In the summer of 2012 the 20ft Laser SB3 sportsboat was reborn as the SB20, with Sportsboat World awarded the worldwide license for the supply and service of new boats and spares by designer Tony Castro. At the same time production of the boats was brought back to the UK, in the hands of Rob White’s White Formula in Brightlingsea, Essex who built the first 55-60 boats, before Laser subcontracted production to the Far East.

SB20 cockpit

On the SB20 the effective mainsheet and traveller are controlled by the middle crew member, while the helm can focus on boat speed.

Key attributes

The SB20 is a high-performance racing sportsboat designed to be raced by a crew of three or four people, with a strictly enforced maximum weight of 270kg. A lifting bulb keel gives excellent stability, while also enabling the boat to be launched and recovered from a slipway. With the boat weighing just 685kg, it can also be towed by a medium-size car.

The change of builder provided an opportunity to make a number of improvements, however to avoid existing boats becoming outclassed, Alan Hillman and Jerry Hill of Sportsboat World resisted the temptation to completely revamp the boat. In addition, a huge amount of effort and experience went into planning the original layout of the boat, which was a key reason for its success and also means little needed to be changed.

Instead half a dozen small, but important improvements were made that make the boat more pleasurable to sail and improve longevity. All but one of these is easy to retrofit to existing boats and do not detract from the one-design ethos of the class.
There are also styling changes that make the new boats look more modern, particularly the black anodised aluminium mast and dark grey sails. In addition a range of hull colours are now available rather than the “take it or leave it” mid-blue of previous boats.

SB20 sailing downwind

The SB20 blasts downwind in the Solent.

On deck and performance

The original concept for the boat centred around a simple but very efficient layout, which has now been tweaked to improve efficiency. The cunningham, for instance, is now easier to adjust on both tacks and the main halyard cleat will no longer catch on lazy sheets. In addition, more foot straps have been added to help keep the helm on board when powering downwind in a big blow. There are also sail detail improvements, including a top batten adjuster and much stronger sliders.

More significantly, as well as new moulds for the hull and deck, the moulds for the foils have been re-tooled with CNC-cut aluminium. As a result foils are moulded to a greater degree of accuracy, so less fairing is needed and cost savings can be passed on to the end customer. Increasing the carbon content and ensuring the insertion of a tube in the leading edge of the rudder blade have addressed the production issue that caused a number of rudders built in the Far East to fail.

Another important change is to the top of the keel, which is 4mm wider than the foil. It’s not a big difference and makes no change to performance, but it prevents particles of grit from scratching a newly-faired keel.

The distinctive stainless steel bar on the gunwale that prevents crews hiking upwind remains, which takes a lot of the physical effort out of a long windward leg when racing. Forcing all the crew to sit inboard also changes the dynamic on board – it’s easy for the crew to talk to each other and share ideas, which helps to make racing more tactical. When sailing downwind body weight is moved aft of this rail, so that crews can hike to squeeze maximum performance – and fun factor – from the boat. Apart from the close racing this is a big part of the appeal of the boat – speeds of 20 knots can be reached, with the broad after sections of the hull shape, and big rudder providing reassuringly good control.

On the SB20 the effective mainsheet and traveller are controlled by the middle crew member, while the helm can focus on boat speed, apart from using the powerful backstay to depower the mainsail in gusts. Upwind the balance and feel in the helm is excellent and a well set up example should have the precise and relaxed feel of a thoroughbred.

SB20 sailing upwind

SB20 sailing upwind

In conjunction with the long-established international class association, Sportsboat World is working to develop and support new markets for the class, including sourcing second-hand boats to help kickstart new fleets in emerging markets. There are now fleets in 22 countries, with strong growth in Singapore, Cascais (Portugal) and Dubai. The last two years have also seen rapid growth in St Petersburg, Russia, where there are now 60 boats.

New events for 2013 include three European Grand Slam events that take place over a long weekend. The first two were at Hyeres in the South of France and Italy’s Lake Garda. The third was held during Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, where the class had two races per day over the first four days of the regatta. Long-term a programme of 6-10 such long weekends per year is planned, plus a world championship that was held Hyeres this year and in St Petersburg in 2014.

What it does best

The SB20 offers a very attractive mix of adrenaline-pumping downwind performance and tactical upwind racing at a surprisingly tempting price. The latter is particularly true for anyone who starts out the in class in one of the older boats, which mostly change hands for around £7,000, ready to race. Another big draw is the class programme of top-class racing in big fleets and in some of the most attractive places to sail in the world.

SB20 bow

A big draw is the SB20s comprehensive class programme and established class association.


Perhaps the most obvious compromise is that there are more modern designs available that significantly pare down the weight of the boat, giving a much higher power to weight ratio and greater speed. However, these advantages are expensive to realise, which also means that few other fleets are able to match the numbers that the SB20 can muster.

Alternative boats

There are a number of small sportsboats that vie for the same market as the SB20, although few have gained significant numbers in Europe. One of the closest boats size for size is the Viper 640. The slightly smaller Seascape 18 benefits from a small cuddy with a couple of berths, and has sold well in mainland Europe, but there are no substantial fleets yet in the UK.

In a higher price bracket there is the J/70 (see J/70: Exciting One-Design Keelboat), a new quick one-design 22-footer with carbon spars that is building numbers both in the UK, mainland Europe and North America. Another consideration is the Etchells, a more conventional keelboat designed more than 60 years ago, but also capable of very quick downwind speed. It remains a very popular boat around the world, with a well supported world championship that attracts some of the planet’s very best sailors every year. Find out more at Sportsboatworld.

SB20 specifications

LOA: 6.2m
Draft (keel down:) 1.5m
Displacement: 685kg
Max crew weight: 285kg
Mainsail: 18sq m
Jib: 9.3sq m
Asymmetric spinnaker: 46sq m

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.