Laser Killer?

Kurt Hoehne New Boats Sailboat Racing Sailing

Our friend George Yioulos of West Coast Sailing travelled to England to, among other things, see and sail the new RS Aero. Here is his report in its entirety, along with some photos and videos. Everyone is wondering if this will be the boat to knock the Laser off its perch as the singlehanded racing boat. George is in a rare position as dealer for both boats. Over the past decade few decades there aren’t many dealers that have done more to promote and support the Laser class than George, and he has consistently shown his first commitment is to his customers. My comments and musings (as a Laser sailor since the 70s) follow George’s report.


The Next Level

Year after year new sailboats enter a small and crowded marketplace. Potential customers are told this new design is the next big thing. Existing classes are advised to watch out, here it comes. Retailers are told this is the boat we’ve all been waiting to get behind and sell.

Technological improvements with materials and boat design provide many benefits to both racers and weekend warriors. Dinghy sailors now have access to carbon masts, lightweight construction methods and computer driven design…sort of. The reality is that, for the most part, we’re on 40 year old technology. For years this has simply been good enough.

The near-simultaneous launch of the RS Aero, the D-Zero, and rumors of other boats like them, have piqued the interest of a number North American sailors. Clearly, something is going on in the dinghy market. On this side of the pond we might never represent the cutting edge of sailing, but we still represent a huge market from sea to shining sea. Any manufacturer serious about making a boat for the world must contend with the fickle nature of the North American sailor.

For a boat and class to be successful a lot of things need to come together at just the right time. The boat needs to be well priced, with a manufacturer willing to invest large sums of capital to build fleets. Additionally, a global distribution system must be in place that can deliver product reliably and at low costs, and then support its customers for years. Current history tells us this is not easy, even for large, globally established fleets with prestigious regattas to their name. The marine market is littered with companies that have failed over and over to do the basics to support their customers.

All of that being said, something about the RS Aero struck me as perhaps the right product at the right time. At the very least, as a dinghy sailor and retailer, I had to pay attention. A UK based company, RS has grown to a significant presence in North America in the last decade. There are now thousands of RS boats sailing, with dozens more in containers arriving yearly. RS is probably not as organized as the HobieCat Company, but they are both timely and helpful, spirited and honest in their efforts to grow dinghy sailing.

As pre-orders started to roll in for this Aero, a boat that no one had even seen, I realized I needed to get on a plane to see what this boat was all about. Would I leave feeling like my customers with deposits already paid would be very happy indeed? Would it be more than a flash in the pan? Could the Aero be that boat all over again, like the Laser that really started it all?

I’ll cut to the conclusion to save you time: No, it’s not. It’s more.

If you are looking for a magic bullet that changes the physics of sailing an unstayed, cat rigged boat upwind, well, nothing changes that you have to hike. If you are hoping for modern composites to eliminate any twitchiness downwind, this might not be your revolution… Yet sailing the Aero is unlike other boat I’ve evaluated before. It’s a designer’s brew of lightweight construction, precise craftsmanship, and clever design that allows for high quality production in multiple locations. While it’s still a single-person fiberglass dinghy, after a day on the water it’s more an extension of the sailor themselves than any other non-trapezing boat I’ve sailed. Those who placed pre-orders are not going to be disappointed. Here’s how it went.

Weather Conditions:

We sailed for 4-5 hours in a variety of conditions. With air temperatures in the mid-to-high 50s and cool water, I was sporting a drysuit for the first time in my life. Breeze started out a nice 10-12kts for the first hour, building a bit to 14kts with puffs a bit higher. It then died in the later afternoon down to 4-7 before building back up in the late afternoon to mid-teens. The tide was ebbing when we started and increased throughout the day. Those UK tides are brutal. There was some chop from the wind and tide, but waves were never bigger than 1-2ft. It was an ideal day to try out the boat in slow and fast modes, upwind and down.

Launching:

One of the main talking points about the boat from both testers and the manufacturer is its lightness. At 75lbs, the Aero is about half the weight of the average sailor in the cockpit. The boat is easy to move about on a dolly or trailer, and I’m told two of them can stack on the roof of a car (although I’m not sure many customers would ever actually do that). It’s nice that the sail is on a halyard and the mast is so simple to step. The sides are also easy to grab on to, and I’ve seen video of people carrying it by the hiking strap and mast, but I didn’t try this. Lightweight is nice, but frankly rigging and launching any small boat with a big rig in decent breeze is still a little dicey sometimes. The UK trolley system is still foreign to me. I think this will sit nicely on a standard aluminum dolly (Seitech or Dynamic Dollies style) and make going in and out of the water very simple.

When you step into the cockpit it’s stable enough, provided you remind yourself you weigh a lot more than the entire boat. If you’ve never sailed a skiff or foiling moth there is a certain uneasiness the first hour of sailing, where you’re figuring out the boat and the way it feels and responds. The Aero settles down once you push off and have some forward speed.

Upwind:

Let’s get it out of the way, you still have to hike. A boat that weighs 10lbs and had a carbon fishing pole as a mast would probably still require you to hike. The Aero responds differently to hiking, or perhaps is capable of doing different things. A quick example is when I was going upwind, close hauled, hiking hard in the 7Rig in about 14kts of breeze. A full rig Laser was ahead of me, 3 lengths forward and 2 lengths to windward. In an effort to get past his bad air I eased, put the bow down a few feet, and sailed low and fast. I don’t think the Aero will prove to be wildly faster upwind than the Laser, but I was able to make up the forward distance and height within a couple hundred yards. Higher and faster with less work.

The mast is bendy, but not the whipsaw that the marketing material makes it seem. For a Laser sailor it’s a bit foreign to not reach for the vang and then the cunningham to depower. On the Aero (like most cat rigged, unstayed carbon masted singlehanders), you go for the cunningham first to open up the top of the sail. The vang follows and then the outhaul (which I never got the sense was doing a ton, on the Laser the outhaul can change leach profile a decent amount if you let it).

The sail can be shaped basically board flat. It’s amazing to see it stretch and keep a good shape throughout the mast bend range. I’m so used to the 45 degree wrinkles in the Laser sail and having to pull on cunningham to get them out. Some people have said the Aero needs a mylar sail to fit with the times, but it powered up nicely and flattened out easily, which is all I need as a sailor. I’m told it will last a lot longer than other one design sails, and as long as everyone else is using the same one, I don’t really care what it’s made of.

The boat does not wobble fore and aft as it goes over waves, it feels crisp and connected to the water. With that, if you sit too far back, the transom drags. You need to be at or near the front of the cockpit to get the boat to rotate around your body mass and track over waves.

The rudder authority is truly amazing with great bite. You really have to train yourself to not overuse it (as I am sure I was). It reminds me of advice I got on 29ers, the rudder is there to follow the boat, don’t use it to steer. I’m not a good enough sailor to know if that would directly apply here, but the rudder has amazing command, feather light, with good feedback. You almost want to compare it to driving a Mini-Cooper after being used to pickup truck.

Controls:

On this Aero the control layout was a bit of a nuisance (I am assured it will be fixed). That said, the vang is center mounted and so easy to use. The setup actually looks a little lame with the old fashioned Harken hardware, but it is so nice having a vang with such an easy action. The cunningham and outhaul are rigged as continuous lines, with cleats on each side of the deck, making them continuously difficult to adjust. While sailing a prototype hull, it was difficult to effectively adjust the cunningham and outhaul under any load at all. The technical director at RS, Alex Newton-Southon, says the final design will have more a revised cleating angle, and potentially different cleats. I didn’t focus much on the mid-cockpit traveler setup, the mainsheet rigging was straightforward and as natural as any other dinghy.

Tacking:

Tacking is simple, don’t oversteer. Assuming you are roll tacking, if you use the rudder too much and oversteer, the boat powers up on a low heading and you really have to hike it down to get it to flatten and accelerate. It feels like driving a go kart on a bad line through a track, it just doesn’t like it.

When you move crisply and deliberately, the boat goes from close hauled to close hauled deftly. It almost feels like it is rotating around the sailor. I started out with some quite poor tacks. Over time, they got get easier. It felt like the less I fought with the boat, the more responsive and nimble it became.

Some other comments were made that the sail is too low, but I didn’t have a single snag or problem. Regardless, I was told the sail is being recut slightly to provide a bit more headroom.

Downwind:

Reaching is silly fun again. I felt like a kid on a planing hull dinghy for the first time. This must be the reason why kids grin when they go from Optis to O’pen Bics. I’ve sailed fast dinghies, and Aero did not disappoint. We sailed some 90 degree reaches, then worked progressively deeper downwind in the Aero 7 and 9. With the wind in the 12-14kt range, with puffs perhaps a bit higher, the boat really took off. Perhaps it is the light weight or the rig, but the Aero does not take those few seconds to power up, the force is near instant. You scoot to the back of the cockpit, planing along effortlessly and with effective control throughout. Some internet users have made note that the early Aero videos showed the boat reaching around exclusively. While it makes for good videos, it’s also just a lot of fun.

Going deeper downwind, I struggled with the right body position. The cockpit is shallow, so the normal Laser form doesn’t quite feel right. I had one knee down and found it a bit awkward. Again, I think I was just doing it wrong. It’s not a huge boat, and the cockpit is not wildly deep, so there are only so many ways to place yourself. Others sailing that day spent time sitting on the windward tank with feet across the cockpit and claimed it was a very comfortable posture.

I experimented with pulling the daggerboard up quite a ways for deep runs. It didn’t need the extreme lift that a Laser does, just halfway up seems to balance the forces while reducing drag nicely. The boat is lighter than anything I’ve sailed (aside from a foiling moth) and you have to be deliberate with your body position. A foot forward a foot back adds up to a rather significant difference in the boats attitude. I’m not a large person (165lbs and 5’9”) but you notice right away that the boat is very precise in how it tracks in breeze. You have a few degrees of rudder movement as buffer, but the boat really carves if you are heavy-handed with the tiller.

Gybing:

When the boat is going fast you can steer crisply through a gybe and just hand over the boom to the new side. If you take too much time, slow down a lot before, or plow into a wave and then gybe, the boat powers up very quickly and it gets ugly. I think this is likely to be the most challenging aspect for sailors to figure out; the difference between gybing at full speed vs. going slowly and trying to force it. The Aero makes it very clear when you are sailing it poorly and off pace. So send it.

Capsizing:

I capsized twice during gybes and found the boat very easy to right. You have to remember when you are in the water next to the boat that you weigh twice as much as it does. I reached in, pulled on the hiking strap, and pulled myself in. The prototype boats didn’t have grab rails, which will make it even easier to recover. The boat is fairly stable throughout the process, I don’t have concerns here.

The daggerboard does have a sharp trailing edge profile. So in a big sea state, or breezy conditions where you might have to put some weight into righting the boat, I can see this being a pain point. I mentioned this to the technical director Alex, but didn’t think it important enough to follow up. Lighter sailors should have no trouble handling this boat in any conditions, even after a capsize.

Overall:

I flew to the UK to check out the Aero thinking this could be the Laser replacement. Despite everyone from RS (including Martin, the chief) telling me this was not the goal, that’s what everyone thinks when they see a new singlehander. The sailing game has evolved, and the community of sailors served by companies like mine are fortunate to have more information and more analysis than ever before. But at the end of the day, sailing is sailing. You don’t have the Internet while you’re blasting upwind, there aren’t any forums to tell you what to think or what you should buy. You’re sailing.

The Aero utilizes a unique mix of modern technology, all-around performance and very easy handling. Maybe it’s not ironic that these are similar to the characteristics that propelled the growth of the Laser some 40 years ago.

After a day on the water with the Aero, looking over videos, pictures, and talking to designers and others who tested it, I was impressed. I believe in the hands of a capable and driven manufacturer like RS, with 20 years of success building fleets around boats, that the future is bright for the Aero.

It’s not a Laser, and I don’t think RS wants it to be. After sailing it and reflecting on my experiences, I’m not sure any sailor would want it to be either. I’m excited to get it into the hands of my customers who have already ordered them and quickly build some fleets. It’s very possible this is the right boat, at the right time, at the right price, from the right source.

George Yioulos West Coast Sailing May 2014 Boats@WestCoastSailing.net www.WestCoastSailing.com


For the Love of Laser

Kurt Hoehne

Oh that Laser. I love her. I always have and always will. She humbles me, thrills me, punishes me, makes me feel strong and alive. She’s got that timeless beauty that just can’t be denied.

On a more analytic level, the boat has many, many strengths. Skilled sailors handle it in winds from 1-30. It’s well enough built. Sure, the most serious competitors get a new boat every couple of years for just a little more hull stiffness, but boats can be sailed at a recreational level pretty hard for 10 years. At $6K+, they can’t really be called “cheap,” but they retain enough resale value that they’re a tremendous value as boats go. 

And it is the best sailing instructor ever. It boils sailing down to its very basics. Get it wrong and the boat will dump you. Get it right and you feel one with the boat and water. And there’s enough subtlety to keep a lot of us interested for a lifetime.

While so much of the world looks to make things less physically demanding, the Laser unabashedly demands you stay in shape. That’s a big appeal to many of us.

But by far what’s best about the Laser is the competition. Locally, the Seattle Laser Fleet is composed of friendly and tough competitors, the kind of sailors who will throw a hard lee bow on you on the race course, do a penalty turn when they touched a mark unseen, and then stick around for hours after the racing to share stories over a beer. 

And at the national and international level, the competition simply doesn’t get any better. The Master Worlds is my favorite regatta. It’s humbling to see sailors in their 60s and 70s head out into the teeth of a 25-knot blow on a boat they know can and will send then flying.

I’ve been a Laser evangelist for a long time. I was the local fleet captain for several years and talk about the boat endlessly to everyone who’ll listen and some who won’t . I’ve loved it through every episode when some corporate entity milks the brand for every last dime, goes into bankruptcy and passes it along to new custodians. So what’s different now? Maybe nothing. Maybe the RS Aero.

Why the Aero?

First off, any reports of the Laser death are premature. No matter what the Aero (ostensibly not a Laser replacement according to George and RS) does, the Laser class will survive for a long time with great racing. And it’s not like it’s the first time a “Laser Killer” has come along. Under pressure, the rest have failed. 

But the Aero may address fundamental issues, and if its newness creates some new dinghy sailors, all the better . 

• It’s lighter. With the right trailer and dolly, moving a Laser around by one’s self isn’t hard. But the idea of being able to pick up the rig and boat together and move it around has great appeal. And certainly the performance gain off the wind might be substantial. 

• It utilizes carbon spars. The mast and boom should be far superior than the Laser’s. Bend should be more consistent and longevity far improved. Mast breakages and bending have always plagued the Laser. 

• It apparently has better control lines and more ergonomic design. If done properly, this will help make the boat a bit more user friendly.

• They copied the Laser’s strengths. They are developing the kind of strong class rules that have served Laser so well. They’ve copied the three rig system. Above all, RS has not been lured into making the Aero complex by adding a kite, trapeze, racks or foiling. Simplicity is good. 

• One of the most expensive elements of competitive Laser sailing is replacing the sail. New sails are noticeably faster (surprise surprise), and the most competitive types replace them every regatta or two. The ancient technology and material (Dacron) that goes into a Laser sail means a short competitive life. It should also mean it should be cheap. But at around $600, the 76 sq. ft. sail that has to be replaced so often is ridiculously expensive. If you go with a sail that is not class-legal, it’s less than $150. There is no reason they should cost substantially more.

The Aero’s three sails are also Dacron and appear to be of conventional paneled design (radial and cross-cut are both seen in the photos). Turns out Daron is still a pretty good sailmaking material. But hopefully more modern design and warp-orientation will lead to a longer competitive life. Or at least affordable replacements!

•Price. The RS Aero is about the same as a Laser. This is key. Many of us sail a Laser because that’s what we can afford. Too many Laser Killers come in with extra bells and whistles at additional cost. And they wonder why they won’t sell. 

• Above all, RS seems more committed to sailing and its customers than Laser Performance. Laser Performance may not only have shortchanged Bruce Kirby out of his royalties, it has certainly shortchanged we sailors of a solid flow of parts and boat availability. It’s a constant struggle to procure parts, and its attitude toward the sailors casts a lot of doubt. It’s parent company has nothing to do with sailing and one gets the idea from their legal dealings with Kirby that the Laser brand is what they’re after and if they could make money without the hassle of actually making boats, they’d go there in a heartbeat. RS is clearly committed to sailors and sailing. 

Sea Trial

One of the first Aeros in North America is coming to Seattle, and I’ll line up to try it along with just about everybody in the Laser fleet. My questions, which can only be answered over time or through actual experience, are as follows: 

• How will the construction hold up?

• Will a strong class form? Will a fleet form in Seattle? Will my friends be sailing them? 

• Will I be sailing a 7 or 9 sail, and what will my friends be sailing?

• Will mid-boom sheeting allow fine leech control, will the chined-shape be effective in Seattle’s light air? Will it go upwind through chop? Will the Aero “require” a specific body weight, and will I be at that weight? What will the sail look like in different conditions?

• How does it feel? It might be too much to ask that the Aero “feel” better than the boat I’ve had a 35-year relationship with, but new can be good too. 

• Will I be able to sail it in those rousing 25-knot conditions that are so much fun in a Laser? 

Now What?

Sure this spry young Aero is sexy, and has lots of appealing qualities. But none of that would make me stray from the love of my sailing life.

But I gotta say that these days I’m feeling a little neglected. And now with lawyers in the picture, it’s only fair to think about the future. 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Hoehne

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