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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.

October 30, 2007

OctFeatReed368

Dave Reed

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?”

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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.

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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.”

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Many of the SB3 sailors I gradually met over pints of Magners Cider at the SB3 compound on Shepards Wharf-a temporary regatta village with the essentials: Laser Sailing’s service center, an expansive bar tent, grill truck, massage service, chandlery, and late-night disco-couldn’t explain why their beloved fiberglass boat had taken off so quickly. Even the SB3’s designer, Tony Castro, who watched the first race while hovering ahead at the controls of his private helicopter, admitted he was surprised. Castro’s design portfolio over three decades covers the gamut, from IOR on up to IRC, and a lot in between, but nothing has ever caught on quite like his SB3 (“SB” for sportboat, “3” for the number of crew).

“We had no idea it would be this big,” he says, “I suppose we came up with something everyone was wanting all along. It’s not quite a dinghy and it’s not quite keelboat. It’s both.”

James Lund-Lack, of Performance Sailcraft Europe, says the boat’s success is right there in the design brief given to Castro back in 2002. It had to be fast, stiff, stable, simple, and sailed by three or four people, legs-inboard style-none of that spleen-crushing, over-the-lifeline hiking of some classes. It had to be priced to move in Europe’s competitive small-boat market, and like the singlehanded Laser itself, it had to be a strictly controlled, builder-supplied one-design class; this includes sails, which are built by Hyde. Most importantly, it had to be easy to trailer. This last stipulation led to a fortuitous partnership early on. “Our first year [in Cowes] I took one of the top guys from Volkswagon out for a race,” says Bedell. “I was just supposed to go out, show him a good time, and not be too competitive. But then we were doing really well and my competitiveness really kicked in. I was yelling at the guy the entire time, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, what have I done?'” As it turns out, the guest later admitted to being a bit of a screamer himself on his own boat, and was enthralled with his turn on the SB3. He accepted PSE’s proposal to have Volkswagon sponsor the class. Volkswagon, in turn, would use the partnership to promote its mid-sized tow-friendly SUV, the Touareg (pronounced by the sailors as “tow-rag”). The SB3 is just shy of 2,000 pounds, but for the record, I’m told, a new Touareg laden with ballast set some sort of world record by towing a Boeing 747.

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So with an injection of startup funds (neither side would release how much) and a four-year sponsorship package, the SB3 class was off and running with a slick, sponsored circuit with stops throughout Europe. And the gravy train kept rolling. For Cowes Week this year (and years previous), the entry fee included a dry bag full of high-priced goodies, including one $1,500 VW Toureg-branded class spinnaker that competitors were allowed to keep, so long as they sailed the entire regatta-or at least most of it.

My SB3 tutorial took all but five minutes on the first morning, and that’s about all I needed. On the foredeck and on the mast there are halyards and control lines for the pole and spinnaker tack line. At the forward edge of the cockpit is the spinnaker bag, under which is a watertight hatch to access a “dry” compartment (there was always a sponge-worth of water in ours) with a shelf for a small outboard engine, and room for required equipment (anchor, chain, and safety gear).

The “Gnav” vang (an upside-down, reverse-thrust vang system built by Selden/Proctor) is on top of the boom so there’s a wide-open workspace for the forward crew. The middle crew deals with the traveler, backstay, and mainsheet if necessary.

“The boat looks very simple,” says Bedell, “but that’s only because there’s was a lot of development that went into it. With the exception of a few bits of hardware, we haven’t changed anything from Day One.” The mast is a sturdy, but infinitely tunable, 30-foot, double-spreader aluminum rig with vertical and diagonal shrouds. The sail-control systems-from the backstay on up to the jib-halyard fine-tune, ran perfectly smooth under load.

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.

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