Choosing a Single-Handed Dinghy for the 2024 Olympics

Day 1 of the World Sailing Valencia Sea Trials
Photo credit: Michele Tognozzi/farevela.net
With the World Sailing sea trials having just started in Valencia to help determine which single-handed dinghy will be used at the 2024 Marseille Olympics, here are a few thoughts. For sure, there is lots of emotions, and many people are pretty upset that the Laser may be replaced, but reason may dictate that one of the three contenders - D-Zero, M-14 or RS-Aero - may be a more suitable choice for the long term development of single-handed sailing.

Here are some thoughts at the beginning of these trials. In a nutshell, it is argued in this article that:
  • the targeted optimal sailor weight for female athletes should be brought down from the current 68 kg (150 lbs) to about 60 kg (132 lbs), to allow access to single-handed racing to many more female athletes world-wide, and keep women into sailing.
  • the targeted optimal sailor weight for male athletes should be increased from the current 82 kg  (180 lbs) to 86 kg (190 lbs) or even a bit more, to increase access to single-handed racing for male athletes.
  • there should be strict requirements in terms of boat quality, affordability and availability globally, with exacting standards and third party certification ensuring that all boats are effectively the same, wherever they are built,
  • in case the Laser is replaced by one of the three new designs, it should still remain, for the foreseeable future, the preferred youth single-handed dinghy, in the 4.7 and the Radial.
Optimum Sailor Weight and Sail Size

For years now, the Radial has been the single-handed Olympic boat for women, and the Full Rig for medium weight male athletes. What lessons can be drawn in terms of optimum sailor weight range and sail size?

For female athletes, the Laser Radial is on the high sailor weight side, with a typical target weight of approx. 68 kg (150 lbs) for the top sailors. This target weight is simply too high for most female athletes, who don’t want to gain either fat or muscle mass to reach such weight, and opt instead for boats such as the 470 or the FX.

Here are some indications that one should go for a boat / rig combination that requires a lower optimum sailor weight. At the 2018 RS Aero World Championships, there were 29 female athletes out of 61 participants in the Aero 5 class (with a sail of approx 5 square meters), while only 7 out of 103 participants in the Aero 7 class (approx. 7 square meters sail). Another indicator of the problem with the Radial can be found in the Laser class itself, where the 4.7 is now more widely embraced by female youth sailors than the Radial. As far as master sailing is concerned, it remains very little popular with female athletes, again because the boat is too powerful for most women.

For sure, one can expect a higher degree of athleticism from Olympians, but at the same time, it would make lots of sense to bring down the optimum sailor weight for female single-handed sailors by a few kgs, say at around 60 kg - or 130 lbs, instead of 68 kg - or 150 lbs. This is actually an amazing opportunity. This would have huge positive implications, to broaden the accessibility of single-handed sailing throughout the world, including of course in Asian countries. It would also keep many more female youth athletes in single-handed sailing.

For Olympic level male athletes, the ideal weight for the Laser full-rig is well-known to be around 82 kg - or 180 lbs, give or take approx 2 kg / 5 lbs. While having the reputation of being universal, the Laser caters only for a small portion of the male athletes’ weights and physiques. Many lighter weight athletes opt for double-handed, particularly in the 470 - as the 49er requires about the same sailor weight as the Laser full rig. And of course, until 2020, there is the Finn option, with many Laser sailors having opted to gain some weight — approx. 15 kg / 33 lbs, to sail the Finn instead. 

For a variety of reasons, including the huge importance of downwind speed and the usage of the 15:1 boom vang (v. 3:1 in the original Laser), optimum weights to sail the Laser at the top level have been on the decline. Many sailors opted for the Finn simply because they could not keep their weight down enough for the Laser.  This is mostly affecting countries with tall populations, like in the Netherlands (tallest people in the world!) and Scandinavia. One does not need to dramatically increase the targeted optimum sailor weight. For example, for a body mass index of 25, which would correspond to a healthy male athlete, 200 lbs / 90 kg means a height of 1.90 meter / 6 feet 3, which is on the high side, in a world perspective.

With the Finn having been excluded by World Sailing from the 2024 Olympics, having a boat that could be sailed competitively by sailors at 190 lbs (86 kg) or even 200 lbs (90 kg) would make lots of sense. This could for example be a 180 - 200 lbs (82 to 90 kg) targeted range.  Of course, taller sailors will always be slightly advantaged in terms of their ability to exert a higher righting moment, but smaller sailors, say from 1m70cm, or 5 feet 6, can gain muscle mass and achieve the desire targeted weight. Some of the top Finn sailors in the world actually have such height and have gained the appropriate weight to be competitive.

If one looks at the 4 contenders for Marseille 2024, is there a boat that fully corresponds to the above considerations?  It’s not clear. The Laser obviously doesn’t, but it possibly could, with an adjustment in the sail size and/or cut. And of course, the Laser has several wild cards, as not less than 5 new rigs - C5, C6, C8, Arc-Radial, Arc-Standard, have recently been developed, but the limitations of its hull remain an issue.  And presently, as discussed below, these wild cards also are a symptom of serious issues with the Laser.

The Melges 14, with the largest sail in the group with its gold rig (9.1 sq meters; 98 sq feet), may actually be a good fit for male athletes, but it’s unclear if its blue rig is appropriate for female athletes. For the RS Aero, as indicated above, the 7 rig is much less popular with female athletes than the 5 rig, and this may mean that the 7 rig, presented in Valencia, is too powerful for most women and may pose the same issues as the Radial. It also seems that the 9 rig can be sailed at 180 lbs or maybe even below (personal communication by Marc Jacobi, who is the current world champion and also works with RS Sailing).

Same seems to be the case with the larger grey rig of the D-Zero, as the designer of the boat specifically targeted that sailor weight. It’s unclear what is the best weight to sail the blue rig of the d-zero, destined for female athletes. So there is uncertainty, which could at least partly be resolved with the trials and also interviews of top sailors having sailed the various boats. But for all these boats, adjusting the sail size and/or cut to make them suitable for the desired target sailor weight range is clearly feasible, and may be something that World Sailing may want to impose, so as to best optimize the rigs for both male and female athletes.

While the sail size is critical to adjust the righting moments to the most typical weights of female and male athletes, the ability of the boats to deliver a relatively wide optimum sailor weight range is also important. This is actually part of the criteria set by World Sailing, which demand that both sailor height and weight don’t have excessive impacts on performance. The challenge will obviously be to measure this. What one hears is that a boat like the Melges 14 has the ability to de-power significantly, thanks to its sail plan design, and its briddle / traveller which is very different from the Laser for example. Regarding the d-zero, the adjustable mast rake, which cannot be found on the three other boats, is also helpful to widen the sailor weight range. All of this would need to be tested, measured, which is not an obvious. But it’s important, as one wants to select a boat which will provide opportunities for a wider set of sailor physiques than is presently the case with the Laser.

The trials may not generate responses to all these considerations. Indeed, what will be the representativity and objectivity of the selected athletes? Especially as many of them will likely be mostly used to sail the Laser and may feel a change may not be in their personal interest. What is the representativity of the wind conditions that will prevail during the week. Will there be winds say from 5 to 25 knots to properly assess if the boats can be sailed in a variety of conditions? How can one assess in just a few days what would be the ideal weight range for top level athletes, on the various boats?  This may not something that can be properly resolved in such a short period of time. But if World Sailing manages to properly resolve this, it could dramatically improve the single-handed dinghy sailing, both for female and male athletes.

Note that World Sailing has imposed in its tender documents that the same boats, with different rigs, should serve male and female athletes. Yet for the sake of the Olympics, there is no reason to have the same boat for male and female athletes. This may therefore be something that World Sailing may want to re-consider, in part to avoid creating a new monopoly-like class.

Quality Building, Affordability and Availability

Other key aspects to be addressed are quality, affordability and availability at the global level. For sure, today, there are many Lasers around, and there is lots of apprehension in some quarters that all these boats will become obsolete and lose value, and that many countries will not be able to replace them. What I have argued elsewhere is that the Laser should be kept for a certain period of time as the preferred youth dinghy, in the 4.7 and the Radial. The 4.7 and the Radial presently attract huge fleets at its international events, and this should be continued in the foreseeable future.

It is also well known that the durability of the Laser, at the top competitive level, is limited, because the hull loses within 1 or 2 years its stiffness and becomes softer. What is also known is that there has been inconsistency in Laser building over the years. Not all hulls are created the same. At some point the Aussie hulls were preferred. It may actually still be the case, even if some corrections were asked by the class as to the way they are built. And one also has the issue of consistency within the same building facility. And it’s also well known that there is variability in the top mast sections, even though this may be less the case with the composite sections. Mast rakes also vary a bit from one Laser to the other. All these elements impact performance and need to be addressed.

While these issues are known with the Laser, less is known about the other 3 boats, which are much more recent designs. What World Sailing should seek is top quality and extremely consistent boat building, so that results at regattas, particularly those with mandated charter boats, are not dependent on how lucky one is with the allocated equipment. Strict consistency should be achieved even if there are several builders involved. All the boats should be very very similar. This has apparently not yet been achieved not only with the Laser but more generally with competitive dinghy sailing, as there are consistency issues in other classes, including Olympic ones.

The goal should be for strict consistency to be achieved, as it’s extremely important at the top Olympic level. How to proceed? There are tools, such ISO 9001 certification, to help deliver consistency in manufacturing, and such tools should be imposed on boat builders and spar manufacturers.  The boats should also be strong and durable enough, ideally so that one could compete at the top level with a hull that is say 3 or 4 year old, or even older.  It’s going to be something hard for World Sailing to test, but it should be.  If some corrections to the hulls need to be made to ensure their durability, they should be imposed.

In terms of affordability, the 4 boats are in the 6000-7000 euros range, on the European market, before taxes. The cheapest one is not the Laser any longer, but the d-Zero, according to listed retail prices.  There are countries such as Argentina with very high import duties, and to keep the boats affordable, it is critical that the local building of the boats will be allowed in such countries. To meet the growing demand in Asia, it’s also important to have boat building taking place there, maybe at a lower cost, yet with the proper exacting standards described above, so that all the boats are essentially the same, wherever they are built.

Price differences in new boats are however not the same as equipment cost differences. For example, on a boat like the Laser Radial, the sails are known not to last long, in part because the very high tension exerted in the sail through the vang. Top sailors may need to buy some 10 sails or so per year. As there is no continuous research and development for the sails, unlike for example for the Europe and the Finn, World Sailing should insist that sails are made affordable, possibly by imposing a maximum retail price (with indexation). It is well known that one can secure new, decent quality, non-class Laser sails at a quarter, or even less, of the price of a « class-legal » sail. This does not make sense.

Yes, there should be a profit margin for sails, but it should not be excessive. This is an important element to address, as if the hull and the spars are durable enough, the longevity and price of the sails become key elements to assess the affordability of the tested equipments. And like with the hulls and the spars, there should be strict exacting standards, and third party certification under ISO, for sail making, so that all the sails are essentially the same — something that seems to have been nearly implemented with the Laser, but not fully, as some sailors prefer one sail brand over the other.

Other Considerations

There are many similarities among the three contenders to replace the Laser. These boats are lighter, use carbon and composite materials, both for the hull and the spars, and have larger and more modern sail plans than the Laser. Contrary to the Laser, the three boats are truly self draining and much more ergonomic.

And yes, as discussed elsewhere, these three boats are faster than the Laser. Expect about 3 to 4 min. advantage for these contenders over the Laser, by the end of a one hour race, the fastest boat being probably the RS Aero 9, according to the current Portsmouth yardstick numbers (available only for the Laser, d-zero and RS Aero).

Word of mouth suggests that some people prefer the RS Aero, others the D-Zero, others the Melges 14. Purchasing decisions usually are made depending on preferences and accessibility to a local fleet. There are no markets where the 4 boats are actively competing against each other in the marketplace. But in the UK for example, along with the Laser, there is growth of both the D-Zero and the RS Aero. In the US, there is growth of both the M-14 and the RS Aero. Today, about everywhere, the Laser remains dominant for youth and Olympic-oriented single-handed sailing.

There are various online testimonies comparing at least 2 of the boats, sometimes 3. None of these boats are perfect. Yet the new designs all result from extensive research development and build on the drawbacks of the Laser, developed some 50 years ago. Here are some of the aspects that differentiate the three contenders.

- RS Aero: it is the most widespread of the three contenders. Its particularly light weight - comparable to that of an Optimist - has been a key selling point, but is also seen as a weakness. Its 5 rig is particularly popular with female sailors.
- Melges 14: the gold rig has a pretty large fully battened sail - 98 square feet (9.1 square meters), i.e. 30% large to that of a Laser standard, and is said to de-power particularly well; the boat has a longer water line. Its large cockpit is seen by some as a drawback, especially downwind.
- D-zero:  Maybe because it was designed in collaboration with a leading Finn manufacturer, some details of the boat, such as the adjustable mast rake, absent on the three other boats, tend to please those liking more technical boats, such as Finn sailors.

Anyway, any good sailor, as long as within the optimal weight range of the boat, will do well in any of those boats, provided of course there is a sufficient adaptation period. No doubt about it.

Of course, the Laser remains the most sold boat worldwide, because of its Olympic status, of its dominance for youth sailing and of the hard work of the Laser class over the years, building fleets in more countries than any other Olympic boats. But if it were just for the boat, sales would be much lower.

What has emerged in the past months is a much deeper issue with the Laser, as new rigs (C5, C6, C8) have been developed on the one hand by the international class ILCA and the Australian builder PSA, and on the other hand by the British (and globally dominant) builder LaserPerformance, with its ARC (Radial and Standard) rigs. None of these new rigs are presently class legal, but obviously, there is no space for such multiplicity of rigs.

All of this has brought to the forefront significant governance issues with the Laser class, which seems not even intending to consult its membership to adopt new rigs.  There may also be protracted litigation on the horizon, because of intellectual property rights and other considerations. And despite these many rigs, the current Radial and Standard rigs, which are pretty outdated compared to the new designs, are those that are presented at the sea trials in Valencia.

Note however that the « Improper Course » blog reported that samples of the C6 and C8 rigs have been shipped just a few days ago to Valencia from Australia, just in case … As an « insurance policy » they claim. But those rigs are not class legal, not endorsed by World Sailing, and not supported by the dominant Laser manufacturer - LaserPerformance. It’s not clear if World Sailing will provide the Laser class with the opportunity to show these two rigs, or to have sailors to try them - as it may be unfair to the other 3 bidding companies.

Even if World Sailing would prefer to keep the Laser, in part because it would prefer not to disrupt Olympic sailing more than it already has, with the new and untested mixed double-handed « offshore » event adopted through a highly contentious vote in Sarasota, and the ejection of the Finn from the 10 Olympic events, and the 470 becoming a mixed gender boat, and the introduction of mixed gender kiteboarding, and the ongoing review of the windsurfing equipment, and the reduction in the number of athletes for 2024, etc. it will be hard not to pay attention to these most serious issues affecting the Laser.

The replacement of the Laser, which was seen as an unlikely scenario just a few months ago, seems now to have become a distinct possibility.

As suggested previously in the article The Laser at the Crossroads - https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-laser-at-crossroads.html - a managed transition, keeping the 4.7 and the Radial as the preferred youth single-handed boats for say at least 4 years, should be preferred to a complete replacement of the Laser with another boat, which would be unnecessarily disruptive and costly.

Update: according to this just posted article in Sailing World, LaserPerformance is also developping an ARC 4.7 equivalent rig - so there is a total of 9 rigs now, either available, or in preparation: https://www.sailingworld.com/rethinking-laser-rig

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Copyright. Jean-Pierre Kiekens. 2019. All Rights Reserved

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