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SMALL BOAT REVIEW

The Fish — Both Speed & Beauty By Jabbo Gordon

S

ome people have described a Fish class sailboat as an overgrown Sunfish with a keel. However, a couple of boatbuilders who have been heavily involved with the class’ comeback do not agree. Donovan “Donnie” Brennan of Mobile, AL, the official builder for the fiberglass Fish, says the Sunfish is not a good analogy. He likens the 20-foot, 6-inch Fish to a Star primarily because of the hard chine. George Luzier, who probably built one of the last wooden Fish at his Sarasota boat works, agrees with Brennan. In spite of a Fish’s low freeboard, it has classic lines like a Star. And this may be one of the reasons behind the resurgence of the class. New Orleans’ Southern Yacht Club originally commissioned Rathbone DeBuys to design the boat in 1918, and he presented the final plans in 1919. The Fish class led to the formation of the Gulf Yachting Association, which stretched from Houston to Sarasota. The class became a mainstay for the GYA for 50 years, and even St. Petersburg’s Admiral Farragut Academy had a Fish fleet tied up at its Boca Ciega Bay docks. Association clubs not only used the boat as a teaching tool but also had interclub competition for years before the more modern Flying Scot became the GYA’s class of choice in 1969. As wooden vessels became obsolete and young sailors began to race more high-performance boats, the Fish class almost became an endangered species. Natural attrition took its toll, but Hurricanes George and Katrina were the crowning blows, wiping out several of the relics along the upper Gulf Coast. But a group of dedicated sailors from Mobile’s Buccaneer Yacht Club decided to bring the class back from near death. They rounded up as many salvageable boats as they could acquire, and by word of mouth, started breathing new life into the class. The class association is giving many old-timers a taste 100% SATISFACTION GUARANTEED

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True believers think that the Fish is still the prettiest and fastest boat along the Gulf Coast. Photo by David Jefcoat.

of tradition albeit with more modern features. Wood has given way to fiberglass; wooden spars have been replaced by aluminum—allowing for adjustable mast steps—and Dacron sails now fly where cotton sails used to hang on the gaff-rigged vessels. Stainless steel and plastic have taken the place of old wooden blocks. Tillers now sport hiking sticks (aka tiller extensions), and many boats have hiking lines, not to be confused with hiking straps. Only about a half-dozen Fish are wooden, but whether the boats are wood or glass, the main features are still there. The waterline length is only 16 feet and the beam is 6 feet, 7 inches. The keel is relatively shallow at three feet and the displacement is 1,500 pounds. Main and jib combine for 270 square feet, and wind more than 12 knots may overpower the Fish. With the narrow 12-inch freeboard, sailors can count on getting wet, and skippers usually make certain their two crewmembers (during a race) are positioned between them and any incoming spray, especially when the water is a bit chilly. Buccaneer Yacht Club is the majority stockholder, but a few are scattered from New Orleans to Tampa. The Fish Class Association currently has 75 members and a dozen racing boats available, according to Brennan. “The Fish class is very much alive and well,” he said. “We send out invitations to our regattas, and competitors draw boat numbers out of a hat for a round-robin rotation.” They may be antiques, but they are fiercely competitive. Brennan emphasizes that the Fish is not slow. “In Portsmouth competition (using the Portsmouth Index) the Fish can kick butt,” he said. “They are very responsive, and if you do something wrong, the boat is going to tell you.” Harold Balcom, who will turn 92 on June 18, is still sailing his 1937 vintage Fish. He keeps it in a canal behind his Tampa home but had someone haul it over to St. Petersburg for the Good Old Boat Regatta in January when he won trophies for being the oldest skipper and owning the oldest boat. “My boat sat in a warehouse for years, but my brother Ed (now deceased) rebuilt it.” Balcom said. “I still sail it at least a couple of times a month.” Balcom has owned and raced a variety of one-design

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50

April 2010

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