Happy birthday Laser! The world’s most popular boat blows out 50 candles

laser boatBasically, it’s a classic boat. Actually, it’s the world’s most popular dinghy, with over 200,000 units in 120 countries: with the hull no.1 launched in 1971, the Laser turns 50. The boat, at its seventh Olympics, would now be called ILCA (acronym for International Laser Class Association). It all stems from a dispute between the yacht class and its historic manufacturer Laser Performance, which covered Europe, Asia and the Americas, accused of not always producing boats that conformed to the Laser monotype. Hence ILCA’s openness to the search for new manufacturers.

But for all sailors around the world, it’s the good old Laser, 4.2 metres long (with a waterline lengnth of 3.81 meters) and 1.39 wide. The 7.06-square-meter sail is the plus of the standard version, which becomes 5.76 for the Radial and 4.70 for the 4.7 model. The Laser of the great champions: Robert Scheidt, Tom Slingsby, Ben Ainslie, Paul Goodison to name but a few.


The story of the Laser deserves to be told: it is a fascinating story of an ingenious boat born of chance.

Bruce Kirby
Bruce Kirby today

In 1969, Bruce Kirby received a call from his friend, Montreal-based industrial designer Ian Bruce, to design a new sailboat. The brief was to combine it with a new line of leisure equipment that could be carried on the roof of a car – a “car-topper” – to go with a line of outdoor equipment (tents, cots, cots, camping chairs) for the Hudson’s Bay Company retail chain. “I didn’t even know what a car-topper was,” Kirby recalls. The boat had to be easy to transport and set up to make it as easy as possible to put on the water.

It was not the first boat Kirby had designed, but that was not his job. He worked as an editor of a sailing magazine, living (as he does now) on the Connecticut coast. As a designer, he was self-taught, having learned the basics of design from a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, originally published in 1904, from a family friend and understanding, he estimated, about a third of it. But Kirby had ‘three-dimensional eyeballs’, as he describes it; he had no trouble imagining a hull shape. And as a world-class helmsman of small boats, he knew what was possible.


laser drawningsKirby drew in a ruled notebook as they talked. When they finished, he took it to his drawing board and began to tinker. He knew he had to ‘get the numbers right’. His first consideration was the so-called prismatic coefficient, which defines the shape of the boat. Is it a tank or a knife? Or, in the language of yacht design, is the hull ‘full’ or ‘fine’? A rectangular barge has a prismatic coefficient of 1 because its hull completely fills the prism formed by its length, width and draught.

Most sailing boats have a coefficient between 0.5 and 0.6, which means about half that volume. If the prismatic coefficient is too high, if the boat is too fat, it will be slow, especially in light winds. But if the coefficient is too low, if the boat is too lean, it will cut through the waves rather than climb them. A sailboat that glides well is fast, but more importantly, it is fun. Up high, out of the water, the wind and the sail become more than the sum of their parts. Kirby has opted for the prismatic coefficient of 0.55, a barely valid number to make a well-balanced boat: fast but stable, neither too full nor too fine.

laser design projectsDinghies depend on ‘live ballast’, i.e. a person leaning, or protruding, over the windward side. A large sail only works if the sailor can keep the boat flat. Basic physics says that their ability to do this depends on their weight, which obviously varies from person to person. So, Kirby had a second number to choose from: the ratio between the size of the sail and the volume of the hull, which depends on the weight of the boat plus that of its helmsman. Kirby decided that for his dinghy the best performance should be achieved with 80 kilos of meat – in his words, ‘a good-sized guy working like hell to go faster’. The decision was partly selfish; described Kirby at the time.

Within a couple of weeks, Kirby had a sketch for Bruce. “He was in a bit of a hurry,” Kirby says. When Hudson’s Bay decided not to sell a boat at all, Kirby told Bruce not to give up on the project.

sailing raceThe opportunity came soon enough. In October 1970, Kirby’s magazine planned a promotional race for sailboats costing less than $1,000, to be held at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Kirby and Bruce built a prototype “roof boat” and rigged it for the first time on race day. They came in second place. The curvature of the mast did not match the shape of the sail, so that night they adjusted the sail by reducing the excess fat and won the race the next day. The small boat was fast, with a low profile that kept the sailors close to the water. Spectators tried to buy it straight from the beach.

Back home, the friends started working on a second prototype. They devised the final mast that could be dismantled without shrouds, so they could play with different sail sizes with ease. In December, it was ready for final testing. Going out on Lake Saint-Louis near Montreal, they decided to move the mast forward a few centimetres. At the end of the cold weekend, they decided that their little 4-metre dinghy was ready for the market. All it needed was a name. At a celebratory dinner, a friend – a student at McGill University – suggested it should be something young and international. “Why don’t you name it after ‘Laser’,” he said. And so it was.

Ian Bruce
Ian Bruce

Ian Bruce had a small boatyard, so they decided that Ian would build the boat and Kirby would receive royalties for the project. Bruce priced it at $695. At the New York Boat Show the following month, they took orders for 144 lasers. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Kirby tells. It was 1971.

As expected, the Laserwas affordable in price, easy to transport, rig and bring to the dock. ” From a technological point of view, it’s a very simple boat but a great fast cruiser”, says Scott MacLeod, a Noroton Yacht Club sailor who twice won the North American collegiate Singlehanded Championship in a Laser-1983 and 1985-and placed seventh at the Worlds. Today, the Laser is the most popular boat in the world, with 220,000 units built.


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