SI Vault
Hugh Whall
December 16, 1963
Despite the sneers of crusty traditionalists who claim that they are not even boats, the chipper little craft pictured here at Darien, Conn. have set a whole new style in sailing
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 16, 1963

Set A Sail On A Surfboard

Despite the sneers of crusty traditionalists who claim that they are not even boats, the chipper little craft pictured here at Darien, Conn. have set a whole new style in sailing

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

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.

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 �-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.

Continue Story
1 2 3