Laser History

Duke Duyck. April 1991.

A drawing made during a phone call resulted in one of the most successful craft in the history of marine design. In the summer of 1969 Ian Bruce, champion dinghy sailor and industrial engineer, was trying to develop preliminary ideas for a line of camping equipment. One of the items was to be a car-top dinghy. He called from his office in Montreal to marine designer Bruce Kirby (also a Canadian dinghy sailor) in Stamford, Connecticut. As they talked, Kirby began doodling on his scratch-pad. By the time the conversation was over, he had a sketch that was remarkably similar to what eventually became the Laser. That drawing, now framed, became known as the “Million Dollar Doodle”.

The camping equipment client eventually discarded the idea of a dinghy, and the basic designs (that Kirby had produced in record time) lay dormant for months in a filing cabinet. Had it not been for an unusual regatta, they might have stayed there indefinitely. That regatta, promoted by One Design and Offshore Yachtsman Magazine, for craft costing less than $1000, was called the “America¹s Teacup”, and Kirby thought his little monosail cartopper with take-apart mast, might just be suitable. He and Bruce decided to manufacture a couple of hulls for the Teacup races that were to be held in Wisconsin in late fall 1970.

They incorporated a foam-core deck and glass-fibre hull welded together in the now-famous “rollover” joint that makes the craft so strong. It¹s length of 13 feet 10 inches was long enough to permit it to become a high performance boat. While the simple shape helped the boat speed, it also added to the hull’s strength. Many tests were made during development to establish the best mast position and rake, which was critical because it is moulded into the deck and cannot be altered. For the design and construction of the sail, they managed to rope in another top-notch Canadian racer, Hans Fogh, who agreed also to skipper the finished product in the October race meetings.

Those races and the subsequent testing on what they then called the Weekender, resulted in a production model, completed in time for the New York Boat Show the following January. This model attracted a lot of interest and nearly 150 orders were taken. While Bruce concentrated on production at the plant in Montreal, Kirby turned his attention to promoting the concept, looking for dealers and writing advertising copy for it. It was decided that all sails were to be cut and seam-welded by Fogh, then shipped off to sail lofts world-wide, where they were finished by stitching and reinforcing. This policy contributed to the uniformity of the product throughout the world.

To date, some 115,000 Lasers have been sold world-wide. Production has run as high as 12,000 per year. It was impractical to build all those in Canada, so subsidiaries were established and licences sold by the boat¹s original manufacturer: Performance Sailcraft International. That company built the moulds from which hulls are now made in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa and the UK. This was another factor in the craft¹s standardization.

The name ‘Laser’ was no small part of the craft¹s popularity. Like many good ideas it came from inspiration rather than a thesaurus. For the New York Boat Show the designers wanted something more catchy than ‘Weekender’. A McGill student suggested a modern, scientific name and Laser was it. Kirby’s ten-year-old daughter, involved with school science, confirmed the then unknown appellation. It took a few months to realize how good a name it really was. That, together with Kirby¹s design, Bruce’s manufacture and Fogh’s sails, made the popularity soar. It turned out to be one of the slickest, sleekest little craft anywhere!

The Laser is ideal for training: the Ontario Sailing Association uses it exclusively for its Learn-To-Sail and Race-Training programs. Barb and I have taken these courses and have enjoyed them very much. After a week at Geneva Park, where the programs are held, you find your skills very much improved regardless or the type of boat you normally sail. It does wonders for your self-confidence. We also enjoyed racing the Laser at the OHCC where we, instead of being the usual skipper/crew couple, could battle out our differences on the water by just trying to outsail each other. We both had our time in an Albacores and were ready for some rugged individualism. And rugged it can get: imagine the thrill of riding a wave, while planing on a broad reach, your daggerboard quivering with that characteristic Hummmmm, wondering whether you can make it to the next mark before a gust throws you off balance. Yet, you can’t let go, with the competition so close, and they ain’t giving up either. And there’s no crew to blame if you miss. The Laser is also great in light winds. While I hate drifters, I have found that you can still make it move with very little wind. And if all else fails, you can stand on the foredeck and pump your sail to get home or paddle with the daggerboard.

The class does not allow any changes so you don’t have to fiddle with the cleats and other gadgets. The rigging is simple and takes little time to set up or tear down. This is a definite advantage if you go travelling. We have taken a couple of them on one trailer all the way to the Mid-Winter Regatta in Tampa, Florida. It’s a really great experience to leave Toronto in snow and ice, to arrive in 20C weather for a match with nearly two hundred other Lasers on the starting line.

The Laser is definitely a boat for the “young at heart” and is most popular with teenagers and young adults. This is because of its flexibility and price. It’s especially good because you can learn in it and can carry on with it into racing and travelling from regatta to regatta. Because of it’s popularity, you can find Lasers anywhere and the Ontario race circuit has a busy schedule. That doesn’t mean that is not popular with the older generation. There are many of us who have done away with the trials of getting a crew, lifting heavy boats with their mishmash of lines and cleats. All we wanted was to get on with the job. There is even a Laser Masters class.

We certainly recommend that you try sailing this craft. You will be amazed and taken in by the freedom and versatility of the Laser. You may learn to love it as we did, and even get one of your own.

More: Laser on Wikipedia