Jumpstarting the Laser 4.7 in North America

Jumpstarting the Laser 4.7 in North America - an article by Jean-Pierre Kiekens and Agustin Ferrario - published in The Laser Sailor - Winter 2018 /*

With the increased development of the Optimist in North America and the decline of the Byte class, there is an urgent need for a vibrant Laser 4.7 class, offering an optimal transition towards the Laser Radial and, ultimately, for men, the Laser Standard.

A striking difference between Laser youth sailing in Europe and North America is the role played by the Laser 4.7. Huge fleets of Laser 4.7 are competing at national and international events in Europe. While, in North America, the Laser 4.7 has until now had a limited, sporadic, presence only. It’s a situation that is unfortunate, because the Radial is a way too powerful rig for many youth sailors, particularly those just out of the Optimist class.

The European Experience with the Laser 4.7

Today, there are large fleets of competitors in the Laser 4.7 class in Europe. Participation is limited to competitors aged 12 to 17. For example, at the 2017 Europeans held in Los Alcázares, Murcia, Spain, there were 240 youth boys and 104 youth girls competing. According to Macrino Macri, the vice-chairman of Eurilca — the European branch of ILCA - the success of the class can be attributed to several key elements. First, there was a decision to promote the 4.7, rather than the Radial, because the rig is less powerful than the Radial and much more appropriate for young sailors, and it reduces the risk of injuries, including to L4-L5 lumbar vertebras. What was also key was to establish an excellent governance of the class and to establish a ranking system - the Europa Cup Trophy. Best sailors are recognized annually. In 2016, there were 396 youth girls and 448 youth boys ranked in the 4.7 class! A similar ranking exists for the Radial (559 girls, 639 boys in 2016). The rankings are based on a wide range of regattas, including very local ones. The numbers are a good indicator of the popularity of the two youth classes, the 4.7 becoming nearly as popular as the Radial.

Youth Sailing after the Optimist

The Optimist is by far the most sailed and successful dinghy class in the world for kids under 16. The question that is faced by sailors, parents, coaches, is what to do after the Optimist. And this is not at all something obvious to address. The best Optimist sailors typically weight between 90 and 110 lbs. They will leave the class at maximum 120 lbs, even if they have not reached the age limit of 16, as they no longer can be competitive in the class. Until relatively recently, the Byte was the transition boat towards the Laser, but the class has substantially declined over the past years. So today, in North America, Optimist sailors typically have to choose between the Radial, or going double-handed (Club 420, i420, 29er). All of these boats are actually way to powerful for sailors weighting 110 - 120 lbs. So there are no obvious choices.

And there is typically a huge adjustment to do to sail those boats, which comes largely at the expense of all the advanced sailing skills learned through years of Optimist sailing. The fact that many young sailors give up on sailing after the Optimist, or a few years later, is to a significant extent attributable to this transition issue. Is the Laser 4.7 the perfect boat for the Optimist sailor weighting 110 or 120 lbs? Maybe not initially, but it’s certainly the best choice available. It’s certainly much better than the Radial, and unless the sailor can find a heavier crew to sail double-handed, it is also more appropriate than the Club 420, i420 and 29er.

Optimizing the Transition to the Laser 4.7, the Radial and the Full Rig 

For years, the laser class and manufacturers have been suggesting the following as appropriate weights for the three laser rigs: 35-55 kg (77- 121 lbs) for the 4.7, 55-70 kg (121-154 lbs) for the Radial, and over 60 kg (132 lbs) for the full rig. These weight ranges are unfortunately plain wrong when it comes to an optimal transition from the Optimist to the Laser. The 35 to 55 kg range (77 to 121 lbs) is actually the range for Optimist sailing! Out of the Optimist, sailors need to transition towards the Laser 4.7. And the question is up to when. When is the transition towards the Radial to take place? What is now clear about this is that sailors can typically stay in the Laser 4.7 for one or two years, and maybe more. It all depends on the sailor, his/her growth, weight gain, skills. As presented in Box 1, the 2016 4.7 World champion, Dimitris Papadimitriou, weighted 75 kg (165 lbs) when he won his 4.7 world title. That was at the end of his second year in the 4.7, at age 16. He then moved to the Radial in 2017, and was again crowned world champion. After a year in the Radial, he decided to move the Laser Standard. Other sailors, particularly female sailors, may stay longer in the 4.7, before making the transition to the Radial. 

The recommended, yet incorrect, sailor weight ranges for the three rigs
What is clear is that the weight range typically recommended for the Radial is plain wrong too. Indeed, 55 kg (121 lbs) is way too light to move to the Radial. And 70 kg (154 lbs) is actually way too light to move to the Laser Standard. ILCA and manufacturers have work on their plate to get these weight ranges right! What is also clear is that there is some overlap between the 4.7 and the Radial. Steve Cockerill, a renowned coach and former world champion in the Laser Radial, suggests a weight of at least 67 kg (147 lbs) to be competitive in Laser Radial. Dimitris Papadimitriou became 4.7 world champion at around 75 kg (165 lbs) - yet he may not have won in light winds. So a suggested weight range for the transition between the 4.7 and the Radial would be 67 to 75 kg (147 to 165 lbs). In practice, a sailor should decide at the beginning of the sailing season which rig he/she will  sail - a decision to be made with the coach. In summary, the Optimist sailor going for the Laser should go first in the Laser 4.7, and then move to the Radial at a weight comprised between 67 to 75 kg (147 to 165 lbs). And this means for most sailors, depending on growth, two years in the 4.7, before moving to the Radial. Note that the minimum weight for transitioning to the Laser Standard is about 79 kg (175 lbs). Very few full rig sailors can handle the boat at a lighter weight. The typical weight range for a competitive Laser Standard sailor is actually pretty narrow: 175 to 195 lbs.

The Way Forward in North America

The case for developing a strong, vibrant, Laser 4.7 class is pretty clear. Now how to make it happen? The key is to bring the coaches of all the clubs with active Optimist and laser fleets to support the Laser 4.7 as the preferred transition single-handed boat out of the Optimist, and preferred single-handed boat for any new sailor, who did not sail the Optimist, and yet wants to sail single handed, as long as he/she is not clearly overweight for the Laser 4.7. In Canada, the movement is already under way, and several clubs, including the Royal Canadian Yacht Club (Toronto) and the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron (Halifax) have just started to develop Laser 4.7 fleets. Their top Optimist sailors are now being informed to go for the 4.7,  if they opt for single-handed sailing. The « sell » is not really a hard one, as long as the sailor does not feel he/ she is isolated, that he/she is the only one sailing that boat. Starting with the 4.7 and moving up to the Radial also means that the sailor can learn the trim characteristics of the Laser hull, starting with the 4.7, which knowledge will carry forward when they move to larger rigs. For the parents, this means investing in one sailboat, and not two (like it was the case with the Byte), as only a sail and bottom mast section are needed to move towards the Radial afterwards. In Canada, Sail Canada is already supportive of the initiative. It’s now a matter of bringing the various provincial sailing bodies on board, as well as all the key clubs. Clinics geared towards Laser 4.7 sailors, and other targeted initiatives, need also to be developed. A similar approach can be implemented in the US. Youth sailing championships should also create space for Laser 4.7 sailors, instead of solely relying on the Radial. There is work to be done. But it’s all feasible, and it has started to take place in Canada. Jean-Luc Michon, the chair of Eurilca explained it simply: a few years ago, North America missed the train of the 4.7. With lots of work, that’s a reality that can be corrected, within two or three years, in North America. This would greatly benefit the class, and most importantly, offer young sailors, particularly those out of the Optimist, an opportunity to pursue their sailing career in an optimal way. Soon, hopefully, olympic medallists will not only be former Optimist sailors, but also former 4.7 sailors!

Portrait: Dimitris Papadimitriou  (see featured video above)

Ditmitris Papadimitriou from Greece: 2016 Laser 4.7 Youth World
Champion; 2017 Laser Radial Youth World Champion
At age 14, Dimitris represented Greece at the 2014 Optimist Worlds in Argentina. In a recent interview, he recognized he was just hoping to make it to the gold fleet. Yet he placed 3rd overall! While still allowed to compete one more year in the Optimist, he moved to the Laser 4.7, because he got too heavy for the Optimist (he was nearly 120 lbs). He trained hard, on the water, at the gym, biking, running, and gained weight. While the transition to the Laser 4.7 was not easy, it took him some 10 months to really get used to the boat. He placed 10th at the 2015 youth worlds, yet felt still underweight for the boat. He continued to train hard and, in 2016, he captured the gold both at the European and at the World 4.7 Youth championships. In 2017, he moved to the Radial and captured the bronze at the Youth Europeans and the gold at the Youth Worlds! After two years in the 4.7, and one year in the Radial, and with two world champion titles, Dimitris is now moving to the Laser Standard. Probably, it’s not the last time you will hear about Dimitris Papadimitriou! You can find an extensive interview of him, where he explains the details of his transition from the Optimist to the Laser, and its various rigs, at this link. And make sure to watch the videos, also accessible from the blog, where you can watch him in action! He is an amazing sailor!

Recommendations to the North American Laser Class

• formally recommend the Laser 4.7 as the transition boat out of the Optimist

• revise the official weight ranges for the three rigs, to make them fit with reality - here is a recommendation:

• get a coordinator into place at the level of the ILCA secretariat to actively promote the 4.7

• establish a temporary task force, say for 3 years, and bring in volunteers, such as parents, master sailors, etc. - to ensure the 4.7 becomes a reality

• implement clinics in key locations to promote the 4.7 and recruit talented Optimist sailors

• ensure that no regattas are being organized with rig changes (4.7 / radial)

• organize a ranking system of youth sailors, similar to the one implemented in Europe, covering local regattas, provincial/state and national level ones, with age categories ((U16, U18) and separate rankings for boys and girls - a similar system should actually be implemented for the Radial; software for such a system already exists, free of charge - so it’s more a matter of getting volunteers to implement it

• work with the US and Canadian sailing federations to have the 4.7 sailed at official youth events

• organize major 4.7 youth regattas, such as the Worlds

• implement continued communications about the Laser 4.7 class development, through the Laser Sailor, the www.laser.org website, and other means to ensure the efforts to develop the 4.7 are visible and sustained.

Guidelines for Coaches

• sailors leaving the Optimist and choosing single-handed need to go to the 4.7, for at least one year - NOT the Radial

• don’t let sailors less than approx 67 kg (147 lbs) and without advanced sailing skills and body strength to move to the Radial - it’s ok to stay in the 4.7

• develop your 4.7 fleet, without rig changes with the Radial, even in light winds. Yes the 4.7 is slower, but what’s important is a level playing field, not absolute speed.

• make sure to request separate starts at regattas - work with regatta organizers, so the 4.7 is treated as a separate class from the Radial

• get your club to acquire some laser hulls, new or second-hand, and get 4.7 rigs, to let young sailors, particularly out of the Opti, to try the 4.7

• be ready with very advanced coaching: many Optimist sailors are amazingly skilled, soon, you will be astounded at the high level of your 4.7 fleet

• organize clinics with neighboring clubs, to bring 4.7 sailors together and jumpstart the level of your sailors

• make sure to bring to the 4.7 class both girls and boys - and work with clubs, with parents, to make the class attractive to both girls and boys

• make the 4.7 fun - you may have sailors as young as 12 or 13 - see the 4.7 initially as a big Optimist

• don’t be afraid of involving parents, as is often done in the Optimist class, to develop the 4.7 at the level of your club, and beyond

About the authors:

Jean-Pierre Kiekens is a Montreal-based laser sailor, having competed in the Laser in Belgium
while at university, and as a Master sailor in North America at various national and international events. For the past years, he has followed the evolution of his son, Jean-René, who is aged 13 and will represent Canada at the 2018 Optimist Worlds in Cyprus. He has also followed the evolution of his daughter, Alexandra, who is now 19 and who sailed the Club 420 and, briefly, the Laser Radial, after the Optimist.

Agustin Ferrario is the Halifax-based High Performance Sailing Coach at the Canadian Sport Center Atlantic, Head Race Coach at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, and Team Leader for the Youth Worlds with Sail Canada. Agustin is actively developing a Laser 4.7 fleet in Halifax. Originally from Argentina, he has a distinguished sailing career, and still regularly participates in regattas, including in the Laser, the F18, the Soling and the J-70.

The authors are grateful to several individuals who provided comments on previous drafts, including Jean-Luc Michon, Macrino Macri, Osvaldo Padron, Tyler Bjorn, Andy Roy and Randolph Bertin. The expressed views are however solely those of the authors.

/* The article is reproduced here as pretty hard to access online on the Laser class website.
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