That was excellent, if accidental, p.r., but the big coup—the thing that "really put the ointment in the fan," as Heyniger says—occurred in August 1949, when LIFE magazine ran a double-page photograph of a Sailfish skimming along on a lake near Madison, Conn. In those days the clout of LIFE was so enormous that Alcort's phones nearly fell off their hooks with calls from excited customers.
And was that all-important LIFE story the result of smart, sophisticated pressagentry on the part of Alcort's marketing geniuses? Certainly not. It was just as refreshingly unpreconceived as everything else about the outfit. Some friend of Bryan's or Heyniger's (no one recalls whose) brought a weekend date to Connecticut and introduced her to the Sailfish, which she loved. Lo and behold, she turned out to be a LIFE editorial researcher who returned to Manhattan and suggested a picture spread on the Sailfish—and nothing was ever quite the same again in Alcort's lumberyard loft. When the story ran, Heyniger was vacationing in the South and Bryan sent him this telegram: LIFE'S OUT. WE'RE IN. ALL'S FORGIVEN, COME HOME.
It was beautifully clean-cut innocent stuff—nice guys finishing first and all that. Bryan recalls, "It was a wonderful experience. Everyone was rooting for us. But, you know, we can't take real credit for the Sailfish. We literally stumbled into it and we were lucky every minute of every day." Possibly so, but they were turning Sailfish out by the dozen—efficiently and swiftly. Whereas business had been so miserable that at one point the partners had gone without their own salaries—50¢ an hour each—in order to keep their books balanced, now the company revenues began to climb. Both had been bachelors when they started Alcort, but as times improved, so also did their matrimonial prospects. Bryan married Aileen Shields, a good sailor herself and the daughter of the famed Cornelius Shields, the first man to win the Mallory Cup, the symbol of the national sailing championship. Heyniger married Jean Van Valkenburg, the woman who had ordered the dozen wooden drawer pulls. Both wives dutifully skippered Sailfish from time to time, and both found them ungodly uncomfortable, particularly Aileen Bryan when she was pregnant with one of her five children, because it was awkward to sit on the board with her legs stuck straight out. Both suggested that it would be really terrific if they had somewhere to put their feet.
The partners conferred with their star employee, Meinelt. "He was a man who could do anything." Bryan says. "Bud and I got a lot of credit for what happened, but Carl deserved a lot of it himself." One day in—1951? 1952?—Meinelt hunched over the floor of the shop and drew the basic lines for a new boat design in the sawdust. He added a foot more beam than the Sailfish had, and he included a comfy footwell in the deck to allow a pregnant sailor to sit in a more natural position while handling the tiller. Heyniger says of Meinelt's design as it appeared on the floor: "It looked pretty good. It wasn't until about three years later that we even bothered to get prints made." And Bryan says, "People worry and argue over designs like this. They change it and fiddle with it. We just took it right from our heads to the model. And the design we ended up with depended more on the amount of bend there was in a piece of wood than on either esthetics or engineering factors."
Meinelt says, "It all seemed to work out about right. We pretty much drew what felt right and then built it. Of course, the dimensions were also figured so we could cut the hull and the deck inside the measurements of the plywood sheets we were buying then. No one liked to waste anything in those days."
Well, there it was—the most popular sailboat in the world. The length was 13'7½" and the beam 47½"; the hull weighed roughly 130 pounds. In short, one of the best-designed manufactured products of the entire 20th century was created out of nothing more than a passion for economical woodworking and a freehand sense of what a fun little sailboat should feel like.
The name? Was that the result of deep thinking and heavy consultation among marketing experts? Certainly not. Heyniger says, "I don't know, the boat seemed sort of fat, sort of round like a sunfish. I guess it was just a case of naming a no-'count boat after a no-'count fish." And the world-famous Sunfish symbol that has appeared on all 200,000 sails? Heyniger grins and says, "I drew a circle with a nickel and added the fins and the tail and the eye. Nothing we did was ever really accomplished with too much forethought, you know."
The Alcort boys had, it seems, a magic touch. Certainly the Sunfish appeared in quantity at a propitious time—in the late '50s, when prosperity beamed on nearly everyone and just when the explosion in leisure-time activity was about to boom. Says Heyniger, "We were in the right place at the right time—through no real credit to ourselves. There was no real competition in mass-producing small sailboats. By the time the Sunfish came along, we had the bugs ironed out of the production line with the Sailfish. We had the advantage of being able to produce all the boats we could sell. And people practically begging to buy them. It was exactly like we'd built a better mousetrap—they were beating a path to our door."
But even under those heavenly business conditions, Alcort needed sound, professional management. Neither Al nor Cort considered himself—or the other—to be a high-powered executive type. So in 1956 they hired an M.B.A. from Michigan named Bruce Connelly. He was a classic sales go-getter, an excellent organizer and a smart marketing man. It was Connelly who put together the dealer organization—a remarkably loyal and productive crowd that today numbers some 700 dealers in the 50 states and almost every country worldwide.
As Alcort moved out of the '50s with both Sunfish and Sailfish sales rising and Connelly holding a steady course in the front office, there was one other big change on the Alcort production line. Until 1959, all of the company's boats were wooden, including the spars, which were made of spruce poles, and the dagger boards and rudders, which were made of mahogany. Then along came fiber glass.