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!


  1. I just recently ordered the practice race sail from APS - it was newly offered this year (at least new to me) and looks like it might have the Sunfish logo. Intensity Sails would have been my 1st choice, but his no longer have the logo (there was a factory error or something on his 1st batch... they aren't supposed to have the logos). I don't race (yet), so I didn't see the need to buy the class-legal sail, but did want the "race-cut" for the improved sail power. The sail is on back-order, though, so I haven't received it yet.

    For a typical recreational sailor, I don't see a problem with the illegal/knock-off/whatever you want to call it/ stuff, especially if it means more people are getting out on the water. As their skills improve, and sailing (and class-racing) become part of their life, then I think the cost will be easier to swallow for the "class-legal" parts to make everything legit.

    I can't comment from personal experience on any other Walmart-style parts you're referring to, but everything I've heard about the Intensity Sails versions of the "practice" sails has been great.

    cheers, my2fish

  2. oh yeah... in case it wasn't clear, my parts I'm referring to are for a Sunfish, not a Laser. I don't know that there are as many knock-off or practice parts for a Sunfish, at least I don't recall seeming them in the APS catalog.

  3. I’m all for the “get more people on the water” theory. Intensity sails have done a great job in that effort, and I’m a big fan and a good customer. (Congratulations Intensity Sails) I’m also for moving those people and their boats up to class legal racing. When the sail is the only issue, one big purchase makes the boat legal. The only duplication of expenses from what was required for a class legal boat is the Intensity sail ($200), and that sail will eventually be fully used in practice and informal racing over the next year. The legal sail will last several years if used only in regattas. Sailors make this transition all the time.

    On the other hand, making a Walmart Laser legal again involves lots more money and essentially throwing away those bargain parts. In addition to the sail, you now might replace that that “practice” board ($357), and “recreational” rudder ($281). Your initial savings of $33 and $17 for those items is not looking so smart now. No one is going to spend what it takes to make the boat legal again. I maintain that once a boat has travelled down that “recreational” Walmart road, it is never coming back. Those boats are lost to Laser racing forever. R.I.P.

  4. and.... as volumes go down on the class legal parts, especially if they are unique to the vessel (like rudderheads), then the price will go up, further punishing those who play by the rules

  5. If the "official" genuine Laser sail was a good, durable sail we would not be having this discussion. I have sold my laser with the old striped sail and a new sail that I didn't like from the beginning. I tried, really tried to sail the new sail. I just hated looking up at the leach which was sewed too tight and and thus exhibited a 1 1/2 inch curl. Ugly and not fast looking. If it were a sail delivered to me by my sailmaker chums, I would have called them for a look and it would have gone back to the loft. I remember complaining to one of them and they said they couldn't help me. I sold my laser for a MC Scow.

  6. Of course, a full "Practice" Laser already exists. In Russia.

    Complete, with a non Laser class legal hull (made in Tallinn), and an alternative bailer setup.