From Portland, Ore. to Portland, Me.; from Newport Beach, Calif. to Newport News, Va.; from Manhattan, N.Y. to Manhattan, Kans. little chips of wood or Fiberglas with candy-striped sails (opposite) are scudding across the water like confetti in a gale. The chips are known as Sunfish and Sailfish, and right now they are the biggest thing there is in little sailboats.
Some traditionalists—people who believe a boat should have an inside and an outside, a stem, a stern and a rib or two—claim the little Sunfishes are not sailboats at all, only surfboards in fancy dress, but there are plenty of real sailormen to give such talk the lie. Briggs Cunningham, who sailed the U.S. cup defender Columbia to victory in 1958, now sails a Sunfish. So does former North American Sailing Champion Bob Mosbacher, whose brother Bus skippered another cup defender. Glit Shields, son of the famed Cornelius and current International One-Design champion, claims he gets as much fun out of sailing a Sunfish "as any boat I know of. I especially enjoy taking one out in breezes of 25 or 30 knots when you can plane down wave after wave."
Other dedicated Sunfish sailors are TV's stern counsel for the defense, E. G. Marshall; svelte Dina Merrill, whose father, E. F. Hutton, once stood on the quarterdeck of the proud, square-rigged yacht Hussar; and Singer of Folk Songs Chad Mitchell, who towed his Sunfish halfway across the nation behind his automobile.
Lesser names and lesser sailors are skippering Sunfishes across ponds in semiarid Hastings, Neb. and dry-as-dust Topeka, Tulsa and Sioux Falls. Park Avenue matrons are buying them off the floor of Abercrombie & Fitch, along with sweaters for their pet poodles. Last year U.S. Ambassador Robinson McIlvaine ordered a Sunfish shipped to him in Africa's steamy Republic of Dahomey. Not to be outdone, M. Jacques-Bernard Dupont, the Dahomey emissary of President Charles de Gaulle, promptly ordered one for himself.
December 16, 1963
No one has been more surprised at this succ√®s-fou of the Sunfish and its sister Sailfish than their inventors, Alexander Bryan and Cortland Heyniger, whose first syllables combine to form the name of the company they head: Alcort. Alex and Cort have been combining their talents, off and on, for years, but when they started Alcort in a loft in Waterbury, Conn, they had no idea of building a boat at all. "We used to build things together as boys," said Bryan, a solidly set man with a catching smile. "We made little buggies, carts, tree houses, huts, iceboats. We even built a glider once. But," he paused painfully, "it didn't work." Later on Bryan went to Yale. Heyniger, a tall, spare man with an addiction for bow ties, went to Dartmouth. During the war Heyniger served in the European and Pacific theaters as a naval officer, while Bryan flew copilot for Pan American-Grace Airways in South America.
At war's end, tired of doing things they had no heart for, the friends "decided to go to work doing something we wanted to do." They pooled the tools they had accumulated and rented the loft of an old Waterbury lumberyard. "The only trouble was," says Bryan, "we didn't know what we were going to make." Alcort's first order was for six drawer handles. It was followed by one for a very special tie rack for one of the company's directors, who was willing to pay as much as $1.50 for the job. Next Alcort turned to an ingenious toy called the Klickity-Klack-Marble-Track, but employees (all two of them) spent more time playing with the game than making it. After that they tried their hand at a few iceboats. Then came the momentous order for some Red Cross surfboards designed for rescuing people in trouble off beaches.
Considering this a real challenge, the partners began busily experimenting. First they raised an old canoe sail on the surfboard and went sailing in a nearby lake. Then they added outriggers and fiddled with rudder placement. But to no avail. "There were only two people in the world who could sail the thing," laughs Bryan.
Undismayed, Bryan and Heyniger designed their first honest-to-goodness sailing craft largely by guesswork. Its length was dictated by the size of a 12-foot piece of plywood (for the deck and bottom), while its shape was decided by, as Bryan puts it, "the amount of bend a ¾-inch piece of Sitka spruce would take."
The boat—christened "Sailfish"—was an almost instant success. "In the beginning we doubled our sales every year," says Bryan, "but our sales were so infinitesimal to start with that it didn't mean much." In 1947 the total output was only 136 boats, but the sales kept on climbing. Bryan and Heyniger still don't know why. "I guess," says Bryan, "that in the Sailfish we stumbled on something very elementary. We gave people a simple boat that really suited their purposes, and I don't understand why nobody thought of it before."
In 1951, still swearing by simplicity and building with plywood only, Alcort added the only slightly more sophisticated Sunfish (it had a kind of dimple by way of a cockpit in the middle of its deck) to the Sailfish line. Sales mounted still higher but volume was small. Then, in 1958, Fiberglas came to Alcort, and their shop became a factory. The smell of shavings gave way to the sweet, synthetic odor of polyester resin. Without biting the glassy hand that feeds them, Bryan mourns the change. "When we were working with wood, the shop smelled nice. I think we had more fun then," he says.
But with glass came profits. In 1949 Alcort grossed $35,000; in 1963 it took in $2 million before expenses. And instead of ordering sails from Ratsey & Lapthorn by the dozen or even the gross, Alcort bought them 7,000 at a crack. Soon they began to run out of factory space, and in a few weeks their whole enterprise will move to a new plant three times bigger than the old one.
Alcort's new quarters look more like a G.M. assembly line than a boatbuilding shed. Overhead, traveling slings will carry unfinished boats from one assembly station to the next. There are plush offices, special woodworking shops, storage space and a railroad spur. Here Alcort and its 50 employees will not only make more Sailfishes and Sunfishes to add to the 40,000 already afloat, but will repair them as well. "Some woman," says one old Alcort hand sadly, "is always running over her husband's boat in the driveway."
There probably is no way to prevent this new and unique hazard to sailboating, but Alcort's colorful floating chips have proved themselves immune to most others. Surfboard or sailboat, call them what you will, the Sunfish and the Sailfish are the simplest, best-performing, least demanding and most exhilarating sailing craft of their size and price ever built. Zephyrs push them faster than vessels many times their size; with a strong wind behind them they scoot along at fantastic rates, leaving their damp crews, perched inches above the wash, with the prolonged breathless feeling a surfer gets riding the crest of a roller off Waikiki. One Sunfish devotee even rides his boat standing up, in the best Hawaiian surfboard fashion.
Sunfishes and Sailfishes will turn over if you look at them crosswise, but this only adds to the fun of sailing them. They can be righted almost as quickly as they capsize and, short of attack by submarine, they are unsinkable. Actually, their tippiness makes them ideal training craft for kids, since they safely demonstrate that capsizing is a normal part of small-boat racing. They give neophytes practical lessons in recovering from a flip—lessons that pay dividends later in bigger, more sophisticated boats.
Basically, all that either a Sunfish or a Sailfish consists of is a Spartan leaf-shaped hull, pierced with a slot for a daggerboard (a drop keel that allows the boats to sail against the wind), a rudder, a stumpy mast and a handkerchief-sized, lateen-shaped sail with a halyard to raise it. The whole rig can be assembled in a couple of minutes. Small enough to stash in garages, the little boats fit neatly on top of most compact cars.
Three models of the Sailfish are available, two of the Sunfish. The baby Sailfish (the Standard) is 11 feet 7½ inches long, has a beam of 31½ inches and spreads 65 square feet of nylon or Dacron sail. It weighs 82 pounds and will support one 300-pound adult or six 50-pound children. The Standard model comes in do-it-yourself kit form and sells for a low $209. The middle-size Sailfish (the Super) also comes in knockdown, wooden kit style but is slightly shorter, wider and heavier than the Standard, and 400 pounds' worth of human can crouch on its deck. It sells for $239.
Flossiest of the Sailfish group is the Super Sailfish Mark II. Factory-finished of glossy Fiberglas, the Mark II weighs less than the Super (98 pounds), can carry as much (400 pounds) but sells for more: $394.
The Cadillacs of the Alcort fleet are the Sunfishes, which come in plywood kits and Fiberglas, ready to sail. They measure more than 13 feet 7 inches from stem to stern and have a beam about a foot wider than the Sailfish. The Sunfish kit, like the Sailfish, consists of wooden parts (deck, sides, daggerboard and rudder) and comes complete with sail. The kit Sunfish is slightly smaller but heavier than the molded, factory-finished Fiberglas version, but both have sail areas of 75 square feet and crew capacities of 500 pounds. The Sunfish kit costs $297-$179 less than the glass boat.
To complete the catch, Alcort is now scaling still another little Fish—the "Catfish," a single-sailed catamaran that will be heavier (160 pounds), wider (72 inches) and shorter than the Sunfish and will look vaguely like a pair of Fiberglas dolphins harnessed together.
How sailors will take to the Catfish is still unknown, but the popularity of the Sunfish, which outsells the Sailfish about 3 to 2, is well established. There are 36 Sunfish fleets in the U.S., Canada and Bermuda, plus 40 Sailfish fleets, and most of their members are at least borderline fanatics. Some of the wildest groups of Sunfishermen are in Bermuda: Bermuda's Salt Kettle Sailing and Planing Club and the Palmetto Bay Sailing and Gliding Club. Nearly all Bermudians sail Sunfishes, in fact, from Lady Gascoigne, wife of the governor, to the gas station attendant who services her car. Among them are ocean-racing types and some of the hottest dinghy sailors in the world.
Not content to use their new craft as just another boat for another race, the Bermuda Sunfishers have devised some zany new racing twists. One is to fly kites from the sterns of Sunfishes while sailing around the course. Another more violent one is Sunfish water polo. For more ambitious Bermudians there are relay events, in which the Sunfishes sail twice around a triangle, picking up new skippers at each mark. As each one clambers aboard, his predecessor is demoted to crewman and serves as ballast until the boat built for two is laboring under the weight of six or more.
Perhaps the most heroic of all Sunfish skippers is Bermuda's Colin Curtis. Racing his Sunfish one day last year with a dazzling young thing for crew, Curtis was nonplussed to find he had lost his daggerboard somewhere ashore. As this piece of equipment is indispensable for beating to windward and since "home" lay that way, Curtis and his crew were in a bind. But Curtis is made of stern stuff, and instead of flapping aimlessly around or getting a tow back he ran downwind to one of the islands that dot Harrington Sound, swam to another island in search of a rowboat, found one, rowed to land, flagged a taxi, drove to the Yacht Club, borrowed a spare daggerboard, taxied back, rowed back to the island, left the rowboat where he had found it, swam back to his Sunfish and his comely crew—board in hand—and finished the race.
Let those who would sail only in cup defenders match that, say the men of the Sunfish.