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.
And while it may not be the ultimate, hair-raising sportboat that extreme sailors might prefer, it's plenty quick for the vast majority of competitive sailors. And perhaps the boat's greatest attribute, I realized each morning as we rigged, is that it accommodates all sorts of crew combinations. We were sailing with three for the week-shy of the 595-pound maximum crew weight-but many teams were sailing with four. We managed fine with three "blokes," but more than one skipper told me max weight is best (thus, the required weigh-in), and besides, an extra hand-say, a cute, petite lass or a young family member-sometimes saves a mark rounding from turning sour. As a result, the class enjoys a healthy diversity and an enviable gender ratio. There's a vibrant social side to it all-or as one crew from the younger set told me, "The shag factor at most of our regattas is good."
The class's current hotshot, Geoff Garveth, a 47-year-old carpenter from England, who had won every single major SB3 event leading up to Cowes Week, sails his boat with a coed foursome. Glenn Bourke, a three-time Laser world champ and the Volvo Ocean Race's director, sails with three. Team MacLaren, led by Christina Summerhayes is the class's best all-girl squad-I can personally vouch for this. We were slow in setting our kite at the beginning of one incredibly tight and windy reach during the week, and the girls rounded behind us, hot on our transom, launched their big red kite, and hollered over, "Come on boys, get on with it."
Then they rolled us, hooting and giggling gleefully as they literally left us in their wake. I'm not sure if they were laughing at us or with us.
It was a brief humiliating moment, but awesome nonetheless. Yet, I couldn't dwell on it because I was preoccupied with the highly loaded masthead asymmetric in my grasp, and the skin peeling off my palms. It was a bear of kite to trim at such an extreme angle, but once we rounded the next mark and turned downwind-the girls now a speck on the horizon-we piled together at the back of the boat and sent it humming down the run, jumping from wave to wave. The boat became as Castro aptly describes it, "electric." The SB3's critical seed was originally planted in the Hamble, a hotbed of racing on England's south coast, and from there the phenomenon has now spread to Australia, Portugal, and Dubai (its fleet is sponsored by Volvo). But today, the fastest-growing hive of SB3 racing is Ireland, which in one year hemorrhaged from six boats to more than 70.
"We couldn't build boats fast enough, and there was a waiting list for a while," says Lund-Lack. This fueled the used-SB3 market and kept resale high (especially for the earlier European-built boats, which are purported to be "better") as new owners eagerly jumped into the class, many buying the boat with a partner. They now have round-the clock production at DK Composites in Malaysia, with a 2008 forecast of 165 boats, and if you walk into England's Laser Center today and plunk down a check, I'm now told, you'll get a boat right then.
With production at full tilt earlier this year PSE was poised to extend the SB3's reach westward across the Atlantic, but there was one problem. With Vanguard Sailboats possessing the Laser license, it was impossible to put Laser SB3s into the hands of North American sailors. But that all changed when PSE's parent company, Gavel Securities Limited, acquired the Portsmouth, R.I.-based builder in April. A few well-connected SB3 sailors I spoke with in Cowes even suggested that the Vanguard acquisition was motivated by PSE's intentions to bring the lucrative sportboat stateside. Whether or not this is true is now irrelevant, as the first two boats arrived in late August. The million-dollar question, of course, and one I was asked multiple times, is whether the U.S. sailing establishment will welcome something from "over there."
Bourke, who ultimately beat Garveth in Cowes after winning three straight races, says he doesn't see any reason why the SB3 wouldn't catch on in the States.
"It's the best little keelboat in the world," he says. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm sailing them; it's because the boat is so simple. It's three guys, and you can't hike out because of those stupid little bars that pinch you all the time [the low, stainless-steel bars running the length of the cockpit], so it's even racing for all levels of fitness. They're relatively cheap, they're one-design, and it just has a lot of things going for it."
Bourke is a shrewd optimist who has kept his own around-the-world race alive in the face of a tough environment, but Amy Larkin, Vanguard's marketing director, readily admits she faces a far tougher market than her counterparts across the pond, where sailing venues are much more concentrated and more drive-to-friendly. She says the SB3 will "officially" debut at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis in October, and boats will be available to customers in the early winter, retailing for anywhere between $30,000 to $40,000. There's even talk of a race circuit and seeding boats not just on the East Coast, but in Seattle and San Francisco, too.