The Laser that wouldn't die – from Newport Beach to Zuniga Point

Bastard in love

Evan Douglas. Sailing on South Bay several weeks ago in a stiff breeze with minimal surface chop, I put the Laser up on a fast plane, which seemed to last an eternity. There I was, tearing along at incredible speed and laughing my head off.
  • Evan Douglas. Sailing on South Bay several weeks ago in a stiff breeze with minimal surface chop, I put the Laser up on a fast plane, which seemed to last an eternity. There I was, tearing along at incredible speed and laughing my head off.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

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.

I went through a bad financial patch in the summer of 1990, and I did the unthinkable. After years of hard use, I sold my Laser to Terry S. of South Mission Beach for $450.

I went through a bad financial patch in the summer of 1990, and I did the unthinkable. After years of hard use, I sold my Laser to Terry S. of South Mission Beach for $450.

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.

I decided to sell my boat again, this time to San Diego State University student and aspiring sailor Ward G. I promised to teach Ward how to sail, and he is making progress. I think he knows that, when the time comes, I will buy the Laser back from him.

I decided to sell my boat again, this time to San Diego State University student and aspiring sailor Ward G. I promised to teach Ward how to sail, and he is making progress. I think he knows that, when the time comes, I will buy the Laser back from him.

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.

I was working at the Naval Amphibious Base Marina in 1983 when I first took interest in the Laser in our back yard. I asked my brother why she was there, and he showed me the rotten joint. I told him I could fix it, but he expressed doubt, since it involved grinding away a mass of rotten glass before laying in an invisible compound curve.

“Fix it and you can have her,” he said.

I assured him I would fix the joint, but I refused to change the name on the certificate.

Having agreed upon this arrangement, we transported the boat to the marina and I began the tedious grinding and glassing process. The original glass was really rotten; after grinding away the trash, I had to reconstruct the top four inches of the mast step tube, a circular area of deck perhaps seven inches in diameter directly above the aforementioned tube, and the now-invisible compound curve, which normally formed the actual joint between tube and deck.

In order to attain maximum strength, the compound curve must be reconstructed with alternate layers of fiberglass mat and cloth. The first two layers barely follow the original curve. Once a rude approximation is achieved, the curve can be rebuilt by laying in countless thin strips that rise vertically from the mast step tube, bend 90°, and radiate outward to form the deck. Each strip must be thoroughly “wetted” or impregnated with resin before being laid upon a wetted surface. An occasional larger patch of cloth bearing irregular slits can be plastered to the underside of the deck and wrapped around the tube. Most of this work is blindly executed by reaching through a nearby inspection hatch while crouching beneath the boat, which is topside down on two sawhorses in a suitable work area.

Once the internal work is done, the boat can be righted for more grinding and completion of external and cosmetic work. The external work is fairly simple, but the internal work is a pain in the ass.

An absolute pro working full-time can probably finish the job in two, three, maybe four days. Working on company hours and using a lot of my spare time, I finished the mast step in less than two weeks. To prevent any reoccurrence of cheesy glass rot, I made the joint and surrounding surfaces well over an inch thick. No air bubbles, no bullshit, just an ugly compound curve of solid glass tapering away on all sides. The work wasn’t pretty, but to this day, despite constant use, that joint remains solid, with no indication or promise of glass fatigue and stress cracks within the next century.

After reworking the mast step, I decided to spruce up the Laser by sanding, prepping, and painting the hull and deck. The shit-house color combo had to go before I took this craft out on the water. I painted the hull a rich royal blue, topped with a gleaming white deck, which made my little girl look like a million dollars. Slapping on some new CF numbers, I was finally ready to take her out for a sea trial. Naturally, this meant patrolling the beach on the seaward side of Coronado, my hometown.

There’s only one way to patrol the beach, and that’s by riding the ebb out to the harbor entrance, rounding Zuniga Point, sailing inshore, cruising the length of the beach, sailing away once the tide has turned, and ultimately riding the flood back up the channel. This program works best when the high tide occurs around 0800; when the cloud cover burns off and the breeze picks up two hours later, the current is moving well, and the time in transit to Zuniga Point is shortened considerably. Spring tides are favorable, for the respective ranges of the ebb and flow are then greater, and the currents move much more swiftly than they do during neap tides. If a sailor reaches Zuniga Jetty in good time, he can raise the daggerboard and rudder and glide over the submerged section with inches to spare, thereby saving 20 to 30 minutes on the beach approach. This is exactly what I did during the sea trial. The boat exceeded my expectations, and I returned to the dock secure that she was seaworthy.

From that day on, I sailed the Laser with a passion: she could perform, she had good karma, and she seemed grateful for her restoration. We developed an intense relationship during the years that followed; I took my little girl out hundreds if not thousands of times, for I longed to know every subtle characteristic she possessed. Sometimes I sailed solo, and sometimes I invited a passenger; the presence of another person onboard allowed a better distribution of live ballast in a stiff breeze.

Jimmy Howard and I were sailing beyond the kelp beds one day when a California gray whale surfaced three or four boat-lengths ahead. It scared the shit out of me, but after tacking away I felt privileged to view such a magnificent creature at close range. Although I originally was close-hauled on the starboard tack, the whale assumed the right of way under the obscure “Law of Gross Tonnage.”

Another close encounter occurred prior to the New Zealand Challenge in 1988.1 was sailing with a girl named Mikki. We were slipping past the Submarine Base, just inside Ballast Point, when 1 spotted a large California sea lion basking on a nearby channel buoy. I alerted Mikki, who begged me to alter course and sail right by the buoy. No problem. The sea lion was sleeping, of course, and it neither saw nor heard our approach. As we glided past, Mikki reached out and patted the creature’s back.

“Nice doggie,” she said.

The 500-pound animal reared up with a deafening roar of surprise. I thought he was going to leap onboard and sink the boat, but fortunately the moment passed and there was no need to abandon ship. What the hell, it was good for an adrenaline boost.

Later that day, we saw Dennis Conner as he sailed the Stars & Stripes cat, and I praised his ability to constantly keep the boat in perfect trim.

“I don’t like him,” said Mikki.

Minutes afterward, Dennis bent on the knots and the craft’s weather hull rose imperceptibly, barely clearing the surface as she streaked past. It was an impressive sight.

“Yay! Go, Dennis, go!” screamed Mikki, shaking her fist in the air.

We were making our way up the channel when the wind died completely. Our boat speed was reduced to a snail’s pace, and we made little headway even though our destination was in sight. She grew anxious and irritable, complaining about my supposed influence on the evening weather. I told her there was nothing we could do except ride it out.

Another hour passed before we hit the dock, and during that time I swore I would never deal with her again. I saw her on the street a month later and she tried to act as if nothing had happened, but I wasn’t having any. She asked about our next sailing date, and I told her she should have been a comedienne.

One hot summer day I decided to work the tides and patrol the beach with William W. As we sailed down the center of the channel with Zuniga Jetty on our port beam, we were rewarded by a magnificent sight that I shall never forget. We met the full-scale replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde, which just happened to be reaching up the channel under easy sail. With the exception of a small escort tug hidden on the far quarter, we were alone with this spectacular craft. We might have been transported back through time to witness the actual Golden Hinde, which circumnavigated the globe over four centuries ago.

After sussing out this grand spectacle at close range, we rounded Zuniga Point and ran toward the beach, which was thronged with thousands of people enjoying the late summer weather. We sailed close inshore and ignored the lifeguards while slamming cold beers and shouting abuse. It was thoroughly packed with beachgoers kicking and splashing in the warm shallows.

I remember another occasion when Vince M. and I were sailing down the channel toward the beach on Shelter Island. We were minding our own business when I noticed some clown onboard a Laser altering course to intercept our boat.

“Look at this idiot,” I said. “He obviously wants to race. Well, let’s not disappoint him. Shift forward, Vinnie, and lean inboard a hair.”

I then devoted my full attention to the rig above. Although the moderate breeze favored the solo sailor, our superior sail and ballast trim enabled us to pull away from the challenger. We widened the gap to a quarter-mile before sailing Polynesian-style right up onto the beach. The bewildered challenger bore away and gradually disappeared. So much for the impromptu match race.

I love watching a good sailboat race, but I abhor participation. I entered my first and last sailboat race at the age of 15; it was a fleet handicap held on South Bay, and I won first place in my division after beating some serious competitors by 11 seconds. It was exciting, but I already knew that racing wasn’t for me. As a hostile, antisocial teenager, I regarded sailing as a sacred form of spiritual expression, which should not be ruined by competition. Would a person who loves to drive a convertible on mountain roads limit his driving to rush- hour traffic on the freeway? I don’t mind watching a world-class skipper like John Bertrand kick ass, but I’ll be damned if I burn my valuable time in cutthroat competition.

I went through a bad financial patch in the summer of 1990, and I did the unthinkable. After years of hard use, I sold my Laser to Terry S. of South Mission Beach. By this time, the boat was completely thrashed, with a broken vang eyestrap, cheesy rigging, and several incipient open seams at the base of the dagger- board well. I sold her for $450, and considering her condition I probably received the better part of the bargain. Terry was kind, however, and he even told me I could sail the boat from South Mission whenever I felt the need.

I accepted his offer twice during the next 18 months, first to take some woman sailing off Pacific Beach, and afterward to sail down solo and patrol familiar waters off the beach in Coronado. The second voyage was quite satisfactory, and I returned in time to enter the Mission Bay Channel as a fiery red sun slowly dropped beneath the horizon. It was spectacular, even though I was on Sewage Bay.

I was working as a deckhand onboard the Golden Swine, a cattle boat of the first water, when the America’s Cup series began in 1992. The Australian wanks who owned the boat were paying $2000 per month for my services, which included ice-cold bottles of Broken Hill Lager and Old Australian Stout while watching the races and mingling with female passengers on company time. With a bit of spare cash in my pocket, my thoughts turned to the Laser and all of the wonderful adventures I had shared with friends onboard. With a twinge of regret, I vowed to purchase another boat in the near future. The following Saturday, at 0800, I was lying in my bed listening to punk trash on headphones when I suddenly received a cosmic message.

“Call Terry,” a voice said, audible over the sweet strains of Black Flag’s “Bastard in Love.”

I instantly picked up the phone, which I normally wouldn’t touch on Saturday morning, and dialed. Terry answered, and without hesitation I asked him if he was interested in selling the Laser.

“Yeah, I just mailed the ad yesterday. It probably hasn’t even reached the newspaper yet,” he said.

“I’ll buy her,” I told him. “I can give you a hundred bucks now and pay the balance with my next check.”

“No problem.”

Bizarre coincidence aside, Terry proved his worth once more by reserving the boat for me. When I went to pick up my little girl, she was in a deplorable state. The seams had opened up and her hull was waterlogged, while great patches of green gelcoat glared through peeling paint. Due to the boat’s increased hull weight and ugly green color, Terry had nicknamed her The Incredible Hulk. A blow to her pride, perhaps, but she was now back in my hands, and I swore I would restore my baby to her former glory.

After hauling her back to my yard, I used a blow dryer to thoroughly air out her hull before grinding and re-glassing the seams. Then I sanded and repainted her in a different color scheme; her new, dark blue hull was topped with a gleaming white deck, and new fittings added a special touch to her dazzling beauty. Once again, my little girl was ready for beach patrol. I moved her down to a small cove on Glorietta Bay, where, if she isn’t sailing, she remains onshore, ever available to this day.

Shortly after I refurbished my boat, my employment situation took a turn for the worse. Operation of the Golden Swine proved unprofitable, so the owners decided to reduce every crew member’s salary. By the time the America’s Cup finals rolled around, I’d been unemployed for months.

I decided to sell my boat again, this time to San Diego State University student and aspiring sailor Ward G. There was a catch: the boat stayed where she was, her spars and gear remained at my house, and I continued to sail as if the certificate had never changed hands. I promised to teach Ward how to sail, and he is making progress. I think he knows that, when the time comes, I will buy the Laser back from him. (He told me recently he was just holding her for me.) The paperwork shuffle gives him the thrill of ownership, while it lets me cut loose and sail when necessary.

Ward lives on San Juan Court in Mission Beach. He called one day to ask if we could sail the Laser up to his house. No problem. I called Terry S., who gave us permission to store the spars and gear overnight in his yard. (Thanks, brah.) Ward rode down on the bus, and we rigged the boat at 1245. The voyage went without a hitch, and we placed the spars and gear in Terry’s yard just before sunset.

Retrieving the boat at 1000 the following morning, we sailed out of Mission Bay and headed north to Crystal Pier. Ward wanted his roommates to see him sail past his house; this was our morning mission, which we executed in style. Upon reaching Crystal Pier, we came about and reversed our course to blow back down the coast. Ward had to work that day, so when we sailed past his house again he leapt overboard and swam to shore. He didn’t have very far to go, since we were barely outside the impact zone.

My most recent sailing adventures have been some of the best. Rumors of a decent swell sent me to the Point, where I caught the longest ride of my entire sailing career. Surfing the Laser can be dicey; the trick is to match the speed of one’s boat to the speed of the peeling wave. Too much speed and one outruns the break; not enough speed and one gets swamped, capsized, or killed. One must study the break and its direction relative to the wind before even attempting the most pinner drop. Better to do a trial run out on the shoulder than risk serious damage to oneself or the boat. Words of wisdom from Wade Wygal, master of the inflatable scene in head-high surf at Little Waimea. Nobody surfs the Point like Wade in an inflatable with an eggbeater mounted on the transom.

I’ve ridden the shoulder in sizeable surf at Little Waimea, and it can get pretty gnarly in a big hurry if one isn’t totally clued in to the situation. I prefer something in the waist-to-shoulder-high department; a nicely peeling break, not too big and not too hollow, with a wide, smooth shoulder, is ideal for the Laser. Bottom turns and gentle curves are well within reason, but cutbacks and similar maneuvers are obviously out of the question. Beginners are advised to attempt only a straight course down the line. If all else fails, one should clasp his hands and pray for a speedy recovery.

Sailing on South Bay several weeks ago in a stiff breeze with minimal surface chop, I put the Laser up on a fast plane, which seemed to last an eternity. There I was, tearing along at incredible speed and laughing my head off. Laser No. 2069 might be a little heavier than the newer boats, but she still knows how to get up and go whenever conditions are favorable. Planing in the Laser is always a rush and should be prolonged for maximum duration. The key is to not make any tiller movements, which instantly create rudder drag and bring the boat down off the plane. Slight changes in sail and ballast trim are sufficient to alter course and maintain boat speed.

One excursion late last summer may have been the perfect sailing adventure. The tides were favorable, so I pulled the routine beach patrol, gliding along in 10 or 12 knots of breeze. Developing an appetite, I sailed back up the channel until I reached the Embarcadero, where I secured the Laser to the dock at Anthony’s and hopped a cab to Filippi’s on India Street. There I washed down an entire pizza with a pitcher of Coors. Strolling back to the dock with my tiller in hand, I casually stepped onboard, cast off, and sailed back to Coronado in the mellow evening light. I beached the boat just before sunset, which happened to be spectacular. The day had been absolutely perfect, and I de-rigged and rode home with a warm feeling of serenity.

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