Quarter-Scale Lasers, Full-Size Fun!

By Roger Vaughan

Wickford Mudheads RC SailingMany sports offer electronic or mechanical toy or game versions that are lame compared to the real thing. That’s not the case with sailing. Ask anyone who has raced a radio-controlled model sailboat, and he (or she) will go on about what an exciting, ultimate vicarious thrill it is. Even better, ask any of the Mudheads who race radio controlled, quarter-scale Lasers off a 30-foot pontoon boat in Wickford, Rhode Island on Thursday evenings in season.

Learning to steer an RC Laser takes practice, especially when it’s coming at you bow-on.   © Jim Flach

“My only regret is I said, ‘No thanks’ the first time the Mudheads called me,” says Jim Pascalides, a foot surgeon. “I said, ‘I’m not old enough, that’s nursing home stuff, too lame.’ Man, was I wrong. I can’t believe how much fun it is.” Pascalides, like most of the Wickford Harbor Mudheads, raced Etchells for 20 years in the Narragansett Bay Fleet #8. These are race-savvy, competitive friends who have downsized in a most satisfying way. “We’re not racing big boats anymore,” Pascalides says. “The RC Laser has provided a renaissance for us.”

Even good big boat sailors experience the learning curve with radio-controlled boats. Steering a boat that’s coming at you bow-on takes some practice. “The guys all had two years on me to work on their psycho-motor skills and depth perception,” Pescalides says. “My first season I apologized a lot. They said no worries, they had crashed into each other a lot their first year.”

Jim Myers, a sailmaker who races the full-size, demanding VX One dinghy – and big Lasers – found the Mudheads online and joined them with a repaired junker he was given by a friend. For several weeks he was turning his whole body to orient himself to the model in order to steer. “I provided a lot of laughs,” Myers says. “Then something clicked, and the brain got it.” Myers was so impressed he now sells RC Lasers. “It’s the only true one-design boat there is,” he says, “regardless of size.”

The Wickford fleet started when another Etchells sailor, Bryson Hall, spotted RC Lasers racing in Sopers Hole, West End, Tortola during Christmas, 2010. “I was hooked right away,” Hall says. It took him almost a year to talk his friend, Paul Sollitto, into buying boats and begin racing off Hall’s dock on Wickford Harbor. Annoyed by the swirling wind and other limitations of the dock, they went searching for a pontoon boat that would provide a platform for racing in open water.

Wickford Mudheads RC SailingThey found an old 30-footer. Both Hall and Sollitto are handy. The two stripped it and built two park-type benches fore and aft down the centerline. They joined the two bench backs at the top with a plank full of cutouts. “Slots for the Laser keels to drop into, and holders for the beer cans,” Hall says. Sollitto says the pontoon boat is remarkably stable, even when 10 or even 15 sailors crowd to one side. Best of all, they anchor the boat in open water and are able to set accurate courses that take advantage of Wickford’s prevailing southwesterly wind.

The plank atop the benches aboard the Wickford Harbor Mudheads’ custom-built pontoon boat has cutouts for RC Laser keels and beverages.  © Paul Sollitto

What’s a Mudhead? It has something to do with mud dripping off the mast tip of a boat that had turned turtle onto the heads of the crew. Bryson Hall helped found the nearby Mystic River Mudheads Sailing Association, and appropriated the name without hesitation. According to its credo, The Mystic Mudheads was “forged (40 years ago) with a passion for racing…” [an aversion to red pants and blue blazers]… “and christened with rum.” No action has been taken, so one assumes the Wickford sailors have passed muster.

Freelance writer Roger Vaughan was a founding editor of The Yacht magazine. He sails in the Oxford, Maryland RC Laser fleet. His most recent book is The Strenuous Life of Harry Anderson, the authorized biography of international sailing ambassador Henry Hill Anderson Jr., a 2014 inductee into the National Sailing Hall of Fame. To order a copy, visit harryandersonbook.com.

Editor’s note: The RC Laser is available from Intensity Sails in Warwick, RI, who also sells sails, parts and accessories for several full-size one-design sailboats. For more information, log onto intensitysails.com.