Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Walmart Lasers

Last week I picked up a paper copy of the APS (Annapolis Performance Sailing) catalogue, and in the Laser section, I found a “practice” Laser sail priced just under the price of the infamous “practice” Laser sail from Intensity. Undercutting Intensity by a dollar or two is not exciting, but to think that a Laser Performance dealer has joined in the game of low-priced non-legal Laser parts gives one a moment of pause. Although APS has always carried a practice sail, it never has had one priced at less than $200, so this is something new.

We have been all through the argument of using non-class legal sails before. Hard core one-design believers think the purity of the brand should always be preserved, and some rebels and cheapskates think that $550 is just too much to pay for something that can be had for less than $200. But since almost all rebels and cheapskates have been willing to compromise and use the legal sail at serious regattas, there really hasn’t been much of a ruckus.

It would seem that the undercutting Laser Performance / North Sails game is working so well for others that APS, and maybe some other dealers, are starting to want a piece of the action too. And the action does not stop at sails. The business of making and selling low-priced, non-legal Laser parts is growing faster than weeds in my garden. Just at APS, you can buy a “practice” daggerboard, rudder head, rudder blade, outhaul and Cunningham cleats, boom, lower mast (full, radial, or 4.7), and upper mast. Intensity sells all of that, in some different non-class legal non-one-design variations, and they also sell a “practice” auto-bailer and a “practice” mounting plate for the hiking strap.

I’m still looking for non-legal gudgeons, grab rails, and bow eyes so that I can strip a laser and build a “Walmart” Practice Laser with absolutely no genuine manufacturer approved parts except the hull! Nothing builds a champion so much as practicing in a boat with sails, blades, and spars different than the ones that must be used in real competition.

For those of us who just want to manage the annual operating cost of Laser sailing, it all just looks like the world has gone a little crazy. Sails are one thing. The sail is the most interchangeable part on the boat, the most expensive part on the boat, and the part that wears out the quickest. If, in a five year period, I buy five class legal sails, I spend about $2750. If, instead, I buy four practice sails and one class legal sail, I spend about $1350 while using a legal sail in every important regatta I attend.

How much would I save if I used a “practice” daggerboard? Stupid question because nobody uses a practice daggerboard. But just to play along, if I were an elite racer for whom the wear of the trunk on the daggerboard over, say a five year period caused me to replace it with a new one, I could save a whopping $50 by buying a practice one. If damage were the issue, assuming I managed to damage one daggerboard beyond repair every five years and thus needed two of them in a five year period, I could again save that $50, but if, and only if, I had the good sense to damage the practice one and not the competition one. I seldom exercise this kind of clever planning. The same logic applies to rudders and spars.

These parts are not “practice” parts, they are simply cheaper, non-legal, knock-off parts

Attached hardware gets even worse. Even self deception can’t go far enough to disguise the fact that the boat is illegal all the time! That’s a big compromise! And then there is the issue of quality. We all find the cost of marine hardware downright painful, but reliability and durability are paramount. High price and quality wins every time over low price, low performance and breakdowns. With hardware, less is almost always less..

So the non-class legal Laser part industry can offer us some minor savings in exchange for less reliability, less (or unknown) quality, and a thorough trashing of the one-design concept. No self-respecting Laser racer should want to convert his boat into a Walmart Laser. Even recreational users and underfunded community sailing programs might not be served if quality and reliability are compromised.

There has to be some common sense and some middle ground when it comes to this kind of thing. When is the world going to finally start behaving like I think it should? Outrageous!