Laser & the Olympics: More and More Drama with World Sailing Deadline Looming

The European branch of the Laser class issued today a call to vote No to a Laser class rule change put forward by the international Laser class ILCA.

The EurILCA’s circular #574 titled EC « ILCA vote on rule change - It’s about a name change, » reads as follows:

« Dear District Officer,  You all have received yesterday morning the 2nd of July an announcement of ILCA to kick off the vote for a rule change … EurILCA is recommending to vote NO. »

The contemplated move by the international class came at the very last minute, and maybe even too late, as the class rules require one month for the vote to take place (assuming it’s ok to leave the Laser constitution intact - which requires a 6 months vote for any change to be made).

The announcement of this vote came just after LaserPerformance and the Laser class ILCA announced this June 30 they had reached a new trademark agreement for the use of the name Laser and the Laser logo at regattas.

Many observers thought it was a greatly positive step towards a resolution of the crisis, but it wasn’t. Actually, ILCA’s position is that the 1998 trademark agreement between LP and ILCA was set to run in perpetuity and there was no need to change it.

Last April, the international Laser class had announced it had completed the name change for the boat, but retracted itself afterwards and then stated it would seek a membership vote for such name change.

The timing of the vote is dictated by a deadline set by World Sailing for an Olympic contract to be signed with the Laser class at the latest by August 1st.

The rationale of the vote is to undo the control LaserPerformance and its sister company Velum have over the Laser via trademarks in most of the world, including Europe, North America and South America.

Remember, on March 27th, the international class ILCA terminated LaserPerformance as a builder, despite the risks of shortages of boats globally, with LP producing over 80% of the production of Lasers world-wide.

Note that while LaserPerformance was terminated as a builder, ILCA did not suggest there were any technical or non-conformance problems with the LP Lasers.

LaserPerformance Lasers were actually used in Valencia for the sea trials for single-handed dinghies by World Sailing.

And new plaques were issued to LaserPerformance following the May 22nd « kumbaya » meeting in London, brokered by World Sailing, in part to supply new boats for the World Sailing Youth Worlds.

The Laser was heavily favored by member countries (MNAs) of World Sailing at the May council meeting deciding on the Olympic equipment for Paris / Marseille 2024. For its part, the World Sailing equipment committee had voted in favor of replacing the Laser with the RS Aero.

While discussions between the key parties (World Sailing, ILCA, LaserPerformance, Performance Sailcraft Australia, etc.) continued after the May 22nd London meeting, little progress was achieved to reconcile the European Laser associations, federated under EurILCA, and the international class.

On June 20, on the occasion of the European master championships in Roses, Spain, the Executive Secretary of the international Laser class reached out and his speech, along with the reactions by various European class representatives, can be watched online. The differences in perspectives are stark.

No progress towards reconciling the European and international views seems to have been achieved since, on the contrary, and the current statement by EurILCA is a clear reflection of the mistrust that has built over the past months.

The mistrust between EurILCA and ILCA has actually led to an online petition calling for the resignation of ILCA’s leadership, including the class president and executive secretary. Both have ignored that call for resignation and have continued with their long planned strategy to have new builders and possibly change the boat name.

While this seems to be a European affair, the main beneficiaries of sidelining LaserPerformance via this class rule change are probably found in New Zealand and Australia, with Global Sailing and Performance Sailcraft Australia eager to access the world market for Lasers. Another beneficiary would be the Japanese builder Performance Sailcraft Japan.

These two builders are presently restricted to limited distribution territories (Australia, NZ, Japan, South Korea).

EurILCA has long been critical of the kind of alliance that seems to operate between the international class and the Australian builder.

ILCA’s involvement with Julian Bethwaite out of Australia - also controlling the 49er -, to develop new rigs, to replace the 4.7, Radial and Standard by the so called C5, C6 and C8 rigs, also contributed to the mistrust, as most European Laser class reps were unaware of this collaboration and also of its scope (thought to be limited to the C5 rig only).

Remember the President of the Laser class stated in a video that emerged in mid-2018 on YouTube that there was no future for Lasers with white sails. On the video, Lasers sailing with the new C5 rigs can be seen with sails featuring the letters ILCA and not the Laser logo.

A process to protect the trademark for the alternative name ILCA, via a Delaware corporation named « WeatherHelm » was started in secrecy in 2018 by the international Laser class. ILCA is now a registered trademark for sailboats for the whole of Europe, and very close to be one in the US.

Also contributing to the mistrust has been the issue of the « Aussie Lasers » and the fact that neither the membership nor World Sailing were informed of the non-compliant boats produced by Performance Sailcraft Australia.

European sailors mostly sail on LaserPerformance sailboats, and some results at international regattas may have been affected by the use by some sailors of PSA non-compliant boats.

The vote that is called by ILCA pertains to the « Definition of Builder » but has in fact highly complex ramifications. It pertains to trademark protection and the undoing of the quasi-monopoly secured, via trademarks, by LaserPerformance.

The last attempt to change the Laser name, in that case for the « Kirby Torch » and to sideline LaserPerformance, ended up in court and was unsuccessful. While this is about 5 year old, the court case is still ongoing.

In the present situation, determining who is right and who is wrong mostly is guesswork. About nobody has all the facts. The situation is so complex that, if litigation gets into play, it will take years to be judged.

A legal battle may be the end of the Laser as we know it, as it’s unlikely the Laser class will be able to sustain a long protracted legal battle.

With LaserPerformance being officially terminated by ILCA as a builder (despite the company having been recently awarded new World Sailing plaques), and no new builders ready to step in immediately, the global shortage of Lasers may become a reality.

PSA claims it produces around 200 boats per year. PSJ is usually considered to be an even smaller builder.

There is a global demand of at least 2000 new Lasers per year. Not a big number compared to the Laser golden age, but it’s hard to see how the new builders could enter into play that quickly to fill the void left by the termination of LaserPerformance.

There are some 26 builders who expressed interest in building Lasers, according to a document circulated by ILCA at the World Sailing mid-year meeting. But will they do so if there are risks of immediate litigation?

ILCA intends also to require steep fees from builders - US$100,000 annually, according to ILCA president Tracy Usher. This is down the US$200,000 that were initially considered.

This means the new builders will have to produce many boats - it won’t be just a side business.

The idea that small builders could emerge in countries such as Argentina, Brazil or South Africa seems inconsistent with such level of annual fees.

And if LP is officially re-instated, with their already amortized building facilities and their trained manpower, which builders will dare competing with them, including on the European market?

For this vote to be successful, the Laser class rules requires a two third - 66% - majority. According to its own numbers, some 61% of the Laser class members reside in Europe.

With the European Laser associations currently mobilizing for a no vote, it’s a tall order for ILCA to get its rule change approved, given the geographical distribution of the class membership.

And the timing of the vote is also an issue, as the full month required by the class rules may not be respected.

With the ongoing distrust, the issue of having independent parties to verify the voting is also being raised, as under the current system, ILCA is in charge of receiving and counting the votes.

And all of that has to be done nearly in real time, as the vote runs until July 31. Initially, there was talk of about a week to process the votes, but this is not possible any longer.

What was initially mostly a conflict between builders may become a conflict among sailors, and that’s the sad thing.

For example, the European sailors may vote mostly for the No. The Australian ones mostly for the Yes.  North American members may mostly opt for the Yes too because of the supply issues, which are supposed to be resolved with the appointment of new builders.

I attended a club level event yesterday in North America. Very experienced sailors doing an evening series. It was real Laser sailing. The kind of authentic Laser sailing that disappeared unfortunately in many places, including in Montreal, where the Laser was born.

I did not hear a single word about this controversy. The only interest was friendly racing.

The degree of indifference among many sailors will be an important element in the outcome of this vote.

But this vote may not be that important after all, because ILCA’s plan may actually be more a fairy tale than a real strategy, as it entails substantial legal perils.

It’s indeed hard to believe that a world with Lasers co-existing with class-legal « faux » Lasers - whatever name is chosen for those - could be legal proof.

Also, will ILCA - the International Laser Class Association - be able to operate regattas with those two varieties of boats, while the Laser trademarks continue to be controlled by Velum / LaserPerformance?

These are just some of the many legal issues that may end up into the courts.

So whatever side you take, like in a nasty divorce case, a negotiated settlement usually offers the best, or least damaging, outcome.

A negotiated solution is still possible. But time is short. The World Sailing deadline is August 1st

PostScript:

When one of the parties to a vote organizes the voting, can one expect it to be fair? For an answer, check the voting form that ILCA has put on SurveyMonkey. Instead of simply mentioning the rule change and asking a Yes or a No vote to the proposed rule change, ILCA has included all its one-sided argumentation and slogans in favor of the rule change, i.e. in favor of the Yes. The No is not offered any space to make its case. This is a far cry from acting in a neutral manner. Such bias in the voting process would not be allowed in any democratic process at any level.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2019ILCARuleChange

Also note that the form does not entail any verification of the class membership status in real time. Therefore every single vote will need to be manually verified against current active membership data. Can ILCA truly implement this, as it seems there are no fully up to date centralized membership database and with a vote to be processed by the same date the vote ends, i.e. July 31?

And will there be neutral parties to scrutinize the process?

One needs to stress that many members are youth sailors who are minors and for whom it's probably the first time they vote. These youth sailors deserve a fair and unbiased voting process, nothing less.

It's sad to say, but, irrespectively of the merits of the Yes and the No, this looks very much like a rigged voting process. And this was prefectly avoidable.

© Jean-Pierre Kiekens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Jean-Pierre Kiekens is an independent analyst on youth and Olympic sailing. He is an engineer, an economist and a sailor.

LINKS

Call for a Yes vote by ILCA
https://www.facebook.com/intlaserclass/

EurILCA call for a No vote.
https://www.facebook.com/eurilca/

BACKGROUND ARTICLES

The Laser at the Crossroads
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-laser-at-crossroads.html

Laser Name Change and New Builders: Is There a Plan B?
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/05/laser-name-change-and-new-builders-is.html

Laser Update: ILCA Blames LP for Lack of Progress; Petition Asks for the Resignation of ILCA's Leadership
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/05/laser-update-ilca-blames-lp-for-lack-of.html

Laser 4.7: Where Does the International Laser Class Stand?
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/06/laser-47-where-does-international-laser.html

Laser Update: Watch Some of the Key Players for Yourself ...
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/06/laser-update-watch-some-of-key-players.html

Laser Update: Will the Laser Change its Name to ILCA?
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/06/laser-update-will-laser-change-its-name.html

Aussie Lasers: Damaging ILCA Emails Released
https://optimist-openbic-sailing.blogspot.com/2019/04/aussie-lasers-damaging-ilca-emails.html


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