Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Ironing Board

The previous post about Ian Bruce reminds me that the Laser dinghy is now 40 years old (the actual anniversary is somewhat muddled - do we go with the first appearance of the "Weekender" at the TeaCup regatta in Wisconsin in 1970 or with the very successful introduction of the production "Laser" at the New York Boat Show in 1971). Tillerman made an oblique reference to the Laser reaching age 40 in this homage to his forty year love affair with Tillerwoman. The Laser is now so ubiquitous, found in every nook and cranny sailing water throughout the world, it is hard to imagine a world where the Laser was the newcomer.

I remember reading about the new "Weekender" dinghy in ODandOY (for young whippersnappers, this was the One-Design and Offshore Magazine, the forerunner to the now Sailing World magazine, of which Bruce Kirby was the editor and the organizer of the TeaCup regatta.) Although the Laser topped the results, there didn't seem to be much to choose from between the Laser and the other singlehander making it's debut on the national scene; the West Coast designed and built Banshee (based on a Flying Junior hull).

I saw my first Laser the first year they came out, 1971, though the dates, times, chronology and characters have been clouded by the years. It was Septemberish and I, as a Midwestern college student from Miami University of Ohio, who couldn't get enough of dinghy racing, had finagled an invitation to the University of Wisconsin Hoofers Intergalactic Tech Dinghy Championships. And as was common and completely normal for a college student who didn't own a car in those years, I hitchhiked those 400+ miles through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and into Wisconsin (this may have been the trip where I spent the wee-morning hours trying to sleep on the hard seats in the bright lights and elevator music of the Milwaukee Airport - hitchhiking being a very non-linear form of travel - but this may have been on another hitchhiking foray into Wisconsin).

The Hoofers Club Intergalactic Tech Dinghy Championship put their 40 or so Tech dinghies on the line, a singlehanded championship that featured mostly current Hoofer's skippers or alumni such as the Harken brothers, Peter Barrett, Charlie Miller and I'm sure there were some scow champions sprinkled in as well. The weather was warmish, the breeze about 8-10 and I finished somewhere in the middle, middle-to-back. A great regatta. There is always something special about the Midwest lake sailing hospitality. On the way back out, I arranged to stop at Peewaukee, Wisconsin where Vanguard/Harken Blocks and North Sails Midwest (Peter Barrett and Charlie Miller) were neighbors in a business complex. Vanguard was closed when I showed up but there was someone at North Sails to show me around the loft. Tucked in one corner was this oddball dinghy with a completely flat deck.

"What is this?" I asked.

"Oh, this is the new Laser dinghy." came the reply.

"What a weird looking deck!" I was having a hard time getting my brain around something so flat looking.

"Yeah," the North sailmaker said, "Around here we've nicknamed them the Ironing Boards."

I nodded in agreement. At that moment I couldn't imagine a boat so different looking (yes, even ugly) ever getting off the ground.

Later that fall I hitchhiked into Annapolis to crew in an International 14 regatta. Good friend Sinjin Martin, who had been selling Ian Bruce's International 14's to the local fleet, was Annapolis's first Laser dealer and they had been selling like gourmet cupcakes. He stuck me in a Laser for a test sail. Light, fast, responsive; when I stepped back onto the dock at SSA I knew this was a special dinghy.

And that ugly flat deck - that kinda grew on you.


Baydog said...

I remember the first time I sailed one, and being amazed at how fast the thing was. Later that year, my Dad bought #802.

Tillerman said...

Thanks for that piece of history.

But are you sure that the Force 5 was at the Tea Cup regatta in Wisconsin in 1970? According to Wikipedia it was designed in 1972, and I must admit I have always believed it was a copy of the Laser with some much needed improvements in how the sail controls worked.

Interestingly in Bruce Kirby's account of the Tea Cup regatta he says that the only other "boat" of note there apart from the Laser was the Windsurfer.

Tillerman said...

And I still remember the rush I got when I first sailed a Laser.

And the other feeling I got when I reached the middle of the bay and realized I had rigged the tiller over the traveler and would be unable to tack.

Tillerman said...

Just read your post again and I think I misunderstood what you said. You didn't actually claim that the Force 5 was at the Tea Cup. I guess the article you mentioned must have come out in 1972 (or later) but, by then, the Laser was the Laser not the Weekender wasn't it?

Tweezerman said...

Tillerman, You were right the first time. I did lump the Force Five into the Teacup regatta, which, as you point out, is a mistake. (I did make the caveat in the article that memory is very fuzzy at this point). I'll edit the article to show only the Banshee at the Teacup. I will try to see if I can find the original report - you've piqued my interest about what boats actually attended.

History, they say, is written by the winners. I'd have to disagree with Bruce Kirby on this one. Both the Banshee and the Force Five sold in the thousands which makes them significant in my mind. Both boats are still raced in pockets around the U.S.

One must also note that the Laser has successfully remained a strict one-design under tightly controlled manufacturing for forty years. This is uncharted territory for the boat industry and the current stresses and strains between Laser-Performance, Bruce Kirby and the class association do not portend well for this model working well into the future.