Lasers Masters do not grow old as those who stay ashore or go into keelboats grow old. On the contrary, they’re Tir na nOg afloat. It’s the Land of the Ever-Young out on the sea. And the prospect of the 300-plus Laser Masters fleet from 25 countries evokes these visions as they begin their annual Worlds at Dun Laoghaire today (Saturday) with the practice race for an extraordinary week of senior sport writes W M Nixon.
The Laser at just under 14ft in length is arguably the greatest boat design in the world. Created from a doodle in a flash of inspiration during a phone call in 1970 between Canadian designer Bruce Kirby (noted at the time for his International 14s) and the late Ian Bruce (also a Canadian), the Laser is the only boat to have both Olympic status and universal popularity. In addition to its lofty Olympic recognition, it is sailed and raced regularly by club sportsmen and women worldwide for sheer sport and fun, and it acquires lifelong adherents whose continuing joy in this wonderful little boat is honoured through the annual Laser Masters.
That said, they set the initial bar for a plain ordinary Master quite low by putting it age 45. I mean, honestly – 45? The great Dennis Conner himself reckons he was at his ace best as a helmsman at the age of 45. But then, he was racing International 12 Metres to America’s Cup success at the time, with a great big ballast keel under the boat to keep her upright. It’s so different from the
Laser’s total reliance on crew weight kept athletically in the right place – often with strenuous physical effort - to do the job.
Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine The Dennis in a Laser, though doubtless it has happened. But even so, having accepted the Laser’s need for physical ability, we note that the Powers-that-Be in Laserdom make entry into this magical world of Masters sailing even more painless by having an Apprentice Master category of 35-44, while the actual Masters are 45 to 54.
And then it gets exciting with Grand Masters from 55 to 64, and Great Grand Masters above 65. You might think that was enough of a good thing, but they’ve a category beyond the GGMs of 75+, the Legends, with 14 of them in Dun Laoghaire. And beyond that, there are keen Laser sailors in their 80s regularly competing at clubs worldwide. Denis O’Sullivan of Monkstown Bay SC on Cork Harbour is one of them - he was at the 2017 Worlds in Croatia last September when it was still summer, and he’s on Dublin Bay now when we can only hope it will be summer again.
As there are significant US and Canadian contingents in Dun Laoghaire, the views of the North American Laser Class Association are of interest in putting it in perspective:
“Master’s sailing is for ‘seasoned’ sailors… It is still the competitive racing that you remember, but recognises that while your mind is still young, your body might not still be there anymore with the 20-somethings.
“At the highly competitive but very fun World Championships, you race against competitors only in your age division, while at National level, the Masters typically race as one fleet but score in their age divisions.
“The racing, both in age divisions and overall, is extremely close on the water. Off the water, the emphasis is on having a great time with all of your fellow-Masters sailing friends.”
A key player in the drive by Paul Keane (RIYC) to get the Masters Worlds to Dun Laoghaire is Sean Craig (Helmsmans Champion of Ireland in 1993) of RStGYC, and back in January here on Afloat.ie he introduced us to this mature but vibrant world of Laser Mastering well into one’s eighties after we’d reported on the great 92-year-old Gordon Ingate winning the Australian International Dragon Nationals in January 2018.
Winning races at 92 is completely off the scale. But here again, the Dragon has a fine big keel hung under her and the Laser doesn’t. So Sean quite rightly reckoned the senior Laser sailors deserved their place in the limelight, and revealed the story of the Irish contingent who had been at the Masters Worlds at Split in Croatia back in September, and we headed it: “Sailing is a Sport for Youth of all Ages”, a happy notion first enshrined by Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Network in Limerick.
Handling a large fleet of “Youth of All Ages” is demanding enough at the best of times, but in addition to the age group divisions, the fleet in Dun Laoghaire is almost exactly halved between Standard Rig (159 boats) and Radial (142 boats) providing yet another administrative challenge for Organising Committee Chairman David Kelly and his team of many volunteers, dealing with competitors from 25 different countries in a massive joint venture between the Royal St George YC, the National YC, Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company and the International Laser Class Association supported by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council
300 sailors from 25 Nations on Dublin Bay
Great Grand Master
The simple tabulation of the basic top results from 2017 gives some idea of the administrative challenge, and the international emphasis:
2017 Final Standings (top 3 in each fleet)
1. Maciej Grabowski POL 6pts
2. Maxim Semerkhanov RUS14pts
3. Adonis Bougiouris GRE 15pts
1. Brett Beyer AUS 12pts
2. Peter Hurley USA 16pts
3. Emesto Rodriguez USA 25pts
Standard Grand Master:
1. Allan Clark CAN 11pts
2. Andy Roy CAN 20pts
3. Tomas Nordqvist SWE 21pts
Standard Great Grand Master:
1. Michael Nissen GER 9pts
2. Mark Bethwaite AUS 10pts
3. John Pitman NZL 16pts
1. Jon Emmett GBR 6pts
2. Anastasia Chernova RUS 17pts
3. Noel Bayard FRA 24pts
1. Alessio Marinelli ITA 10pts
2. Scott Leith NZL 17pts
3. Wilmar Groenendijk NED 34pts
Radial Grand Master:
1. Martin White AUS 20pts
2. Pierantonio Masotto ITA 27pts
3. Terry Scutcher GBR 36pts
Radial Great Grand Master & 75+:
1. Bill Symes USA 12pts
2. Robert Lowndes AUS 23pts
3. Kerry Waraker AUS 27pts
Women’s Radial Apprentice:
1. Anastasia Chernova RUS 17pts
2. Georgia Chimona GRE 30pts
3. Paula Marino URU 31pts
Women’s Radial Master:
1. Giovanna Lenci ITA 53pts
2. Michelle Bain NZL 78pts
3. Monica Wilson USA 84pts
Women’s Radial Grand Master:
1. Lyndall Patterson AUS 90pts
2. Vanessa Dudley AUS 117pts
3. Anne Loren SWE 238pts
Women’s Great Grand Master & 75+:
1. Hilary Thomas GBR 255pts
2. Gill Waiting NZL 258pts
3. Deirdre Webster CAN 293pts
Add in the challenge of deriving such a set of meaningful results from a big fleet event staged in the sometimes wayward weather of Dublin Bay in early Autumn, and you begin to get the complete picture of what the organisers face. But with all this generously-given effort, are we going to get a result which will bring some medalware the way of the Irish sailors?
Certainly, there are some home talents in the “Irish & Associated” category who haven’t raced the Masters Worlds before who might make those final inches to the podium, the Holy Grail which in some cases only very narrowly eluded 2017’s squad.
Apart from former Laser National Champions, our Irish group of Damian Maloney, Gavan Murphy, Roger O’Gorman, Ross O’Leary, David Quinn, Pete Smyth, Kevin Currier, Michael Delaney, Mark Kennedy, Francis Kennedy, Mark Lyttle, Theo Lyttle, Alan McNab, Dan O’Connell, Ed Rice, Ian Symington, Nick Walsh, Chris Arrowsmith, Marc Coakley, Conor Costello, Justin Maguire, Gary O’Hare, Conor O’Leary. John Simms, Paul Siffe, Richard Tate, Charlie Taylor, Thomas Chaix, Darrell Reamsbottom, Sean Craig, Shirley Gilmore, Troy Hopkins, Brendan Hughes, John Sisk, Marco Sorgassi, Paul Ebrill, Ian Magowan, Chris Boyd and Denis O’Sullivan includes a clutch of Helmsmans Championship winners and stars from other classes, and with the many categories over which they’re spread, there’s surely a prize somewhere.
Any prizes will be hard-won, as the competition at the premier level – the Standard Masters – includes defending champion Brett Bayer of Australia, Olympic coach and multiple past winner. But with this World Championship more than any other, it’s ultimately all about people. The back-story of the people taking part for the next seven days is quite something. Out of the woodwork, for instance, comes Chris Arrowsmith, Helmsman’s Champion of Ireland (as it was called then) in 1979. And from the north comes Chris Boyd, yacht designer/builder, and creator of – among other craft – the enduring Puppeteer 22. These days, his sailing is for sport and recreation, with his main base at Ballyholme.
Meanwhile, the success-garlanded Grand Master Mark Lyttle – originally from Dun Laoghaire and with the National YC still listed as one of his clubs – has been London-based since 1998. Nowadays he’s Hiberno-British, but in 1996 he represented Ireland in the Atlanta Olympics racing Lasers (he came 11th, and had a race win) and became Afloat.ie's inaugural Sailor of the Year, while on the home front he was Helmsman’s Champion in 1986, 1987 and 1991 during an outstanding progress through Irish sailing which started with Optimists and soared on through Lasers, 470s, J/24s and 1720s.
After a successful period in the more cerebral areas of industry in London – he was six years with Accenture, then started his own IT business - he has focused on Sports Science. This has been done though further third-level education, and giving enormous amounts of his time to voluntary work in other sports areas such as swimming and fencing – he has been brought in as an outsider to be Chair of British Fencing - with additional interests in sports technology, while also somehow being Chairman of the British Optimist Association for three years.
He is active in more voluntary and advisory bodies than you’d think possible, while his sailing home base is Queen Mary Reservoir in South London, created in 1970 from a joint venture by the River Thames-based clubs which were seeking a sailing space where the winds might be more reliable than in the narrow and very urban setting of their river.
The timely advent of the Laser in 1973 had seen the new Queen Mary Sailing Club move on to new levels of success, and while he has sailed other boats, the Laser in which Mark Lyttle achieved so much remains his special boat. So much so, in fact, that he won the British Masters back in June (having just qualified at 55 as a Grand Master), and then a fortnight ago he came back to Ireland to race the Laser Nationals on Lough Derg as part of his build-up to the Worlds, taking third overall with current Olympic hopeful young Liam Glynn of Ballyholme (definitely not currently a Laser Master in any age sense) being overall winner.
Despite his many years with the class, Mark Lyttle continues to adore the Laser and will be racing his eighth boat of the marque in Dun Laoghaire. Being fit is part of his nature, but nevertheless, he acknowledges that Laser sailing at 55 imposes a new perspective, and in each series, he now subscribes to that mantra which is the code for so many senior Laser sailors – TAKE IT ONE RACE AT A TIME.
An intriguing character in the show is Doug Peckover of Texas, who first won the Laser World Masters in 1997 and has been right in the frame many times since, and is now a GGM, but gallantly racing a Standard (full rig) boat. Sailing development and coaching is Doug’s thing, particularly in North America where his coaching and opinions are highly valued.
Despite sight difficulties which have latterly been improved, he continues Laser sailing and racing with as much zest as ever, as he does with the living of life in general. His recent arrival in Ireland in the countdown to the worlds saw images being posted of Doug and newbie Grand Master Chris Henkel (also USA) beginning the experience by savouring the classic Irish breakfast of the very full fry-up accompanied by strong tea and the obligatory pint of Guinness – is there any other way to start the day?
Another stellar presence is Mark Bethwaite of Australia, who turned 70 back in March, having taken second in the GGM (Standard) division in Croatia last September to make it ten wins in various categories of the LGM over the years. Scion of a clan which has been in the forefront of sailing development for decades, Mark sailed for Australia in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in the Flying Dutchman, his brother Nicky was a fellow Olympian, and another member of this remarkable family is Julian Bethwaite, who developed the 49er skiff and is reputedly doing some very interesting work in the next stage of what a state-of-the-art single-hander for 2020 – the Laser of the future? - might be like.
But for most of those in Dun Laoghaire for this very special gathering, the wonderful Laser in the pure form is more than enough to be going on with. She is as she is. She is one of their secrets of eternal youth, the basis for their very special sense of community and camaraderie and life lived as it should be. The Laser is irreplaceable.