Planned Obsolescence and Rising Equipment Costs: Towards Elitist Laser Sailing?

Planned obsolescence is a well known and shameful feature when it comes to cell phones and other electronic equipment.

It is now establishing itself in the Laser class, the self-proclaimed  « epitome » of strict one-design sailing.

Sailors are now left with the dilemma of either being slower or having to upgrade their equipment at substantial cost.

This trend has vast, existential, consequences for the future of Laser sailing.

Changes to Hull, Blades, Mast

The Australian Laser Class Association published on its website pictures of newly designed rudders and centerboards for the Laser - or « ILCA Dinghy. »

Also, the Australian association describes changes that are being made to the hull laminate around the centerboard and the transom.

And the Australian association also confirms the availability, at a steep price, of new composite mast bottom sections for the Radial.

See details at http://lasersdownunder.com/

« Changes have been made to reduce damage not to make the boat faster or slower » claims the announcement.

But it is well known that such minor changes, especially when there are several of them, can potentially bring performance enhancements on the Laser, as racing is so tight and any speed advantage, even minute, is worth taking.

When it comes to top level competitive sailing, in any class of boats, nobody wants to sail a slower boat.

Remember, the Australian builder had previously made changes to the hull laminate, in the episode of the « Fast Aussie Lasers. »

The cheating was discovered after some sailors on the Aussie boats appeared faster at the Santander ISAF Sailing World Championship in 2014.

The Aussie builder had been momentarily reprimanded by the Laser class on that occasion, before ILCA decided to embrace the new laminate schedule, despite the fact it was an infringement to the Laser construction manual.

The existence of non-conforming boats was hidden to the membership and to World Sailing by the Laser class. It was only revealed 5 years later by LaserPerformance, when the UK builder was decertified by ILCA, without ILCA’s World Council being even consulted.

At the 2019 Youth Worlds in Kingston, it appeared that the renamed Aussie « ILCA Dinghies » had a speed advantage over the LaserPerformance boats, also in competition. Three out of the four world titles were won using ILCA Dinghy / PSA equipment.

The Notices of Race and Sailing Instructions for these ILCA events prevented competitors from protesting other competitors over equipment.

At Laser class championships, no real measurement of the boats takes place. For example, hulls are not even weighted. The last time this took place apparently was in 2014 in Santander.

As PSA is now the quasi monopoly supplier of ILCA approved equipment, it seems that the new changes to the boat have already received the blessing of ILCA.

ILCA and PSA have been working hand in hand lately, especially since LaserPerformance was terminated by ILCA in early 2019, and there are no indications that the UK builder will be reinstated, despite reassurances to the contrary given to World Sailing.

From now on, it’s pretty certain that many top competitors will opt for the new blades, new hulls, and, for the Radial sailors, new composite bottom mast sections.

The Laser class constitution asserts that the boat is « the epitome of a strict one-design class of sailboat. »

Reality is that recent decisions by the Laser class are bringing us further and further away from that core principle.

Soon, things may be exacerbated if/when new builders are approved and start building boats that may have slightly different performances.

Rising Class Legal Equipment Costs

The Australian association also published the pricing for the new composite Radial bottom section: now available at AUS$1,300, which is triple the price of the aluminum section.

But the high pricing for the so called « ILCA Dinghy »  does not originate only from that new composite bottom mast section for the Radial.

To show how inflated the pricing of class legal equipment is, one can compare the pricing, in the UK, of the « Club Edition » Lasers produced by LaserPerformance, and the « ILCA Dinghies » produced by PSA.

The base price for a Club Edition Laser, sold by LaserPerformance, is £3,329, excluding tax.  The base price for an equivalent PSA ILCA Dinghy, with aluminum spars, sold by sailboats.co.uk, is £4,875.00, excluding tax.

The boats are supposed to be identical, except for the World Sailing / ILCA plaque, which is a nominal amount.

This is a price difference of £1,546 per boat. With sales / VAT taxes, it’s a difference of £1,850 per boat!

Today, it costs 46% more to buy class legal equipment, compared to « club edition » equipment, on the UK market.

If you need to buy a new Radial with carbon mast, carbon tiller and extension, your cost for a boat can be estimated at £5,616 or £6,740 taxes included.

The price difference between Club Edition and Class Legal equipment is clearly substantial.

Of course, terminating the domestic builder in the UK and forcing sailors to purchase boats made by a small boatyard in Australia did not help making Laser sailing more affordable!

See links:
https://www.laserperformance.uk/boats-more/boats/laser?lang=en
https://www.sailboats.co.uk/shop-by-boat/international-laser-class-association-dinghy/boats

So far, the World Sailing / EU antitrust policies, along with the decision by the Laser class to terminate LaserPerformance as a builder, seem to have only brought higher prices and even less market competition.

Pricing for class legal boats is on its way to reach a retail price of US$10,000.

As previously analyzed, one easy way to make competitive Laser sailing more affordable is to introduce market competition in the manufacturing and marketing of sails.

It seems however that the Laser class, very much influenced by commercial interests, will not do so any time soon.

Laser Class legal ILCA Dinghy sails continue to be sold with huge margins, at several times the price of « replica » sails that cost about the same to produce.

Time will tell if the appointment of new builders will slightly bring down the prices for hulls. But one can doubt that will be the case.

New builders are indeed expected to begin with small batches, and will want to recover the various costs incurred to become authorized builders.

In addition, it appears that the Aussie builder secured from the Laser class and World Sailing, without any bidding, some form of monopoly agreement for providing boats at so called « supplied events. »

If this is revealed to be true, new builders will not be allowed to provide charter boats at events such as the ILCA and World Sailing world championships, which substantially reduces the potential profitability of these new builders.

And of course, if ILCA decides to change the rigs, to their preferred Bethwaite C rigs, all existing masts, booms and sails will need to be replaced, bringing the cost of the boat even higher, and making all existing spars and sails obsolete.

How would the rig change take place? The class is unlikely to call for a membership vote, as it will probably not secure the 66% approval threshold needed for such a vote.

But the Laser class gives huge power to the builders - which could unilaterally impose the new rigs.

Together with the class president (USA) and vice-president (AUS), the two builders (AUS + JPN) could indeed impose the C rigs. That’s how powerful ILCA’s « Advisory Council » is.

A vote by ILCA’s World Council, which is also highly conflicted and highly unrepresentative of the class membership, does not seem to be even needed to make a considerable change in the rigs and make all existing equipment obsolete.

As analyzed previously, changing the rigs of the Laser is unpopular. But it appears that the class leadership is set to change the rigs, sooner or later.

The class president, appointed by the World Council and not elected by the members, made his vision clear in this video: no future for the Laser with white dacron sails!

Towards an Elitist Olympic Oriented Class?

To date, the vast majority of Lasers sailing worldwide have been produced by LaserPerformance, which supplied until recently over 80% of the world market.

The recent moves by the Laser class point all towards actually making the vast majority of existing Lasers obsolete.

If you sail a LaserPerformance boat, it’s likely that your equipment will not be competitive, compared with the new ILCA Dinghy equipment approved by the class.

Performance differentials are obviously contrary to the very core principle of the Laser.

But it seems that the current leadership of the Laser class has decided to forget about this foundational principle, which made the boat attractive to generations of sailors over the past 50 years.

Today, for the vast majority of Laser sailors, especially the numerous youth and master sailors, these changes to the boat, and the rising equipment costs, have no value. They are in fact detrimental.

Competing at international events, especially at youth and master events, will become less and less attractive for many sailors, as it will be known that, if you don’t have the latest equipment, you won’t be competitive.

For Olympic oriented sailors, things are different, as equipment costs represent just a fraction of their annual sailing budgets, that typically exceed well over 100,000$.

These sailors will undoubtedly acquire new boats, compare the boats from the various builders, test various mast sections, and spend considerable money on this.

This group of Olympic-oriented sailors is however pretty small compared to the Laser class global membership. They don’t even represent 10% of the membership.

Yet it looks like the changes that are being made, and the increased pricing for the boat, are geared towards these Olympic oriented sailors, to the expense of the vast majority.

Club level sailing in the Laser will not disappear any time soon. But those sailors will not use class legal equipment. Most of them will not even be members of the Laser class.

But for competitive youth and master sailors, the steps taken by ILCA may ruin the amazing success that was achieved by the class in recent years, especially with 4.7 and radial youth sailing in Europe.

In particular, making the 4.7 such a costly boat, while it is not even an Olympic boat, will undoubtedly make the boat less attractive for youth sailing. And the Radial will be next.

Today, youth sailors out of the Optimist and other such dinghies have options. This includes the RS Aero 5, the Waszp, the Splash, the Zoom8, and of course double-handed sailing in the RS Feva, the 420 and the 29er.

And for those who are not seeking high level racing, there are several plastic boat options that are much more affordable.

The top master sailors may continue to be class members, but they are unlikely to be a driving force behind the sales of new class legal equipment.

So, it's a high risk strategy for the Laser class to focus in such a way on Olympic sailing, as the appeal of the class may rapidly decline for the vast majority of the members.

The Spanish Laser Association, ACIL, announced yesterday it will hold meetings about the future of the Laser class.

It may be a good time for other national associations and districts to hold such meetings and to reflect if they want to pursue in the current direction decided upon by ILCA.

European associations and districts may want to report their findings to EurILCA, which has convened a special working group to determine what to do next in the European context.

Final reflection: if the Laser / ILCA Dinghy is made an expensive elite boat geared towards Olympic sailing, what will happen if it loses its Olympic status for 2028?

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