Truly new developments in the world of sailing are rare. Those that do emerge usually result from developments in materials technology. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn the latest offering from Laser, the company's brilliant Pico, uses a new manufacturing process. However, materials and manufacturing do not make a boat alone and Laser has employed some of the best brains in Britain to ensure the Pico is as special on the water as it is in the factory.
Right from the start, Laser was determined to produce a boat that would allow sailing to compete with other easy-access sports (like horse riding and go-karting) where the new user simply turns up and gets started. For Laser, the days of newcomers spending hours in the classroom before venturing onto the water were finished. The result is a boat so simple to rig (the comprehensive instruction manual supplied is almost redundant) and so simple to sail that a child could master it in a day.
We were lucky to spend three days with not just one, but a whole fleet of Picos at Minorca Sailing. Amongst the guests there was no doubt as to the most popular boat; each and every day saw a high proportion of the Picos out on the water. Whether it is a tribute to Minorca Sailing's instructors, or to the Pico's qualities, the first-time sailors were very much in charge of their own boat after just a couple of days. As a singlehander to teach beginners, the Pico takes some beating.
To regard the Pico as just a beginner's boat would, however, be to seriously underrate the very competent Pico. Designed by Olympic medalist Jo Richards, originator of a multitude of craft from Formula 40 catamarans to lightweight lake racers, the Pico offers a combination of qualities rarely found in one boat. For the beginner, she is stable, vice free and simple enough for almost anyone to get in and sail away. More advanced users will delight in her responsive nature and surprisingly brisk performance.
Upwind, the little boat belies her size, riding with a smoother motion than one might expect from her well flared bow sections and flat underwater profile. There is no need for subtlety in the trimming or steering as the forgiving rig and big rudder will compensate for most errors. Those, of course, who do take the trouble to set up carefully will reap the benefits. Steering is well balanced and positive, providing just the right amount of feedback to alert beginner or serious sailor alike to any out of balance forces. The single padded hiking strap proves comfortable even for bare feet, and the curved decks suit a reasonably wide range of leg length. Off the wind, the Pico accelerates briskly in a decent amount of breeze. She's surprisingly fast and offers more excitement than one might expect.
The cockpit proves self draining in all conditions and while big enough for two is sufficiently narrow to allow one's feet to rest on the far side in light winds. The daggerboard fits easily in the case and even when fully raised, clears both the boom and the kicking strap; excellent for easy lee shore launching and impossible to foul up when gybing. Controls are limited to the usual three (plus main sheet) and all are adjustable underway. The rudder system uses the increasingly popular swing-down-and-lock-with-the-tiller type arrangement, secured by an easily replaceable bungee cord. Though it works well, a more positive "click" action to indicate that the rudder is fully down would be an advantage. All the fittings — and there are precious few — follow standard Laser practice and work just fine. The daggerboard and rudder also follow Laser's tried and tested production methods.
The Pico hull is produced using a new process that offers superb durability and reasonable stiffness at a modest cost. Bob Gelts at Minorca Sailing has been involved in prototype evaluation and reckons the Pico is the nearest thing to an indestructible boat he has yet seen. Dragging them up and down the beach presents no problems and from the look and feel of the boats we saw, dropping one off a roof would probably do little harm.
Although much thought has clearly been given to performance and durability, trouble-free sailing was obviously a priority at the design stage. The balance between the hull and rig is such that the Pico is extremely reluctant to sit in irons, with the bow slowly paying off if the boat is stopped head to wind? invaluable for those learning to sail. Similarly, the pronounced keel and bilge runners provide both directional and roll stability without adversely affecting the Pico's responsiveness. Again good for beginners. The ability to cater for crews is also vital in this kind of boat and the wide flat bottomed hull certainly proves very effective in this respect. One 105 kg Minorca Sailing beginner managed just fine — though he was frustrated by his inability to keep up with the 45 kg ladies in light winds. At the other end of the spectrum we sailed the boat with crews of less than 40 kg in plenty of wind. When it all gets too much there's always the option of Laser's simple roll-up reefing system.
Those with children will be delighted to know that the Pico has both the space and the performance to keep more than one person occupied at a time. The addition of the jib kit will keep both of them busy. Weight carrying capacity and cockpit size are both sufficient to allow an adult and youngster to sail together with ease.
It would be a truly remarkable thing if such an excellent product were totally without fault and there are a couple of minor gripes. The molded-in non-slip is quite simply vicious. The instructors at Minorca Sailing refer to a condition known as "Pico knee," namely scuffed skin on the knees (or any part of the body) brought about by the roughness of the finish. Sailing clothes do not fare well either, with our tester's wet and dry suits looking like they had been through a month's sailing after just a couple of days. Although the Pico hull (at 60 kg) is slightly heavier than some of its rivals, this is unlikely to be a major factor for most would-be purchasers, given the Pico's expected durability. Exciting, fun, simple, easy to maintain and modestly priced. A recipe for success? Well, judging by our experience it certainly should be. The Pico has already sold well to the sailing school market with family owners not far behind.
How is the Pico Made?
Rotomolding has been used for many years to produce all kinds of hollow plastic items, from complex automotive components to chemical storage vats. The process is a simple one. A hollow metal mold is loaded with a carefully measured quantity of raw plastic granules. The mold is then heated to a controlled temperature and rotated about all three axis in a carefully programed way. The heat melts the plastic granules and the rotation ensures an even thickness of molten plastic is deposited all around the inside of the mold. The mold is then cooled and opened allowing the finished/tern to be removed.
Though potentially ideal for producing boats, the inherent lack of stiffness and the limited thickness of material that can be used without making the product too heavy have precluded rotomolding as a viable process until recently. The breakthrough came with the introduction of a new semi-rigid foam material and the development of a manufacturing process that effectively allows the manufacture of a foam sandwich structure.
An outer skin of rigid polyethylene is formed first, directly in contact with the mold face through an access port that becomes a hatch location, and a further charge of granules for the polyethylene foam core is loaded. The mold is heated and rotated again, forming a second, thick, low density layer. A third operation follows with another rigid layer to complete a homogenous sandwich construction.
Careful control of temperature and rotation is critical, and developing the correct programme to ensure consistent moldings has been a long and difficult process for Laser. With development complete, the process is an exceptionally reliable method for producing a low cost, high quality product. Don't expect this to be the last boat Laser produce using this technique.
Though DIY repairs are not really possible, in the unlikely event of damage, rectification is simple for the professionals using the right equipment. A tool, something between a hot-melt glue gun and a hot-knife, is used to fuse new material into any damaged areas and refinish the surface. With care, an almost invisible repair can be made.