Laser SB3: (Sportboat) Drivers Wanted
Laser SB3: (Sportboat) Drivers Wanted
The Laser SB3 is the talk of the European small-boat scene, and in advance of its U.S. arrival, we headed to Skandia Cowes Week to find out whether it was a hit or hype. From our October 2007 issue.
The turbulent wake trailing from the scarred red cardinal marker just off the Royal Yacht Squadron's waterfront castle was a sure sign we were in the Solent. To our left, looking upwind toward the first mark of the course was the Isle of Wight's notorious shallows. To our right, less than 100 feet out from the shoreline, was a wide aquatic version of a moving sidewalk, moving that is, in the opposite direction from where we intended to go. Sail into that, and it's backwards you go.
It only took a second to realize this race was to be played out on a racetrack not much wider than a football pitch, which in most cases isn't necessarily a bad thing. But in most cases there aren't 97 other 20-foot boats about to cram into this space at once-with 5 knots of wind no less. Precious keel fairing be damned, everyone knew there was only one way to come out ahead in the impending fracas-work the shore, and work it hard.
So when the start cannon boomed with a cloud of smoke the scene exploded into a frenzy of roll tacks and hails for "water." Ahead, behind, and around us, boats stopped dead in the water as keel bulbs met bottom. There was boat-to-boat contact left and right, and crews pushing off one another to gain way after port-starboard pileups. The melee went on for 15 minutes as we crawled our way up the shoreline, thrice running aground ourselves. And only when the crowd thinned and the whole thing suddenly become tranquil, I thought to myself, "What the hell just happened?"
No matter-there were a lot more white sails behind us than in front of us.
And what was I doing rock-hopping the Isle of Wight's shoreline for a week in August? It was the 20-foot Laser SB3, the rage of the European sportboat scene, that had brought me to the Motherland. Word was that the class would be making its way into the United States before year's end, and naturally, an exploratory junket was in order. We had to see for ourselves whether the SB3 really was-as the European sailing magazines had touted it to be-the greatest little sportboat going.
My exercise brought me to Skandia Cowes Week, England's annual sailing carnival-with an estimated 9,000 or so in attendance. I was put into the capable hands of Paul Bedell who was the project manager for the SB3 in its formative stages. He's a self-proclaimed techie who comes from the realms of the Fireball and Olympic 470. He happens to be a damn fine SB3 sailor, too, having had a heavy hand in the boat's development.
When we met my first night in Cowes, over glasses of G.H. Mumm Champagne at the lavish Volkswagon pavilion, Bedell told me I was "in for a real treat." He wasn't kidding. For the past two years there'd been extensive SB3 pilgrimages to the Isle of Wight, and I was about to experience the biggest one yet. In 2005 there were 66. The following year there were 89, displacing the classic X-boat class as the king of Skandia Cowes Week. This was also the year in which SB3 sailors cemented the utter indignation of the regatta's race committee; on the first day of racing they were sent in, raceless, after nine general recalls.
It's hard to resist the biggest game in town, and with fleets sprouting in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, 98 paid entries this year was hardly a surprise.
"In the UK there are huge numbers of dinghy sailors and huge numbers of sportboat sailors," says Georgie Corlett, the editor of England-based Dinghy Sailing magazine. "Top sailors from big-boat and little-boat fleets alike have gravitated toward the class, it's ruthlessly competitive racing, and it's now seen as the class to be in."