The Laser's Edge, a humorous but true recounting of a Small-Boat Sailing Experience
by Charles H. Thorne (Author)
The Laser is a 14-foot chip of a sailboat that goes so fast they put a window in the sail so you can see what you're hurtling toward in time to leap overboard.
I never knew Lasers had a will of their own until I borrowed one from a friend. It was then I discovered sailing a Laser on our very small lake is like trying to drive a Corvette flat-out in a driveway.
As the boat and I departed from the dock for the first time, I felt confident I would show my neighbors some real sailing. The wind was dead calm, but I could see some dark ripples on the water ahead. My eyes soon began to close as I drifted lazily in the warm sun.
That was my first mistake: it alerted the Laser to my need for a few lessons. I was thrown from my reverie when a sudden gust struck from behind like a hammer blow and we took off so fast I nearly flew over the stern. We toboganned down the lake, wake streaming behind like a speedboat's, while I clung to the tiller for dear life.
I never again closed my eyes in the Laser's presence.
Soon, rapidly shoaling water (aka a beach) forced me to trim the sail and turn upwind. The Laser being a very tippy sort of vessel, we, naturally, heeled over. Way over. Ever the responsive sailor, I hooked my feet under the strap and leaned dramatically out over the water.
I pictured myself as agile and graceful as an athlete in a beer commercial, hoping people were watching me, when the wind suddenly quit - like someone flipped a switch.
The boat snapped upright, leaving me off balance and struggling to sit up, when another blast of wind came from the opposite direction, tipping us the wrong way and driving my head beneath the water, my feet still hooked firmly under the strap.
Fortunately, I remembered to release the sail. Streaming water, I surfaced, glasses dangling from their safety line, hair plastered against my face. By now, people had begun to gather on shore, pointing and calling for family and friends to come enjoy the spectacle.
With strength born of desperation, I heaved myself upright just in time for the wind to whip the boom across. It struck just above my glasses, cutting my forehead in two places. There was nothing I could do about it, though. Being alone, I needed both hands to defend myself from further attack and sail back to our dock.
I was unaware of my appearance as I stepped shakily ashore. My head didn't hurt much and, of course, I couldn't see myself. I walked into the house just as a little girl named Sarah was coming in the front door to visit my daughter, Annie, for the first time.
"Hi, there, I'm Annie's daddy!" I said cheerfully, soaking wet with blood streaming down my face. Sarah's eyes grew very large. Without a word, she turned and ran into the bathroom.
That afternoon, my nerve returned, but I decided a Laser was more than I wanted to handle alone in a strong wind. I persuaded an older daughter, Connie, to go with me. We made a few swift but uneventful tours around the lake, impressing (I felt certain) all those spectators still out on their lawns eagerly awaiting another glimpse of me.
Then another gust of wind blasted down on us. The sail simply lay over on the water. In seemingly slow motion, Connie and I were lifted up and catapulted neatly on top of it. It was all so graceful.
Scrambling off the sail, we swam around and grabbed the centerboard, pulling down on it as hard as we could. Another mistake. The boat popped upright, then tipped all the way over, swinging the sail on top of us and shoving us under water.
Swimming out from under it, I adopted my most nonchalant look for the folks on shore, who by now were positively weeping with laughter.
"Isn't this fun?"
I yelled to Connie. She just rolled her eyes heavenward and sank with embarrassment.
On the next try, we managed to right the boat properly, but I still had Laser Lessons to learn. It seems I had neglected to let the main sheet go and aim the boat into the wind. This time when the wind hit the sail, the boat seized the opportunity to leap away at high speed, free of human occupants. She rounded herself into the wind a few yards away and sat there, smugly flapping her sail.
After that, the Laser, having clearly established who was in charge, permitted a tentative truce between us, and we sailed well together for the rest of the afternoon.
The next day was the Great Annual Labor Day Sailboat Race, a yachting epic. This race is very unstructured, with all types of boats mixed up together in a free-for-all. Nobody even thinks about rules.
A dozen boats were entered, with skippers ranging in age from 12 to . . . well, let's just say I was the most experienced. None of them had ever raced against a Laser before - a fact the Laser seemed to sense as we practiced speeding around the lake in a fresh, steady wind. She was actually showing off, performing like a true racing thoroughbred, catching the eyes and admiration of our competitors - as well as all those people on the beach, who were back out in force, many armed with binoculars.
My wife, Pat, was my crew. I selected her because she was the only one who would go with me. (Connie, now experienced and wiser, could not be found until well after the race had begun.)
Pat had little sailing experience, and none on a Laser. She had never raced in her life.
"You'll love it," I said encouragingly. "All you have to do is sit on the high side and do what I tell you."
The starting line was between a man standing on the end of a pier and a swimming raft. Maneuvering room was confined to a very small area jammed with a dozen boats, all heading in different directions. Worse, a second raft was parked on the middle of the starting line in everyone's way.
"You handle the main sheet so I can steer and watch out for boats," I told Pat. "But stay on the high side! You're going to have to switch sides fast every time we tack."
I should explain that a Laser can turn almost within its own length. At speed, this can practically whip you right out of the boat if you're not hanging on tightly, a point I failed to mention to my wife.
Intent upon watching the wind and the line, I also failed to notice a small boat heading right for us.
"Does that little boat know we're here?" Pat asked quietly.
"What little boat?"
"That little boat!" She pointed off somewhere behind the sail. I peered through the sail's window. Streaking toward us was a white blur, about 15 feet away and closing fast.
"Starboard!" I yelled, wrongly assuming he knew what I meant. A puzzled face belonging to a 12-year-old boy suddenly took on a terrified look, and he froze.
"My God!" I shouted in my best nautical language, shoving the tiller over as hard as I could.
The Laser, loving every minute of this, spun instantly. Pat, who had been grimly watching the white streak looming larger, could barely stay aboard as she found herself suddenly on the low side, boom pressing into her chest and water forming a wake around her rear end.
"Get to the high side!" I yelled frantically.
"I can't," she wailed.
"We're gonna go over if you don't!"
I threw myself as high as possible with my fingertips barely touching the tiller. But I knew we were goners.
Suddenly out of the depths of the boat came Pat, scrambling like a mountain climber. She had let go of the main sheet and was leaping for the high side, spurred on by the shock of the cold water.
It was at this point, I think, that the Laser began to take pity on us. There is no other plausible reason why we didn't tip over. Somehow we stayed upright and sat there, sail flapping, in the midst of a melee of boats.
"Pull in the main sheet," I ordered. "We're still in this race."
"ONE MINUTE!" the man on the pier yelled through his bullhorn.
We were in a knot of boats at the farthest end of the line, very near shore. Heading down the line, we jockeyed for a clear position, so when the starting gun went off we could turn and cross ahead of the other boats. At least, that was the plan.
The swimming raft, still at the middle of the line, was coming up fast. If the gun didn't go off soon, we would be pinched between the raft and all the other boats pressing in close beside us.
Then we were at the raft, scraping along its pontoon, just inches away from a boat on the other side of us. Pat had been holding onto the side of our boat and discovered her hand was being ground into the pontoon.
Things began to happen fast as we approached the crowded beach. We would have to turn very soon or run up on the sand.
"Ready about!" I yelled.
"Ow!" replied my crew.
"Duck! We're tacking!"
I pushed the tiller over just as the starting gun fired a few feet from my ear. The Laser snapped around and we crossed the line -- in last position.
"Get the sail in!" I shouted. Pat stopped sucking her knuckles long enough to tighten the main sheet, and we took off.
I should explain here that Lasers do not like to lose races. It was a matter of pride that she not remain in last place, in spite of me.
By the first mark, we had pulled up to third place -- and the folks on shore had stopped laughing. We held our position to the second mark, the Laser and I working in perfect harmony. Teamwork might pull this off yet, I thought.
We turned around the mark and ran down wind, heading for the leeward mark.
"Pull up the centerboard," I instructed Pat.
With the board up we barely touched the water as we foamed along. The other boats never had a chance. We approached the mark in first place by a boat-length.
"OK, we're gonna gybe around this buoy," I said. "It'll be a little tricky in this wind and the boom will slam over, so watch your head and get to the other side fast. I'll say when."
We crouched, holding our breath.
I shoved the tiller, the sail swung over and picked up the wind on the other side. But instead of surging ahead like we were supposed to do, we skidded sideways. I had forgotten to lower the centerboard.
Two boats passed us.
"Why are we going this way?" Pat asked.
"It's an old racing trick," I replied bitterly. "Get the centerboard down."
To make up for this latest indignity, the Laser leaped toward the finish line, water spraying from her noble bow. The gap between us and the boats ahead narrowed quickly, and half way to the line we passed one of them. For a change, the people on shore were cheering instead of laughing.
With only yards to go, we were neck and neck with the 12-year-old kid. At the last second, we surged ahead, nosing out the kid by a few feet. (As I said earlier, Lasers don't like to lose.)
"We won! We won!" I shouted jubilantly just as we slammed onto the beach. I had forgotten how close the line was to shore. We stopped instantly. Pat was flung from the boat and landed on her feet. Momentum sent her pounding across the beach at a dead run, arms flailing for balance. Children and small dogs scattered in all directions. I ended up face down on the foredeck, my hand gripping the main sheet and my arm crooked around the mast.
"How's your hand?" I asked sheepishly when Pat returned, out of breath and quite embarrassed.
"Oh, wonderful. Just wonderful."
I could tell she longed to be anyplace other than with me.
"Wasn't that fun?" Mercifully, I never heard her reply. By that time, we were surrounded by people who had rushed up to see if we were all right.
The man with the bullhorn elbowed his way through and pumped my hand.
"Hey, mister," a voice behind me said. It was the 12-year-old boy. "Geez, mister, what kind of boat is that?"
"It's a Laser. Fast, isn't it?" I stroked the mast proudly.
Later that evening, my friend came by to pick up his boat.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
"Piece of cake," I lied.
The Laser, of course, wasn't going to let me get away with that one. As it was being backed out of my driveway, the trailer ran over my toe. If a boat could chortle, it would have.
[The Laser's Edge was first published in October 1987 in Great Lakes Sailor.magazine, which went out of business in August 1992. The story itself is true except for the final paragraph.]