By Bruce Burdett
The little Sunfish, far and away the most popular sailboat ever built, just turned 60 and they’re still churning them out at the rate of four a day at LaserPerformance in Portsmouth.
A few things have changed since Alex Byran and Cortlandt Heniger (hence the ‘Al’ and ‘Cort’ of their Alcort company) built the first one in 1952 as a beamier, and, with a well where feet can fit, more comfortable successor to their Sailfish. Construction switched from wood to fiberglass early on, improvements kept the rudder from popping up at the worst moment, and sails went from white to stripes of every color.
But it’s still 13 feet, 10 inches long, weighs 129 pounds (the older ones tended to put on water weight), and carries 75 square feet of sail in that lateen rig. And that funny round Sunfish logo, the one thatwas supposedly first sketched using a nickel to get the circle right, is on every sail — from ancient faded ones to crisp new sails fresh from the factory. In fact a 60th anniversary edition sail features a whole school of little Sunfish.
Its simplicity is award winning — the design made Fortune magazine’s list of America’s 25 Best Designed Products. It took its place in the American Sailboat Hall of Fame in 1995, hailed as “The most popular fiberglass boat ever designed with a quarter million sold.” The number has since soared past the 320,000 mark and the Portsmouth plant expects to add at least 686 to the total this year.
That simplicity is also the appeal. Quick to rig and figure out, it is the boat that has launched more people into the sport of sailing than any other, the one that has flipped more people into the drink, and the one dragged up onto more beaches.
It’s the beginner boat that still manages to entertain the experts.
Some of them can be found out on the Barrington River every Sunday during the cold weather months competing in a frostbite series begun back in the 1960s by Leeds Mitchell and friends. The fleet draws all talent levels — rookies can find themselves looking at the stern of boats sailed by the likes of 2010 North American Sunfish champ Bill Brangiforte.
Eric Woodman has been with that group since the 1980s (and is also the New England representative to the US Sunfish Class Association). He got a Sailfish when he was 13 and brought it to a lake where a group raced Sunfish.
“That’s the thing about Sunfish racing — there is a sense of family I’m not sure can be found in any other class,” he said. “The boat is so simple that there is really no better test of pure sailing skill — you remove almost all of the control functions.”
Roger Williams University sailing coach Amanda Callahan said that after years in college and before sailing as crew or in team racing, “I wanted to get back into driving.” The Sunfish, a boat she had sailed some in high school, was just the thing.
She said she found Barrington and other New England fleets “super welcoming” and the boat easy to manage in most breezes for someone of her small size.
“I call it my retirement (from college racing) boat,” she said, adding that, “there’s nothing more fun than dragging one down the beach and going out for a sail.”
Phil Garland builds and races high-end sailboats and is a veteran of the Barrington Sunfish fleet.
“I started out on my dad’s Sailfish then taught sailing in college with Sunfish and have always felt comfortable on them,” he said. “It’s a fun boat.”
Part of the adventure is the possibility of tipping over. When you’re the victim, “You hear lots of hooting and hollering from the others.”
The boats are pretty much all the same, Mr. Garland said — “old ones, new ones, it’s about even” — although it does help to have a good racing sail. He once showed up with a black anodized aluminum boom, raising speculation that he’d cooked something illegal up out of carbon at Hall Spars — not true.
And all agree that, as Ms. Callahan said,”you can just drop in the water after work and start sailing in a couple of minutes” while owners of bigger boats are still trying to round up crew.
LaserPerformance is hosting a Sunfish 60th birthday party in July on Noyes Pond in Tolland, Mass, the place where Sunfish designer Al Bryan and his family used to live and sail. Sunfish enthusiasts of all ages and sizes are invited to bring their boats, families and Sunfish stories for a day filled with fun on and off the water. For more information, follow LaserPerformance or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunfish by the numbers, mostly courtesy of the Sunfish Facebook page …
320,000: Total number of Sunfish sold
6: Number of Sunfish builders over the decades: Alcort, AMF Alcort, Pearson, SunfishLaser, Vanguard, and LaserPerformance
838: Distance in miles if every Sunfish ever made was lined up bow to stern
300: Number of Sunfish fleets in the United States
74: Number of sailors at the 2012 Sunfish Worlds in St. Petersburg, FL
16: Number of countries with active fleets
5: the value in pennies of the coin that was reportedly traced to make the
first Sunfish logo — just add a tail and fins and, presto!
From Ken Read, high praise for the birthday boat
Like many sailors, it all started on a Sunfish for Ken Read—East Bay native and skipper of America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race yachts. We asked him for his thoughts about the boat:
Ken Read: I learned how to sail on a Sunfish!
It was my very first birthday present that I remember besides a bike that was stolen soon after. It was my 5th birthday and my grandfather and father showed up at the house with the Sunfish. Green deck with diagonal white stripes on the bow and stern. White sail. Sail number 22535. And within minutes I had named it Bobby Hull (as our dinghy that we towed behind our 30′ Pearson Wanderer when we were cruising was named Bobby Oar).
Starting the summer of my 6th year Bobby Hull became a fixture behind Nepenthe when cruising southeast New England almost every summer — Bobby Oar and Bobby Hull side by side surfing behind Nepenthe. We would get to port and rig the Sunfish and go cruising around the harbor with my Dad — first me then my younger brother Brad.
Until that fateful day in Osterville Harbor out on the Cape when my Dad did a fake as if he was getting on the Sunfish with me and instead simply pushed me off for my first ever solo at the age of 6. At first I remember being terrified but once I figured out that it was easy to get back to the boat I was gone.
That Sunfish became a huge part of my sailing career. Evenings in harbors all over New England turned into the Read family time trials in which Dad, Brad and I would switch off having point to point races to beat the clock and each other. My Mom was the scorekeeper and continually threw my father out of the competition due to her famous “indecent exposure” rule, called when Dad’s shorts would slide down until you could see his butt. When she called him on it we would all laugh until we cried. It was great, great times.
The Sunfish became part of my summers through Barrington Yacht Club Junior Sailing, and on the bay my Mom helped by starting the Sunfish Doubles class for little kids, which for me turned into Sunfish singles and then 420’s, Mugwumps, Junior Race Week. I remember sailing against “the Dads” (as we referred to older sailors) a bit. I remember a Sunfish regatta on Watuppa Pond in Fall River against all “the Dads” when I was about 8. In light air I was pretty dangerous. When it blew over about 8 knots I struggled. I beat all the “Dads” at a Sunfish time trial held during Block Island Race Week when I was 9 which was a highlight at the time.
So to answer your question, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Sunfish. It was clearly the beginning of a long career along with a love for sailing.