Blessed by unique geography and Mediterranean climate, San Diego Bay and environs offer choice opportunities for recreational sailors. These opportunities are best exploited by small-craft sailors, who can wear nothing but shorts year-round while plying waters inaccessible to mariners onboard larger craft. Among the numerous sailboat classes under 20 feet in length, one class excels in a combined course of maneuvering, planing, surfing, beaching, shoal navigation, and island exploration. At the opposite end of the nautical spectrum from fast multihulls, carbon fiber trifoilers, ULDBs (ultralight displacement boats), International America’s Cup Class contenders, and undeniably bad-ass Formula One racers, this 14-foot craft is a modest fiberglass monohull known as the Laser.
Unlike many of its larger cousins, the Laser is everywhere; it can be found on the grounds or docks of any local marina. It is the world’s most popular sail-training craft, and hull production is rapidly approaching the 200,000 mark. No wonder the class is involved worldwide in over 1000 racing events. The ultimate victory still lies ahead: when the Laser becomes an Olympic class in 1996, this humble design will finally achieve the recognition and status it deserves.
Designed by Bruce Kirby in 1969, the prototype Laser was originally named “The Weekender,” since it was intended for recreational use by working-class blokes unable to afford larger craft, high maintenance costs, slip fees, etc. After slight modification and a name change, the Laser appeared on the market and began to receive the attention of sailors and distributors. Kirby and his colleagues never looked back, and the gradual rise of the Laser is just another aspect of nautical history.
Why did this little boat become so popular, and why is it the ideal choice for local sailing conditions? Low cost, low maintenance, and relative ease of handling are the primary reasons for the Laser’s success in San Diego. Although the Laser is designed for the solo sailor, it can also accommodate a thin date, and thus an aura of romance contributes to the boat’s appeal.
Aspiring sailboat racers are drawn by an established class, while destitute intellectuals are attracted by the scientific name.
A new Laser can be purchased for $2750 at the Boat Shop on Canon Street. This cost can be reduced by scanning the classified sections of local newspapers or by checking the billboards at marina clubhouses from Chula Vista to Oceanside. Somewhere in San Diego County, there’s sure to be a Laser for sale. Good secondhand boats with trailers usually run between $1000 and $1500. Some boats without trailers go for as little as $350.
Once the initial purchase is made, the low-maintenance phase kicks in. No boat is easier to maintain than the Laser. Fiberglass hull and aluminum spars keep labor to a minimum. Even the most careful Laser sailor will spend more time rigging and derigging the boat than pulling tiresome maintenance (including the periodic weeklong overhaul, which is generally reserved for winter or early spring), a rather pleasantconsequence of small craft ownership, since less maintenance means more time spent on the water.
It’s all irrelevant the minute a sailor puts his laser up on a fast plane, for then the boat becomes a living thing and skims across the surface at phenomenal speed, accelerating like a bullet as it leaves the barrel and rises in its trajectory. Here is exhilaration, here is euphoria. Here is the reason why one becomes a dedicated Laser sailor, willing to forego creature comforts in order to attain boat speed and elemental purity.
Some sailors can’t handle the minor wetness and discomfort associated with Laser sailing, so they choose other craft.
Some prefer to crew onboard larger boats, an option acceptable only to those who are willing to abandon independence, surrender responsibility, and take orders from rich wanks. Some sailors move on to fast, high-tech multihulls and trifoilers, which blow doors on stinking monohulls, unless they happen to be carving bottom turns in head-high surf at Little Waimea. Speed is of the essence, of course, but no multihull or trifoiler is going to make the drop quite like the Laser, which surfs better than any other sailboat in existence.
Seafaring types who can appreciate such characteristics usually stick with the program and become hard-core Laser sailors. These are neither racers nor clubhouse kooks; they are men and women who relate to the natural aspects of Laser sailing. They are agents of a spiritual subdivision that can only be referred to as the Cult of the Laser.
Now let’s trace the history of one particular boat: Laser No. 2069, a sweet craft known for her good karma and impressive record of successful party voyages. No. 2069 is this Laser’s true sail number, which corresponds with the hull production number; thus, she is the two thousand sixty-ninth Laser built, discounting the prototypes. When Laser production reaches 206,900, humble 2069 will belong to the first percentile of all boats constructed worldwide to class specifications.
Laser No. 2069 was built in 1972 at the Peterson Yacht facility in Newport Beach. From there she was shipped to San Diego, where she was purchased by Captain Newgard for his young son Jesse. What Jesse thought of her when he first saw her is beyond my imagination, for her hull was an ugly puke-green color, which detracted from the beauty of her gleaming white deck.
After six years of hard use, Jesse sold the boat to my brother Aidan, who paid $600 cash under the condition that Jesse let him keep her on the dock at Coronado Yacht Club. Aidan paid the monthly storage fee and sailed the boat for several years. He and Jesse remained close friends throughout this period, and they often sailed together onboard the Laser. They took turns at the tiller while exploring the bay and pounding cheap domestic beer. Thus Laser No. 2069 endured a substantial amount of abuse every time she was hoisted from the water and placed upon her rack.
Every Laser sailor knows the joint between mast step tube and deck is the greatest pinpoint stress location onboard the boat. All of the drive created by the rig above is transmitted directly through this joint, and therefore the fiberglass is prone to cracking and subsequent disintegration. If the crack is not repaired immediately, “glass rot” sets in and spreads like some insidious disease, ultimately destroying the entire joint and rendering the boat useless until a thorough repair is made. Laser 2069 developed a severe case of glass rot after my brother cracked the joint and continued to thrash hard. It was only a matter of time before the boat was decommissioned and brought to our house for dry storage.