The big three

We examine the three new dinghies on display at LIBS from Laser, RS and Topper

Tuesday January 17th 2006, Author: Toby Heppell, Location: United Kingdom
As ever it was only the big dinghy manufacturers that were at the London Boat Show last week. January pickings can at times be slim for the dinghy sailor - with the real ‘stuff’ held back for the Dinghy Show in March.

This year was different however, with the ‘big three’ - Laser, Topper and RS - all having a new, or at least newish, boat to show off. To further add to the excitement all three boats from a distance appear very similar. A scratch under the skin, however, would reveal three quite different boats ranging considerably in price. First up it was the RS 500:

In some of the promotional pictures (above) the RS500 did look quite a bit like a slightly modified RS200 with a trapeze. It was, however, a nice surprise when at the RS stand the boat was seen in the flesh. Immediately striking was how much longer it looks compared to the photos released and it was most certainly not just the modified RS200 we originally feared. The boat is probably best described in size and look as a modern, high performance, asymmetric Laser Two. As you look up the main looks like it is pretty big and looks very nice in Mylar with a big fat roach. The boat appears quite racy with low sides that give it a fast stealth-like look.

On the stand the RS representative said that the RS500 is aimed at younger kids coming out of the RS Feva but also adult sailors wanting to sail a single trapeze asymmetric boat. This is something that the RS range has lacked up until now, unless you count the single trapeze option on the RS800. This seems like an entirely possible aim with the boat attractively priced at £4,995.

Before the show the only modern boats in this market perhaps were the Buzz, designed back in 1993, and the Laser 3000 - recently re-launched by Vanguard Boats as the V3000. The RS500 however is not alone in apparently going for this market.

Next door to RS, Laser was showing off their similar-looking Vago.

The Laser Vago is a two man, single trapeze, asymmetric boat that looks like it is designed to be sailed by two youngsters or two adults or a combination. It is in fact in many ways almost the same boat as the RS500. The Vago is 4.20m long, while the RS500 is 4.34m long. Both boats have two rig options one smaller easier to handle rig and a trickier racing rig - the XL rig for the RS500 and the XD for the Vago. The Vago XD rig has a total sail area of 24.98sqm while the RS500 XL has 27.9sqm, and so the similarities continue. However the boats are by no means identical and the more you begin to list their differences the more you realise that they are not going for exactly the same market. There are in fact some very marked differences between the two.

The most obvious difference, aside from the price - the Vago is a very competitive £3,995 - a good indicator of which the market each boat is aimed at can be seen in the hull construction technique. The RS500 has a conventional GRP composite hull synonymous with racing boats whereas the Vago has a Polyethylene rotomoulded hull typical of boats for beginners, the casual sailor, or the sailing holiday market. Laser do say that they have done a lot with the construction techniques and have effectively produced a triple layer boat that is stiffer on the outside, softer on the inside and filled with foam to make everything stiff and light. Weighing in at 86 kilos, you could argue that this is not exceptionally light compared to other modern polyethylene boats in its size range.

As for its stiffness, it is very hard to tell just looking at a boat on a stand. The overall feeling was that this boat may be stiffer than its rotomoulded counterparts, but not that significantly, and the racing sailor may struggle to get the sort of rig tension desired.

Another thing that gives away the markets that these boats are aiming for is the size of the individual sails on each rig. Although the RS500 has a larger sail area, the two mainsails are very nearly the same size at 9.5sqm for the RS500XL and 9.32sqm for the Laser Vago XD. This means that most of the difference in sail size is in the jib and spinnaker of the boats, or the sails that the crew has to deal with.

This evidently shows that the RS500 in a race you will benefit from bigger and more experienced crew, whereas in the Vago you could get away with a smaller less experienced crew. It is also worth adding at this point that the Vago has a furling jib and extending tiller option to allow you to sail the boat singlehanded with just the mainsail and the spinnaker (see below).

The third big factor is the shape of the hull. Where the Laser Vago has wide flared sides allowing the boat to heel a certain distance and then become very stable, the RS500 has a much less forgiving shape. It looks a lot more like a proper race boat that will stick you in the drink if it all goes wrong, though it does not look like it will be anywhere near as hard to sail as something like a 29er.

So to summarise - two very similar boats, two fairly different markets. The RS500 is a racing boat that will be the sort of thing that people buy for reasonably unchallenging but fun open meetings. The Laser Vago is the sort of thing that people buy when they want to have a very low maintenance boat to sail at club level and also take out friends or kids that have not sailed much before. All that is needed now is a two man asymmetric boat that is fun to sail taking people from beginner to club racer. Then we would have the whole set.

It was with this thought in our mind when we cruised to the Topper stand and came across the new Topper Topaz Vibe. The Vibe is a two man asymetric boat, it has no trapeze unlike the Vago or RS500 and is clearly designed to be a fast and fun boat for beginners. As has been the case for most of Topper's recent boats it is a polyethylene rotomoulded boat that looks like it will take a lot of knocks and bumps without breaking. Weighing 70kg and with a 17.47sqm sail area the boat actually looks like it will be quite a nippy little thing. The Vibe is a lot smaller - 3.76m - than both the Laser and the RS boats that we have been looking at, but that makes it a lot less daunting for the beginner sailor.

The Vibe has many features that give it away as a simple boat to sail for the beginner. Like both the Vago and RS500 it has a gnav - an inverted vang - to provide plenty of space in the front of the boat, making it comfortable for an adult crew. There is also minimal clutter in the cockpit. The boat has clearly been designed to be as simple as possible with a single line spinnaker halyard/pole outhaul. There are practically no ropes in the cockpit that are not directly needed for sailing the boat. Controls like downhaul and outhaul are not led back but are left on the mast and boom respectively, giving the boat a real simple to sail look.

All three of these boats are very aesthetically pleasing and well made. In terms of what appeal mostly to us, the RS500 looks easily like the best of the three. You just can’t beat that lovely shiny finish a brand new GRP boat has.

Both Topper and Laser have tried hard with making their rotomoulded boats look as attractive as possible - both are in plain white with intelligently placed graphics.

If the Vago and the Vibe look a little cheap, it is perhaps because they are. At £3,995 and £2,995 respectively they are both hugely cheaper than the RS500. But £4,995 for a ‘proper’ 14 foot racing boat is pretty good all the same.

All three boats appear on the surface to look very similar - and you could be forgiven for thinking they are all trying to target the same sailor but it is quite clear each will comfortably find its niche. In order - the Vibe, Vago and 500 - respectively cater for a more and more demanding sailor (with more money to spend).

Vital Statistics:

3.76 m
4.20 m
4.34 m
1.60 m
1.56 m
1.58 m
6.89 sq m
9.32 sq m
9.5 sq m
2.21 sq m
2.66 sq m
3.6 sq m
8.41 sq m
13 sq m
14.8 sq m
Ian Howlett
Jo Richards
Phil Morrison

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