and balance the boat to prevent capsize. A Laser is generally not the best boat to learn the basics of sailing - a Sunfish (see below) is a better choice for beginners and younger sailors.

Following are the specs for the standard Laser. The Laser Radial (sail area of 62 sq ft, or 5.72 sq m) and the Laser 4.7 (sail area of 50.92 sq ft, or 4.70 sq m) both have the same hull as the standard Laser but smaller sails and a shorter mast - for use by younger and lighter sailors. For example, a youth may move from a more stable dinghy to the Laser 4.7 and then the Radial, and at adult male weight to the standard Laser, using the same hull but changing only the rig in stages.

Specifications and Features

  • Length overall: 13 feet 9 inches (4.20 m)
  • Beam: 4 feet 7 inches (1.39 m)
  • Draft - daggerboard down: 2 feet 8 inches (0.80 m)
  • Empty hull weight: 130 lbs (58.97 kg)
  • Sail area: 75.99 sq ft (7.06 sq m)
  • Single cat-rig triangular sail
  • Loose-footed sail with outhaul, Cunningham, and boom vang (kicker)
  • Cockpit auto-bailer (with the boat moving)
  • Races in International Laser Class
  • Replacement parts widely available at dealers and online
  • About $5700 new, more for racing packages; used boats in sailable condition as low as a few hundred

Pros

  • Can be sailed by beginners to competitors
  • Easy to rig
  • Can be carried car-top (by two people)
  • Fast and maneuverable planing sailboat
  • Lock-down rudder and daggerboard allow beach launching
  • Widely available as a used sailboat

Cons

  • Regular Laser best sailed by individuals over 175 lbs (use Radial or 4.7 rig for lighter sailors)
  • Holds only one full-size adult (or in recreational sailing, an adult and child or two teens)
  • Small cockpit and little freeboard makes for wet sailing
  • Not as stable as a Sunfish or dinghy for beginners - easily capsized in a gust

Racing a Laser

Lasers are better known for racing than recreational sailing because some athleticism and skill are required. The sailor must be able to move quickly from one side of the cockpit to the other (ducking below the low boom) while maintaining control of the tiller and sail controls. In a stronger wind, the sailor also needs to hike out when sailing upwind: bracing the legs under the hiking strap that runs across the cockpit and leaning far back toward the horizontal to prevent heeling and capsize. In addition to these physical abilities, skill is needed in the control of sail shape and trim through the mainsheet, outhaul, and Cunningham, as well as variable positioning of the daggerboard at different points of sail. At the same time, of course, the sailor is engaged in tactical maneuvers and calculations involved in maneuvering through an often tight fleet of other boats. The result is highly competitive, exciting racing.

The Laser class association rigorously controls all rigging and equipment to ensure that all Lasers are essentially identical, such that competition depends on the sailor's skills rather than the boat itself.

Comparing Laser to Sunfish

The hull of a Laser is similar in length and beam to a Sunfish's hull but has somewhat higher freeboard. To the uninitiated eye, the two boats may look similar at a distance, but there are significant differences in how they are rigged and sailed. The most important difference is the Bermuda rig of the Laser (the leading edge of the sail, or luff, is affixed to the mast) compared to the lateen rig of the Sunfish (the top of the sail is mounted on a fore-and-aft spar that pivots on the mast). The Laser's rig is generally more efficient, making the boat faster but also more likely to heel more sharply in a gust, while the Sunfish's sail tends to spill wind in a gust, making severe heeling and capsize less likely. While both boats must be balanced by the sailor moving his or her weight from side to side, and both may capsize more easily than many other types of sailboats, a Sunfish is generally better for a beginner. A beamier, more roomy sailboat like the Hunter 140 (same overall length of 14 feet but too large to car-top) is even more stable and easier for beginners.

How to sail from a beach. Getting started with a Hobie, Sunfish, Laser, or other small sailboat on the beach involves some important skills.

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