As anyone knows who has lately raced, say, a mother of five, a father of two and a lass of 13 through the fickle breezes of an American lake—and rejoiced over beating these impromptu competitors—the mini-sailboat is having a big vogue. It costs little, can be carried in the back of a station wagon or on a car top, can be stowed on the shore with minimum fuss, and while the possessors of larger craft are sorting their sails and tuning their spars, the mini-sailor is off and heeling.
First came the Alcort people with their Sunfish and Sailfish, those lucrative ironing boards with postage stamps for sails; then such as the Sea Snark, 11 feet of foam-plastic hull that you could acquire for $119 across the counter or for $88 and the end flaps from a carton of cigarettes.
This year's red-hot flash in the mini-market is the Laser. It is being peeled off fiber-glass molds in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Tiburon, Calif. and Banbury, England at the rate of 23 boats a working day. It has taken the Laser just 15 months to reach that highly profitable production pace; the Sunfish took more than five years to attain a similar volume. The Laser is 13'10" overall, carries 76 square feet of sail, and beats, reaches and runs with much vivacity. It weighs 125 pounds and costs $765, placing it toward the upper end of the mini-price scale. (By comparison the Sailfish, oldest of the new breed, dating from 1947, is 13'7", has 75 square feet of sail and sells for $475; the Sunfish, 1956, 13'10", 75 square feet, $589.)
The most curious thing about the Laser is that it was designed by the editor of a yachting magazine. As everyone knows, when man bites dog, it's news. When editor bites bonanza, it's unheard of. The editor who has gotten his teeth into the mini-boat boom is Bruce Kirby, boss of the monthly Yacht Racing. Kirby, a Canadian and an Olympic sailor, at present lives in Rowayton, Conn., where he puts out his competition-oriented magazine and counts the money coming in from Pointe-Claire, Tiburon and Banbury.
The proceeds are not merely vulgar dollars, for good sailors have been turning up in Lasers, which adds to the pride Kirby has in his boat. Last October, for example, there were 13 world or national champions from other classes in the Laser's first North American championships, held at Baltimore. The event attracted so many entrants that Margo Kirby, Bruce's wife, who was the registrant, "thought I would scream if one more showed up." A Laser rides piggyback aboard the big ocean racer Black-fin. Another belongs to the former woman sailing champion, Jane Pegel. A top Sunfish sailor, Larry Lewis, switched to the Laser. Kirby himself, as befits the designer and an Olympian, owns two.
"I have a very funny attitude sailing them," he says. "I can finish last in a 20-boat fleet and still feel happy as can be."
Kirby describes the boat as a "people's singlehander, a young people's boat, a now boat." But this is sales promotional talk for a craft that hardly needs it. The Laser goes upwind with surprising power, especially in light air. Downwind it can streak up on a plane. Although equipped with one jointed aluminum mast, one rudder, one centerboard and a single sail, it goes, as one disciple says, "as if it's got 20 of everything."
Kirby was more doodler than marine architect before 1969, when an industrial designer named Ian Bruce phoned that he had a request from a customer who wanted to market a car-top beach boat. Almost by the time Bruce had finished speaking, Kirby had penciled preliminary outlines. He completed the plans in three or four hours and sent them on to Bruce with a note, "I think this little beast can make us some money."
But Ian Bruce's prospective client dropped out and the Laser-to-be languished for a year. Then Kirby's publisher organized a sailing series to test the claims of various mini-boat manufacturers as to which could be assembled on the beach fastest, sailed best and righted from a capsize the quickest.
Within a week Kirby, though a house man and a race judge to boot, had a mold made and a Laser launched for the competition. And as you may have guessed, it rigged faster, sailed more nimbly and turned upright quicker than most of the boats in its division.