April 21, 2012

Laser Cheat Sheet

by Doug
When I was 20 and living in my native Montreal, I bought myself an unusual $1,800 present - a one-way ticket to Sydney. Yes, I was restless and yes, that's what it cost back in 1971. One of my goals was to crew on one of Sydney's famous 18-footer skiffs. But the skipper that I was introduced to talked me out of it. He said, "For every hour on the water, you'll have to spend three hours working on the boat." I asked, "What would you do if you were me?" He paused and then said, "I'd call a gentleman by the name of Frank Bethwaite."
2012 with Frank in North Sydney
Thus began a 40-year friendship with the most remarkable man that I have ever met. Frank was the father of the NS-14, a very simple but wicked fast development class with a small sail and no trapeze. Yet it planed upwind. Every high-performance dinghy in the world can trace its roots back to the NS-14 and, of course, Frank's son Julian went on to design several classes including the 49'er.
2012 Pam with Julian at Bethwaite Design
So at the ripe old age of 20, I became the race secretary of the NS-14 association and a protégé of Frank Bethwaite... talk about luck!!!

1971 Frank and Julian sailing their NS-14

[I took this picture in at Northbridge SC. There's an interesting story behind it that helps explain why jibs are so efficient, and will be the subject of another post. Frank used this picture in his first book High Performance Sailing.] In spite of its high performance, the NS-14 was actually designed for husband and wife crews. So one of the challenges was finding a simple way to set up the controls. Frank had a brilliant solution. For the three wind settings (light, medium, and fresh) he had "datum marks" of one, two, and three red dots on all of the controls. Every NS-14 Frank built had these so that anyone could set up the sails perfectly every time.

Fast forward 38 years and Pam is interested in learning how to race a Laser. We would talk for hours and she would always say, "Make it simpler." So I would write things down - how to set up the controls, the strategy for starting, playing the competition, etc. But it seemed that every time we talked about it, she would say, "Make it simpler." The result is the cheat sheet in the right column which I laminate and give out at clinics. Much of what I know is here.  The purpose of the cheat sheet is to allow anyone to set the controls correctly for all lake conditions and simply focus on boat handling and tactics.  The controls should be the easiest part of sailing a Laser.

A disclaimer: The settings I recommend are basic and have served me well when sailing on lakes in Dallas.  There may be variances that others use that work but these settings should be competitive enough to keep you at the front of the fleet.  Major events like world championships tend to be in open-water and these settings are different.  Coincidently, Brett Beyer has written about this in Frank's upcoming book and he has generously agreed to give his perspective of settings in a future post. Describing my cheat sheet will take several posts - we'll start with the three columns that, not surprisingly, can be traced back to Frank's datum marks.

When you buy a boat, you're really buying three for the price of one, but only one of them has to be fast. For the one that you sail in light air, you have to be smart. Speed without smarts means you'll go quickly the wrong way. For medium conditions, you need absolute speed so you need to be fast. For above a certain wind strength (15 for me), boatspeed goes out the window and its all about conditioning, so you need to be fit. Setting up and racing a Laser is all about being smart, being fast, and being fit.

Your weight determines your strength and weakness. If you do not weigh much, you need to be smart and win the light races. If you're weight is average, you have a chance of winning in all conditions but you'll need boatspeed. If you're heavy, you had better be in shape.

I do not know of any single person who is the fastest in all conditions, so it's best to perfect your own conditions and then be reasonably competitive in the others. For example, a race in Laser world championships will not start in very light conditions (darn!) so I need to be really fast in medium conditions and hopefully fit enough to hang on in windy conditions. My finishes in a 72-boat fleet at the 1999 Master Worlds made this really clear - in conditions under 15 they were 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3 but over 15 were 7, 8, 9, 10, 10. I have worked hard to improve my heavy-air sailing but sailors from countries that produce great heavy-weather sailors (AUS, NZL) are now getting really fast in the lighter conditions, as we saw recently in Brisbane. Laser sailing will continue to evolve.

In another post, we'll look at setting up the controls before the start and then going upwind.


  1. I hope that you simply haven't allowed comments to accrue here....if not and none have been posted I thought you'd like to know that many sailors have pointed me to these articles particularly as I try to move into the middle of the fleet ...my problem is that I seem to be very fast if the boat is set up right and we are in moderate or even heavy conditions....I have no idea at all how to set up the boat so I just kinda put everything in the middle...0-8kt setting are a complete mystery though and I spend so much time looking for a fast setting that deflated is a common occurrence....that shouldn't be ...perhaps these sheets can ultimately help...to be honest I was hoping for simpler still but then if it was easy....tx again!

    1. We do not delete comments and have found that posts that we really like sometimes get no comments while some of the less interesting ones get many comments. I liked this post because it introduces Frank who was a huge influence and as really like a father to me.

      People who read this post usually click on one of the 2 cheat sheets on the right and then jump to other posts. Pam and I get a kick out of readers from more than 120 countries learning from our little blog.

      Setting the controls for light air: most people have their vang to loose and their boom too far in. Have the end of the boom down and out and keep the boat moving or else your centerboard will stall. Most people focus on the wrong foil - something Frank taught me.


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