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New and Improved Laser Controls

Unless you've got the skills of perennial Laser champion Robert Scheidt (above), you'll definitely want to be aware of the new sail controls instituted by the ILCA.
World Champion Robert Scheidt had probably figured out a better way to do it long ago. But for most of us weekend warriors in the Laser class, the process of adjusting the sail controls prior to October 2001 was pretty rudimentary. On a breezy day it used to go something like this:

Prestart    Wrap the cunningham line around your hand, put one foot on the forward end of the cockpit and pull as hard as you can. Make your best guess at the outhaul tension, cleat it off and forget about it for the race.

Start    Sheet in, hike hard, pull all the slack out of the boom vang and cleat it for the rest of the beat.

Windward Mark    Uncleat the vang as you approach the mark. Ease the mainsheet a little to get the vang to pop off, which makes the mainsail get fuller and the leech get tighter, causing the boat to heel a little and round up just as you are trying to bear off. Skid around the mark and uncleat the cunningham. Now slide forward and yank some slack into the cunningham line. Then try to yank the vang line out of its cleat again to let more pressure off.

Leeward Mark    Pull the cunningham as hard as you can, which is hopefully not quite hard enough for the puffs, and just a little too hard for the lulls on the next leg. After rounding the mark, take the slack out of the vang.

Let’s just say that prior to October of this year, the subtle adjustments of sail controls were not part of the Laser game. Anyone familiar with this classic boat knows that strength of the Laser class is at least due, in large part, to very strict rules about modifications to the stock boat. The sail controls have always been a joke, but at least everyone had to endure the same joke. Sailors in nearly every other single-handed boat, from the Force 5 to the Europe Dinghy have long enjoyed the advantage of powerful, free-running sail controls led to both sides of the boat. We Laser sailors were stuck with a daisy chain of loops and knots ingeniously contrived to increase the purchase of the standard control lines, but led to cleats placed as far from the hiking sailor’s reach as possible and angled so that no one but a 22-year-old, double-jointed, Olympic athlete could get the line back into the cleat without a midrace pit stop. Well, all that has changed for the better with the October 2001 rule change introduced by the International Laser Class Association. Here’s an overview:

With the old-style controls, heavy air put a big burden on sailors, particularly those considered flyweights.
After almost 30 years of control-line futility, sailors can now buy (directly from any authorized dealer) a retrofit kit for the critical cunningham and outhaul control lines on the Laser. The new kit costs about the same as a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four [$199.95] and is small enough to fit in a Kleenex box, but hey, no one ever claimed that sailboat racing is for the frugal. The good news is that the kit, which the Laser’s builder (Vanguard Sailboats in the US) provides, is 100 percent complete and it comes with clear instructions and all the correctly sized lines cut to the appropriate lengths. And no drilling is required. Our fleet captain in Newport, RI, Mark Bear, is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University and, though he was a bit of a baby about it, he was able to complete the retrofit on his boat in less than half an hour. Again, Mark is not a brain surgeon.

The new class rules also allow modification of the standard boom vang. It can now be rigged with a cascading system consisting of one or two lines and blocks that can be added where we previously had to make do with loops tied in the control lines. (Vanguard plans to sell a complete new 15-to-1 vang system that can be cleated or uncleated from the full hiking position, but it wasn’t available when I wrote this.) The new vang system will have way more purchase than we need and will cost less than a new VW Jetta. So, to get by in the interim, I simply added two Harken Micro Blocks to my vang where I previously had tied loops in the line and that has made a huge difference in the performance of the vang. Unfortunately, it hasn't made much of a dent in my performance on the racecourse yet, but that is just a matter of a little time for the vang and me to get used to each other.

The new blocks and cleats offer some obvious advantages:

  • The cunningham, vang, and outhaul can be adjusted while sailing upwind or downwind.
  • The lines can be cleated from any of the normal, contorted positions that we sailors assume to balance the boats.
  • The lines actually run out when eased.

The author's own boat now has the cunningham and the outhaul led to the deck, and two micro blocks incorporated into the vang.
The ramifications of these improvements in sail adjustment are significant, and I think they will prove to be especially critical for sailors who weigh a little less than the class standard of 180 pounds. The cunningham, outhaul, and boom vang are used to depower the Laser rig. Tightening the controls makes the sail flatter. The lighter a sailor is, the harder he or she will have to pull on the sail controls in the same conditions.

In a general sense, the controls have the following effects:
Cunningham—increased tension makes the sail flatter and moves the draft position forward.
Vang—increased tension makes the sail flatter (especially in the front) and tightens the leech.
Outhaul—increased tension makes the sail flatter and makes the leech more open.

On a Laser, the vang and the cunningham in particular go together. When the vang is tensioned to flatten the sail, and it simultaneously sucks the draft out of the luff area so the cunningham needs to be tensioned enough to pull some depth back towards the mast and make the entry of the sail rounder. A 165-pound sailor (such as myself) would reach the limits of the old controls in as little as 14 knots of wind, at about the same time that the wind strength begins to exceed that sailor’s capacity to hike the boat flat. In wind strengths greater than that, the vang has to be super-tight. The super-tight vang holds the bend in the mast (which in turn keeps the sail flat) when the sailor eases the mainsheet in puffs.

In order to get the vang in its super-tight position with the old controls, the lightweight sailor needed to two-block the mainsheet and cleat it. Then he had to push on the mainsheet between the deck block and the boom with his front foot while pulling the vang with his front hand. Once in super-tight vang mode, the cunningham would be too loose, but there was—at least in my experience—no way to pull it on harder while still proceeding up the windward leg. The compromise was to sail the beat with the draft of the sail too far aft and the boat moving slowly because of both poor sail shape and inadequate hiking weight (coupled with lack of strength, inadequate commitment to pain, waning attention span, and just a bad case of defeatist attitude). Meanwhile, the heavy guy in the boat to windward was barely squatting on the edge of the rail and going half a knot faster. With the new controls, the lightweight competitor is back in the game, at least in terms of sail controls. The vang can be set in super-tight mode without the need to use your foot and the cunningham now has enough purchase to rip the grommet out of the sail while you’re still hiking. So now we can make the sail as flat and draft forward as the conditions demand, and all we need to work on are the strength, attitude, commitment, and skill areas.

With the new, easier-to-release sail controls, most sailors can avoid the fate of the guy on the red boat shown here.
The final, and perhaps most important contribution of the new controls is the added ability to let the controls off for the downwind legs. On a Laser, there is a real danger of breaking the mast or boom if the sailor goes around the windward mark in big breeze and eases the mainsheet with the vang still set in super-tight mode. With the new controls, the vang can be easily released just after the boat enters the two-boatlength circle at the weather mark. The cunningham can be eased during the rounding and the free-rolling blocks now allow the control to jump right off.

With the new retrofit kit, the outhaul isn’t quite as powered up as the cunningham, but there is enough power in it to ease the foot of the sail as the boat rounds the windward mark and then to pull it back on just before rounding the leeward mark. And now that it can be led to a cleat on the deck, it's infinitely more accessible. However, when I do forget about the outhaul control in the excitement of a leeward mark rounding, I still have difficulty getting it all the way back on during the upwind leg. (Maybe Mr. Scheidt has some ideas for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves in this situation.)

In summary, both the ILCA and Vanguard should be commended for sorting out this issue and introducing the control line retrofit kit. To their credit, both groups spent a couple of years debating this and listening to what their constituents had to say, and then they took action. Perhaps the price of this new kit is a little shocking at first, but the Laser is a better boat with the new controls. And we will all become better sailors when we learn to use them.

Over 170,000 Lasers have been built since the boat was designed in 1970. For additional information or a full copy of the new Laser Class rules, log on to the ILCA's website at

Suggested Reading:

Innovating for Performance by Dan Dickison

Cold Weather Clothing by Bob Merrick

On the Road at the CISA Racing Clinic by Zack Leonard

Buying Guide: Personal Flotation Devices

Dan Neri is offline  
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