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Take a note from software to make boats less expensive

2013 September 4

Laser sailors are closely watching the legal posturing that roils their class, threatens production of new boats, and risks future international competitions featuring the iconic one-person dinghy. But can good come from lawsuits?

First, kudos to the Laser and its fans. It is the timeless recreational sailboat; an undisputed classic drawn in the late 1960s, though easily mistaken as a 21st century idea. Its inspired lines are instantly familiar and durably cool. Think VW bug or Brook Steven's teardrop gas tank on the Harley-Davidson Electra-glide. You know one right away. You admire most.

Anyone who has sailed a Laser will tell you that it is first and always a nimble sportboat-responsive, sized right, intuitive, thrilling to sail on a reach and the magnet at the center of a modern social network. Laser fleets are usually age, ability and gender agnostic, and Laser sailors are generally welcoming and helpful to each other.

But legal battles regarding the license to build the Laser may kill this masterpiece of sailing couture and culture.

The crib notes: one of the Laser's designers, Bruce Kirby, is suing the company that has held the rights to produce the boat. Kirby contends that LaserPerformance Inc, a venture-capital backed company, hasn't been paying agreed royalties. Kirby has pulled the plug on LaserPerformance's rights and has launched a Laser clone called the Torch. LaserPerformance says that licensing fees and contracts expired long ago, and that Kirby is trying to put them out of business.

Thousands of Laser sailors are wondering about their investment. They have a lot to be worried about.

A new ready-to-race Laser exceeds $6,000. Accessories can push the price closer to $8,000, almost 20% of the median U.S. household income. Good used boats are hard to find. A few years ago I set a budget of $3,000 and searched nationwide to buy one for my daughter turning 16. (It seemed an exorbitant amount for a kid's toy and still does, though she cherishes her boat.) The only boats available under my target price were soft and creaky. Even a sunburned, waterlogged 1980s-era beach boat was going for over $2,000. I spent more than I planned to get something seaworthy and wondered if this was a market designed to extract the most dollars from the fewest people. Rolex in fiberglass.

For perspective, compare the price of a Laser to a loaded ocean kayak. You can be paddling Puget Sound in a primo 17-footer for $1,500. Add an optional mast and amas, and you can sail your kayak for two grand. Choose Kevlar; $3,500. Frankly, it's hard to find any kayak, with the exception of wooden one-offs built by artisans, that reach the price of a Laser sailboat.

The Laser isn't the only over-priced boat in sailing. In 1986 I visited a winter sailboat show and toured a new 35-footer marketed as the ideal family racer-cruiser. You could order it with teak trim for cruising or tricked-out for racing for about $60,000, sail away. Recently the company unveiled their newest 36-foot ideal family racer-cruiser with a list price of almost $400,000 before sails. Factored for inflation, $60,000 in 1986 is about $130,000 today.

A friend pointed out that manufacturing and material costs might be to blame. But one can buy three and a half 615-horsepower Lotus Esprit automobiles for the same money, and the cars are equally rare, more complex and labor intensive to build, and also made of exotic things like carbon, titanium and custom computers.

Sailing has a pricing problem. Some of it might be related to licensing or the profit expectations of venture capitalists. Or perhaps sailing marketers have decided that fewer buyers with more money are better than many buyers with less. I tend to think that old ideas keep costs high and hold us back.

What if, instead of limiting production through dated and restrictive contracts, Kirby and LaserPerformance agreed to put the rights to build and sell the Laser into the open source? When Linus Torvalds did it with his server operating software Linux, the Internet and the use of computers and phones to connect people through it exploded and Torvalds emerged as a pioneering entrepreneur, never wanting for riches or fame. The market that erupted around Linux is larger than Apple, Microsoft and Dell combined and these companies are big winners because they're in it.

The Laser as an open source sailboat might be the ticket to make both Kirby and LaserPerformance wildly successful again. Of course, open sourcing doesn't mean that the boats would be free, but you could expect that they would cost less, be ubiquitous and improve more rapidly because of competing builders and more sailors. As leaders of the movement, both Kirby and LaserPerformance could shift from fighting over the last profits from aging brands to the more interesting and valued activities of teaming with sailors to devise and teach new techniques and design enhancements to keep the class at the leading edge. This would be a paradigm shift.

Today's strategy centers on staying the same and fending off outside ideas and suppliers. Other stakeholders would have to invest: the class association would tag and test new ideas to make the Laser better while still adhering to the one-design spirit. Organizers would find a friendly new balance between policing and promoting. And Laser sailors would have to be open to trying new ideas while not harboring or exploiting them, and then reinvesting, en masse, when there is class consensus. You might call it a hybrid between a one-design and a development class. Exactly like Linux.

Admittedly, the idea feels more like a pipe dream than a possibility, at least with the Laser. Lawsuits make folks angry and vengeful, not cooperative. But someone, someday, will kickstart Open Source Sailing. And it will be good for all of us.