Lasers are hard, physical boats to sail. Originally designed as a fun ‘beach boat’ the rudder is too small and the original controls are frankly inadequate. These quirks add to the challenge it has become as the most popular racing boat around. There is also a bit of a chicken and egg issue, in that the better/more experienced you are, the easier it is to sail.
To understand why, we need to talk about golf for a minute. The objective in golf is to get the ball around better than the next guy. To do this you have lots of different golf-bats (you can tell I am a big golfist).
In a Laser race, you have to get the hull around the course better than the rest rather than a dimpled white ball. To do this you have only one sail though, which has to do every job regardless of the situation. Luckily, sails are rather more adaptable than a sand-wedge – we can change its characteristics hugely by pulling one of several bits of string. Getting this string pulling (or not pulling) right is the secret to a much easier life in the Laser, in the same way that you won’t get much length on the fairway with a putter.
As often as not, when I see Laser beginners struggle, my main thought is that I would be struggling just as much if my rig was set-up like theirs. So: get the rig right and you are half way there. Get it wrong and frankly you do not have a chance. Just to make it difficult, some of those controls interfere with each other if we let them – so knowing how to stop that happening is important.
OK, so what is ‘right’ you ask. Well, inevitably it depends. Quite often, a Laser rig has more power than we really need, so we need to be able to get rid of it effectively. Sail shape dictates power. The baggier the sail, the more the power potential. Note potential; to realise that power it needs to be trimmed (ie set at the right angle to the wind) as well.
The laser has 8 strings you can play with. Let’s now go through them:
Yes, this is an important control. Too tight and the side deck bites your calve muscles. Too slack and you don’t really have control of your body position. Try pushing the toestrap to the cockpit floor. If it does not reach – too tight. If it lies along the floor, too loose. Just touching is a good start point. Also, tie the elastic up around the traveller, by its cleat. The strap is then easier to hook feet into as you tack.
Laser rudders are too small frankly. Let the thing angle up even slightly and steering becomes even heavier and harder than normal. So find a way to get the thing held down so it will not move up under speed.
Trying to get a capsized Laser upright without the centreboard is nigh impossible (so very slow!). If the elastic has gone, replace it or this will happen to you. Don’t go there.
Tight as you can get it. Always. You want the mainsheet blocks to sit as far to leeward as they can go, which happens only with tension. Don’t have a big triangle in the forward part. Tie an overhand knot on itself to make it tight, then take the tail to the cleat – its more efficient, angles wise. Yes the traveller blocks catch on the tiller – hence the fancy carbon tillers that sit far lower and reduce this problem.
Until the new rules came along, adjusting this was impractical for us ordinary mortals. If in doubt set a gap from boom to sail of 3 or 4 inches on an average day, halving that if its windy. If you have got the new fancy adjustable bits, double these downwind, but only if you make sure you can pull it back on before you round the leeward mark. You will loose more on a beat having the outhaul too slack than you will gain easing it to sail downwind. Don’t over-ease on a dead run though.
Notionally, the kicker’s primary job is to keep the boom down, but it has useful secondary functions too.
On a beat it bends the mast which is absolutely vital, as the sail is cut to set on a curved, not straight, mast. It also flattens the sail (reducing its power). This is absolutely vital. If the mainsheet does the down-pulling job, when a gust comes and you ease the mainsheet, you get more power in the sail just when you need less. Don’t go there – it’s a classic trap that makes the boat virtually impossible to sail.
Up to a nice, comfortable ‘sitting out but not struggling’ type breeze, the rule of thumb is to pull the mainsheet as tight as it will go (known as block-to-block) then take all of the slack out of the kicker. Now if you ease the sheet again the boom should rise no more than 18 inches from the deck. If more, try again and pull harder!
If it’s windier – you need more kicker. I strongly recommend the new kicker set up but it is not cheap. If you cannot afford this, at least get a couple of extra blocks a longer rope and a swivel to go on the mast so you have an 8:1 minimum. Anyway, the trick is to get the kicker so tight the boom rises 12, 6 or even 3 inches only, depending on how completely mad the breeze is. The trick to achieving this much kicker tension (without the new fitting) is to block to block the main, jam cleat it, then push the sheet between centre-main block and boom with your front foot, to bend the boom slightly then take up the slack (and don’t push too hard or the boom will break!). This needs practice as a gust always hits just as you are doing it! But you will suddenly find it is much easier to control the boat. Just remember you need to duck a lot further when you tack though. If you have the new kit, mark the lines so you know how much tension does what.
Fail to slacken it at a weather mark is a mistake though – you must get back to the good-old average block-to-block position, maybe a bit slacker for a reach. If not, a gust puts the boom in the water and a swim becomes likely as you cannot ease the main out to de-power. Easing just before the mark, rather than after, it makes bearing away much easier too, or just plain possible when it’s windy.
Rolling a lot on the run? The kicker is too slack probably, so the sail is twisting and the top half pushing to windward the bottom to leeward – no wonder the forces are confusing. Sheet in a bit too and use the twist to your advantage.
The characteristics of sail cloth are such that when you put tension along an edge the point of maximum curvature moves to that edge. We know we want a sail to have that nice shape where max-curve is between a third and halfway to the front. All that kicker tension can move it to two-thirds back – making the sail a huge airbrake – not the idea at all.
If you have never really done much with the Cunningham, stand by to be amazed. On a really windy day, upwind, get the Cunningham so so tight the grommet is down on the boom, This takes so much power out of the sail it is astonishing. With this and the kicker sorted it is a revelation how much easier the boat is to sail on a windy beat.
In lighter breezes, use it upwind to take the creases out, then pull on increasingly harder through the wind spectrum.
Downwind, always ease it off or you will be hugely down on power and therefore speed.
In most situations, this should only be pulling the sail in and out. Think of it like the throttle on the car – got too much power? – ease off on the sheet.
The trick with the mainsheet is about priorities. The primary objective is NOT to set the sail at the perfect angle to the wind as set out in the sailing primers.
The key objective IS to keep the boat completely upright. If this means easing the main so the whole darn sail is flapping whilst you hike for all you are worth, so be it. Soon the gust will ease – and if you are the only one who stayed upright, you are laughing. Often on a windy day, you can, on a beat, have the boom several feet from the transom – it can be really quick.
Having established that fundamental principle – the next priority is to set the sail at the correct angle to keep you driving forwards. Upwind and especially down you should be adjusting the thing virtually the whole time.
Finally, for now
Something has to counterbalance all this power we are now harnessing so effectively from the rig. And that’s you.
Coming back to the golf thing, the connection between the golf-bat and the ball is the golfist and their much-analysed swing.
In your Laser, sitting out does not need quite so much analysis – but much more physical effort. Remember the old adage out the more you put in, the more you get out? Well, in the Laser it applies in spades. The harder you hike, the more power you can use and the faster you will go.
With practice, you will find you can get your bum over the side and keep the boat nicely in balance using a combination of moving your weight in and out and controlling the power by playing the sheet, all with the rig set-up to power-up or down to suit the conditions.
There is only one book written specifically for Club Sailors, even though they are the mainstay of racing everywhere.
It’s called Club Sailor: from back to front