SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
September 20, 1982
Designed about 30 years ago to indulge a pregnant lady, the Sunfish, of which 200,000 have been built, spawned its own breed of devotees, some of whom ooch
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 20, 1982

Here She Is, The True Love Boat

Designed about 30 years ago to indulge a pregnant lady, the Sunfish, of which 200,000 have been built, spawned its own breed of devotees, some of whom ooch

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Well, just about everything. Enthusiasts have been known to enjoy offshore cruising in, and overnight camping from, Sunfish, and have used them on river trips. Every May a fleet of about 100 of the little boats participates in a three-day race down the Connecticut River from Hartford to Essex. Lots of big yachts carry a Sunfish for frolicking while at anchor. There is a story, oft-told at AMF Alcort, about a large yawl that sank like a stone in a wild ocean a few years ago. Everyone was certain he would die in the murderous seas when, after a few minutes, what should come bursting to the surface but a Sunfish that had been lashed to the deck. It had been ripped loose by the power of its own buoyancy and risen to the top to save all hands.

Though it can serve as an emergency lifeboat or even as a child's beach toy, the Sunfish also offers good times to the hellbent racing sailor. At its upper levels, Sunfish racing is as fierce and precise a game as any yachting competition. Yet the environment of Sunfish racing is indubitably different from most other competitions in that the class is totally controlled by the manufacturer. This means that Alcort dictates all the rules and all the limits on equipment changes and go-fast tricks. These strictures govern almost everything—sail size and material, fittings, the size and shape of the dagger board, rudder, tiller, etc.

White writes, "The Sunfish has remained as one-design a boat as it is possible to make.... It is still quite possible to take a boat right out of the box and win races against boats that have been completely equipped with all of the gadgetry permitted."

Despite the strictness of the rules, racing techniques and tricks in a Sunfish can be innovative indeed. The tuning of the boat involves dozens of tiny changes that include everything from shaping the leading edge of the rudder to choosing the kind of anti-chafing material to cover the deck—a necessity in order to protect one's legs during long periods of hiking out. Methods for reducing dagger-board resistance are discussed endlessly. So are the myriad ways of rigging sails. A favorite—indeed, essential—technique is to fix the sail so low on the mast that the boom sweeps within an inch or so of the deck. Racers also argue long and hard over whether a heavier boat will do better or whether a "stiffer" boat is superior. At the world championships in San Mateo last month that argument was moot. As always, AMF Alcort shipped all 100 competing boats to the Coyote Point Yacht Club where they were issued, brand new and at random, in their cartons, to the racers. Thus, no one had the advantage of sailing his own personal tricked-up boat in the championships.

Obviously, with such emphasis on one-design craft, the skill and sailing smarts of the individual racer are far more important than the technological expertise—and expenditure of money—that dominates many other classes. However, in recent years, a strenuous new athletic aspect has been added to Sunfish racing. The sport has always required strength, stamina and agility, but now there is also the need to master something called "kinetic sailing."

This, in short, is the technique of applying occasional violent body movements—twists, jerks, contortions and something called "ooches"—to kick the little boat along a little faster. The use of pumping, sculling and ooching (which means just what it sounds like—lurching the body forward to boost momentum on the crest of a wave) is essential. These acrobatic techniques came to the Sunfish only after they had been widely adopted in such swift small-boat racers as the Finn and the Laser. During the 1976 world championships in Venezuela, two superb American racers, Paul Fendler and Michael Catalano, of Rye, N.Y. and Jacksonville, respectively, introduced these gymnastic techniques to the previously genteel Sunfish class. Fendler won and Catalano was second—having applied the new techniques with such violent exuberance that he developed a hernia of his chest muscles.

Some purists worry that kinetic sailing will change the nature of the sport. Well, there was plenty of kinetic sailing at the 13th annual world championships in San Francisco Bay in mid-August. As always, the breezes were fresh and capricious and the competition was a thing of beauty. The 71 boats, each sporting a perky orange, yellow, red and white sail, resembled identically attired Rockettes, but once they had started, differences in their skippers' handling of them became obvious. The worlds consisted of a series of six races with the scoring determined by points awarded in the best five races of each competitor. The winner was a sun-bleached blond from nearby Marin County, John Kostecki, only 18, who finished first three times and third three times, defeating runner-up Derrick Fries, 29, of Pontiac, Mich., who had won the worlds in 1975 and 1978.

Kostecki, who plays basketball and lifts weights, used plenty of kinetic action. "You have to be strong and agile," he said. "It took a lot of concentration, quick decisions and the right body English." He also brought an impressive amount of local racing experience to the competition. "I practiced right here for months, this year and last," he said. Still, until he won, Kostecki had been regarded as an also-ran. "Well, maybe they didn't rate me up there, but I did," he said. "The boat I was assigned was a real kick, too. The sails were so clean and the rudder was so smooth, I felt good about her right away."

So the Sunfish sails on—a full 30 years (or 29 or 31) since it was first sketched on a sawdust-covered shop floor at the request of a pregnant woman seeking comfort. Is that any way to design the world's most popular sailboat? Apparently yes.

Today, Cort Heyniger looks for all the world like the epitome of the village whittler. He spends most of his time now helping out at a blacksmith shop in his hometown of Woodbury, Conn., and he does whittle—miniature furniture for his wife. He's a happy, peaceful man. "We were very lucky guys," he says. "We probably never knew how lucky we were when it was happening."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6