Fixing the Youth Sailing Pathway with the Laser 4.7 and the RS Feva

2016 4.7 Europeans - Source: EurILCA
This past weekend’s Laser Canadian championship was a reminder of the very limited spread of the 4.7 rig in Canada.  Out of a total of 55 participants, there were just 4 competitors in the 4.7. This situation is unfortunately pretty typical not only in Canada but more generally in North America, as the 4.7 rig remains unpopular in the US too.

The contrast with Europe is stark. For example, at the 2019 Laser 4.7 European championships held in Hyères, there were nearly 400 participants. In Europe, there is a balance, in youth sailing, in terms of participation between the 4.7 and the Radial. Sailors typically sail there a few years in the 4.7, and then continue in the Radial. Some male athletes pursue afterwards in the Laser Standard.

Unlike in Europe, there is no such balance between the 4.7 and the Radial in youth sailing in Canada, and in North America in general. Europe now has huge vibrant fleets of both Lasers 4.7 and Radial, and is an example to follow.

This article examines the role the Laser 4.7 could play in Youth Sailing in North America, particularly out of the Optimist. It examines the causes of the low adoption of the 4.7, and the adverse impacts of the current youth sailing pathway.

While the 4.7 is shown as a clear solution to improve the transition out of the Optimist, the article also underlines the critical role that could be played by the double-handed RS Feva.

Note: you may want to join our upcoming “Sailing after the Optimist: a Webinar” -- which will discuss youth sailing options after the Optimist, with special emphasis on the US and Canada. 

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4.7 Participation in 3 Recent Canadian Events

In 2018, there were two important events for Laser youth sailing in Canada: the traditional CORK regatta in Kingston, in mid August, and the Canadian youth championships, in late August, in Toronto.

At CORK 2018, there were 125 Radials, including about 10 sailors from outside countries, and 17 Lasers 4.7. Initially, the organizers had not included a 4.7 fleet in the Notice of Race, but made the change following the insistence of several coaches and parents. The outcome was there was a workable 4.7 fleet for this event, with a separate start from the 3 Radial fleets.

At the Canadian youth national championships held in Toronto, there was a total of 68 participants in the Laser, but only 4 in the 4.7, the rest was in the Radial.

At the Canadian Laser nationals this past week-end, there were 4 Lasers 4.7 and the rest of the fleet was split between 28 Radials and 23 Standards. Unlike the two previous events, this was not a youth championship. Yet the 4.7 participation was again very low

Principal Causes of Low Participation in the 4.7

There are multiple causes for the low presence of the 4.7 in Canada, and North America in general. They can broadly be grouped in two categories: bad tradition and poor leadership.

1. Bad Tradition

The Laser Radial has been the leading youth single-hander for decades in Canada. It’s the same thing in the US. Sailors out of the Optimist typically go single-handed in the Laser Radial, or double-handed in the Club 420. That’s the conventional youth sailing pathway in North America. Depending on location, the Byte single-handed dinghy has played the role of transition between the Optimist and the Laser Radial. But the class is now mostly inactive. While the 4.7 has been around for over 20 years, it has not found its way in the standard youth sailing pathway, even after the demise of the Byte, which was still pretty strong 10 years ago (41 competitors at CORK in 2009, for 131 Radials).

The weather conditions, with typical light winds during the summer when most youth sailing takes place, add to the widespread yet misconceived perception that the Radial is fine out of the Optimist. The presentation, by the Laser builders and the Laser class, of the 4.7 as a kind of substitute for the Optimist, wrongly claiming that the 4.7 is for sailors between 35 and 55 kg (77 to 120 lbs), contributes to its low adoption. Many coaches, typically students having sailed a few years in the Laser, often replicate the pathway they went through themselves and accordingly reject the 4.7.

So why bother with that 4.7 rig? There are no fleets anyway! Recently, there have been efforts in places such as Nova Scotia and Alberta to firmly establish 4.7 fleets. Yet the typical pattern that continues to prevail in North America is to disregard the 4.7 and transition youth sailors directly from the Optimist to the Radial. And this pattern perpetuates itself year after year.

2. Poor Leadership

It requires a clear vision and perseverance to develop 4.7 fleets. That’s what it took to get the 4.7 as strong as it is today in Europe. In Canada, the Laser class, which is part of the North American class, has never made real efforts to promote the 4.7. The class is the institution with the most knowledge about the boat, and their lack of efforts is the main culprit. Moreover, in Canada, there is no clear guidance developed either at the provincial or federal level to bring clubs to implement a youth development pathway that’s truly effective. Yes there is a mention of the 4.7 in the official pathway developed by Sail Canada, but there is no clear guidance regarding the precise role of the boat. Without such clarity, decisions are often left to parents and to coaches. Many parents don’t have a clue. Others want to their kid to be fast, hence give preference to the Radial. And many coaches don’t really know either, with many of them never having sailed the 4.7. There is also a habit that can be seen in some clubs to put the weak sailors in the 4.7 and the better ones in the Radial, irrespective of their body weight.

When there is no established fleet of 4.7s at the local or provincial levels, there is little incentive for coaches to take the initiative. Indeed, the club level fleets are often small, and there is reluctance to split them. And there is also reluctance to ask parents to buy new equipment (4.7 bottom section and sail), when they typically already have the Radial rig. And there is the bad habit to mix, at regattas, in the same fleets the 4.7 and the Radials. This is for example the case in the Province of Québec, where the Notices of Race, for all the key Laser youth events, mandate organizers to have joined 4.7 and Radial fleets. At the Canadian nationals this past weekend, held in Québec, the 4.7s were mixed with the Radials. As the 4.7 is much slower than the Radial, even the best intended coach would resist sending sailors to regattas in the 4.7 in the context of joined racing with the Radials. The list goes on. The status quo prevails. The 4.7’s development remains mostly marginal.

Adverse Consequences of the Current Youth Sailing Pathway

The lack of proper transition between the Optimist and the Laser Radial is one of the key flaws in the current youth sailing development pathway. Here are some of the main adverse consequences.

1. Unenjoyable Experience

Sailing the Laser Radial out of the Optimist, when one weights say 110 to 120 lbs (50 to 55 kg) is not an enjoyable experience once the wind reaches 10 or 12 knots, as even if the sailor is able to depower the sail with vang and cunningham, he/she will not be possible to keep the boat flat upwind and to keep up with heavier sailors. The sailor will be overpowered big time. The very best Radial sailors typically seek a 150 lbs (68 kg) body weight. Less athletic sailors actually need more weight to manage the boat. There is a huge gap between the body weight out of the Optimist and what it takes to properly sail the Laser Radial.

2. Immersion in Wrong Age Group

The Laser Radial is the Olympic single-hander for women, and there is also senior sailing and even master sailing for men in the boat. Laser Radial fleets gather sailors from all ages. And even at youth events, many Radial sailors will typically be say 17 or 18. At international youth events, the age limit for the Radial is 18, while it is 16 for the 4.7. Some sailors will get out of the Optimist class as young as aged 12 or 13. Others will leave the Opti at age 14 or 15. Still, the age gap can be substantial, and this is particularly important for teenagers. In school, there is little mingling among kids from different levels. Why would that be appropriate in sailing? In countries where the 4.7 is well  established, it becomes much more attractive as it offers a much better social environment for sailors out of the Optimist.

3. Loss of Confidence

When one is overpowered in a boat, like for example a 120 lbs (55 kg) sailor in the Radial, one is obviously slow and non competitive. This has nothing to do with sailing skills. It’s just a matter of body weight. Except in light winds, the sailor will be at the back of the fleet. Shortly after the start, because of slower speed, he/she will be in bad air. The sailor won’t keep the boat flat upwind. Downwind, there will be difficulties to control the boat too. Maneuvers, particularly tacks, are also more difficult to implement. This situation lasts not just a few months, but years, depending on the growth and body weight gain of the sailor. This is a recipe for loss of confidence, slow learning and early abandonment of the sport. And amazingly, this poor recipe is still implemented today on a large scale in Canada and the U.S.

4. Risks of Injuries

Being overpowered in a boat increases the risk of injuries. The principal injuries in sailing are at the lower back and at the knees. Shoulder injuries are also prevalent. At a weight of say 120 lbs (55 kg), the sailor has not yet developed the required strength for the various maneuvers and for hiking, which is totally normal. At 58 kg, the Laser hull is still heavier than the sailor, and is hard to control. This means that the likelihood of unintended maneuvers is higher. Among the most dangerous ones are gybes, which can lead to severe concussions. At the chapter of bad habits in youth sailing, including in the Laser, wearing helmets has never been consistently promoted, while it would be most appropriate, especially for youth sailors out of the Optimist in the breeze. Note that helmets are now compulsory for youth sailors in some classes such as the Nacra 15 and the O’Pen Skiff, in some countries at least.

5. Risk of Inappropriate Body Weight Management

Competitive sailors want to be competitive, they want to win. As body weight is such an important factor in the Laser, sailors will often attempt to manage their body weight, with or without knowledge of their coaches. The minimum weight for sailing the Radial is around 150 lbs (68 kg). There is about a 18 kg (40 lbs) gap with the Optimist. Even the transition from the Optimist to the Laser 4.7 is not that obvious. The Optimum weight for the 4.7 is typically considered to be 132 to 145 lbs (60 to 65 kg).  With a gap to fill of just 10 kg (22 lbs), such body weight is much more reachable for the sailor out of the Optimist. As was acknowledged by the Evaluation Panel of World Sailing that tested 4 single-handed dinghies for the 2024 Olympics, many girls never reach the optimum weight of 150 lbs (68 kg) required for the Laser Radial, which the panel rightly considered as unsuitable for most female athletes (yet the boat was voted to be kept for the 2024 Olympics).

Faced with the desire to be competitive, sailors may seek to gain weight, and this brings a range of issues, many of them beyond the scope of this article. But in summary, for boys, it’s still an age where they grow, and weight training, necessary to build muscle, is generally not seen appropriate. Although some muscle gain may occur, by sailing regularly or practicing a sport such as mountain biking or going to the gym and exercising without weights, this may be insufficient, especially for the Radial. The consequence may then be gaining fat instead of building muscles, which is not recommended as unhealthy.

For girls, the situation is much more difficult. Except if the girl is tall, say above 5 feet 6 inches (1 m 68), it will be hard for her to come any close to the required 150 lbs (68 kg), as muscle mass is harder to gain. Fat gain is the easy answer, but it is not only unhealthy but it also conflicts with the usual demands of society, heightened in school environments, for being slim. For sure, there are girls who are not particularly tall and who are comfortable with a body weight of 150 lbs (68 kg), but there are not that many. While the Radial optimum weight becomes pretty elusive to reach in that context, the 132 to 145 lbs (60 to 65 kg) range, appropriate for the 4.7, is not only much more reachable but also much more suitable for most girls, and will enable them to enjoy sailing and racing without managing their body weight.

6. Incomplete Sailing Education

While this article focuses on the Laser, it’s important also to remember that the general goal of youth sailing is to develop a wide range of sailing skills. In Canada and in the US, there is an over-specialization of youth sailing, which mostly relies on the single-handed Optimist, typically until age 14 - 15. There are many skills that the youth sailor is still missing when getting out of the Optimist, even if having reached a high level of sailing in the class. Team work, dealing with a stayed rig, dealing with several sails (main, jib, spinnaker/gennaker), asymmetric downwind technical skills and tactics, are all missing when out of the Optimist.

Actually, moving to the Laser is to a significant extent the easy pathway, as it’s again single-handed sailing, and to a large extent, the Laser is a simpler boat to sail than the Optimist, which is highly demanding from a technical viewpoint if a high level of sailing is sought. Moving to the Laser out of the Opti will not allow for the necessary teaching of double-handed skills. There are some clubs where sailors are suggested to have one season in the Club 420 after the Optimist, before possibly returning to the Laser. And this is not necessarily a good thing either, as it’s not a boat that is appropriate to the typical body weight of sailors out of the Optimist.

As discussed in the next section, about solutions, there is a strong case for clubs to acquire double-handed boats such as the RS Feva to allow sailors out of the Optimist to spend one or two years learning all the key double-handed skills, while at the same time sailing a boat that is not overpowered, and on which they can continue their sailing development, and remain as competitive as they were when in the Optimist.

Note also that the current youth development pathways don’t cover other now well established disciplines such as windsurfing, kiteboarding and single-handed foiling, and there is a clear rationale to expose youth sailors to these disciplines too.

7. High Drop-Out From Sailing

In North America, the Laser plays a central role in youth sailing, as it is now the dominant single-handed boat after the Optimist. Yet forcing kids, particularly girls, who are about 50 kg (110 lbs) into the Laser Radial, while common, is not very clever if one seeks to keep those sailors into sailing. The Canadian slogan Sailing for Life sounds nice but remains mostly a slogan. And a key reason for sailors deciding to opt for other sports at age say 14 or 15 is that platforms such as the Laser Radial and the Club 420 are not very attractive and are overpowered.

There are many other reasons of course why youth sailors opt out of the sport. One of them is that when the youth sailor is unsure to continue sailing, or simply unsure about what kind of boat he/she wants to sail in the future, the need to purchase a boat can precipitate the decision to stop the sport. While the Club 420 is present in many clubs, the boat is not as attractive as it was, with declining fleets in many clubs. The poor quality of the boats is often such that they are not competitive, which is not acceptable for competitive sailors. Sailors may be more interested in double-handers such as the i420 or the 29er, but for those, a purchase decision is typically needed, and those are not cheap boats for families. And there is also the need to find a crew.

So things get complicated after the Optimist, and contribute to high drop-out rates from the sport. It’s much easier to go to play beach volleyball or badminton, or to go mountain-biking! To keep youth sailors into sailing, establishing strong fleets of Lasers 4.7 is part of the solution. Another important element of solution is to clearly establish a transition double-handed boat like the RS Feva in the youth development pathway. This is discussed further below.

8. Reduced Pool of Elite Athletes

An obvious implication of the shortcomings of the current youth sailing development pathways is that it produces very few top sailors, in comparison to other countries. Incomplete sailing education coupled with high drop out rates contribute to reduced pools of elite athletes, both for single-handed and double-handed sailing. There are many other factors for sure. Youth sailing must become much more attractive and popular, to develop more potential elite athletes, and thereby increase the number of such elite athletes. This will not only help for achieving results at international competitions, but also for bringing more vitality in clubs, as with the right retention strategies, successful youth sailors can become long-term club members.

Solutions to Fix the Youth Sailing Pathways

If one looks at countries such as France, New Zealand and the Netherlands, to name just a few, there are more types of boats used for youth sailing development than in North America, where most clubs rely on the Optimist, the Laser Radial and the Club 420.

What needs to be done is to add some equipments, that will have the most positive strategic value to improve youth sailing development. Two equipments offer such high strategic value: the Laser 4.7, to fill the gap between the Optimist and the Radial, and the RS Feva, to provide more a complete sailing education to youth sailors and to fill the gap between the Optimist and the next boats, both single-handers (Radial) and double-handers (420, 29er, etc.)

1. How to properly establish the 4.7

The answer can be found in Europe, where this work was done over 10 years ago, and where the class is thriving. In the Canadian context, what is needed is clear guidance from the federal and provincial authorities (Sail Canada, Ontario Sailing, BC Sailing, Voile Québec, etc.) to clubs and coaches.

The guidance to establish the 4.7 needs to encompass the following elements:

- inform clubs and coaches that the Laser 4.7 is THE single-handed boat out of the Optimist;
- accordingly indicate that clubs and coaches should not allow sailors out of the Optimist to immediately sail the Radial
- get sailors to sail the 4.7 first, and then transition in due course to another boat (Radial, but double-handed is also a possibility) later on. During the same season, the sailor is expected to stick to the same boat.
- have separate fleets of 4.7 and radials at all significant events, both provincially and at the national level
- this means having separate starts for the 4.7s and the Radials - joined starts are counter-productive, as previously discussed
- likewise, sailors should sail the 4.7 or the Radial, not the two, meaning that they should not choose the rig according to the weather forecast for the regatta
- provide a strong recommendation of a minimum weight to be allowed move to the Laser Radial - such minimum transition weight would be 135 or 140 lbs (61 to 64 kg) (which is still lower than what it really takes to sail the Radial)
- produce flyers and other information material explaining this approach to clubs, coaches and parents, so they know what equipment to acquire
- provide proper training to coaches, so that the 4.7 is no longer presented as an option, as an afterthought, but becomes the norm if Laser sailing is chosen after the Optimist
- work with dealers so that they also recommend the right equipment to youth sailors and their parents
- get the Laser class to change the sailor weight ranges for the various rigs in their official documentation, as they are currently wrong
- work with regatta organizers to ensure that there are separate fleets for the 4.7 and the Radial, and provide guidance on how to establish shorter race courses for the 4.7

What is recommended here is not new. It was this approach, combined with other elements, such as establishing national ranking systems, that made the 4.7 increasingly popular with youth sailors in Europe.

2. The Case for Establishing the Double-Handed RS Feva

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to completely reinvent youth sailing, a second important recommendation is to actively establish the RS Feva as an integral part of the youth sailing pathway.

RS Feva Sailing - Source: RS Sailing
Like the Laser 4.7, the RS Feva can be sailed out of the Optimist. The Feva is actually even better suited than the 4.7.  Opti sailors, in a countries such as the UK, will seamlessly transition to the RS Feva and become pretty immediately competitive in the boat. In addition, the Feva can also be sailed earlier on, for those youth sailors not interested in the Optimist and/or preferring double-handed sailing.

What is unrealistic is to require from parents to purchase a Feva for just one or two years, if a rapid development of the Feva is sought. The recommended strategy is for clubs to buy RS Fevas and for racing to be promoted in that boat as a way to teach sailors the much needed double-handed skills, without parents having to purchase the boat, and without the need to use other equipment (420, 29er, etc) that typically require a higher body weight.

While the RS Feva has been around in Europe for a number of years, it is now spreading in North America, with important fleet growths in locations such as mainland British Columbia and Long Island Sound. The boat has now reached a critical mass in North America. There are now regattas, both in Canada and the US, including the North East, that can be attended.

As discussed in a previous article, the boat has numerous advantages, and its sturdiness and affordability make it most suited for club ownership.

In a Nutshell

In terms of youth sailing development, by establishing both 4.7 and RS Feva fleets, there will be a much better transition out of the Optimist in the youth development pathway, and a much better sailing education of youth sailors, which would in turn secure a much better retention of youth sailors in the sport, and also provide a more abundant feed of talented youth sailors to the next boats such as the Radial, the 420 and the 29er. It would be a win win for everyone.

For sure, linkages with clubs specialized in windsurfing and kiteboarding, and their foiling versions, need also to be established, to expose youth sailors to these neglected platforms. And a boat such as the O’Pen Skiff, which offers great youth racing and, unlike the Optimist, is most suitable for club ownership, should also be promoted.

Yet the most important priorities are to develop the Laser 4.7 and the RS Feva. This is not only very feasible but it’s also necessary to improve youth sailing, to keep youth sailors in the sport and to develop the elite athletes of tomorrow.

Far too many talented youth sailors have already abandoned sailing.

Hopefully, those in charge of the sport will take note and act.


Further Reading:

Jumpstarting the Laser 4.7 in North America

The Feva in Canada: Guidelines for Clubs and Parents


2016 4.7 Worlds, Germany

2016 Feva XL Europeans, Czech Republic


Safe Weight Loss and Weight Gain for Young Athletes

The Epidemiology and Aetiology of Injuries in Sailing
Article· Literature Review in Sports Medicine 39(2):129-45 · February 2009.

Sail Canada Equipment Pathway

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