The Sunfish Story By Jabbo Gordon Cover: A Sunfish sailing on the Manatee River off Bradenton, FL. Photo by Steve Morrell. (Also see the Sunfish on the January 2011 cover.)
The very best trade I ever made in my life was when I traded a set of golf clubs to a cousin for a sailboat. My cousin was happy because he loved golf and didn’t know much, if anything, about sailing. The golf clubs were happy because they didn’t wind up at the bottom of some water hazard. I love the water in general, but hate water when it appears before me on a golf course.
ut this is not a story about golf or even how people acquire sailboats, although there are many great yarns that have been passed around various club pavilions. For example, my colleague Dave Ellis related in this space last November how he spotted his first International Contender, which was involved in a domestic dispute, from a Georgia rooftop. No, this epistle is about that sailboat I received in my best trade ever. It was a Sunfish. First, let’s talk dimensions. A Sunfish is 13 feet, 10 inches, which is extremely convenient when you have to move. Transfer companies usually charge extra to move a boat in a van if the vessel is 14 feet or longer. Waterline length is 13 feet even, and the beam is fourfeet, one-inch. Her draft is only seven inches, but drops to three-feet, four-inches when the dagger board is down. A Sunfish weighs only 129 pounds, and her sail area is 75 square feet. With a Portsmouth rating of 99.6, she is comparable to a Capri 14.2 (99.4), a Defender (99.5) or a Spindrift 15 (100.5). If the winds are pretty strong, or the Sunfish skipper is very skilled, he or she can whip a Laser boat-for-boat. Laser sailors don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. And if the event is being timed for Portsmouth competition, Sunfish sailors will really give Lasers a fit. However, the cream usually rises to the top in any fleet.
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Now, here is some history. Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Cort” Heyniger planted the seeds in Waterbury, CT, back in 1947. Originally, they thought in terms of putting a sail on a surfboard, and the two buddies came up with the Sailfish. It was lateen-rigged, had a flat deck and made from plywood. That was fine, but in 1951, they decided to widen the hull, add a cockpit and call it a Sunfish. Heyniger created the logo by simply tracing a nickel and adding fins, the tail and an eye. And both Sailfish and Sunfish were available in kits with spruce spars, mahogany tillers and cotton sails. With the introduction of fiberglass in 1959, the pair made other improvements, such as aluminum spars, ash tillers and Dacron sails. The increased speed, performance and reliability heightened the popularity. And as the saying goes, “Where two or three sailboats are found on the water, there shall be a race.” The first North American Championship came in 1963, and the inaugural Midwinters occurred in 1965. Bryan and Heyniger then sold Alcort (Al and Cort) Sailboats to American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) in 1969. AMF hired Steve Baker—and later Lee Parks—to organize racing and other events. This led to the establishment of a class association. Parks, now a US SAILING staff member, is still very active in the class. “I grew up on Cape Cod and when I learned to sail, my instructor was a big time Sunfish racer,” Parks recalls. “I’ve been racing them for years now, but a Sunfish is the most fun to sail in 20 knots of wind.” She acknowledged that the original rudder was poorly designed and undersized, a common complaint about Sunfish. In 1971, a spring-loaded kick-up system replaced the original brass rudder fitting. “The class was aware of the situation, but there was a question of maintaining the status quo or modernizing the boat and rudder,” Parks said. “We had to consider the cost.” And on Jan. 1, 1984, the Sunfish gained international class status from the International Yacht Racing Union, now called the International Sailing Federation. A year and a half later, Irwin Jacobs of Minstar Corporation of Minneapolis, MN, bought AMF—bowling balls, boats and all—but he www.southwindsmagazine.com