The Sunfish and its ancestor the Sailfish put more Americans afloat than any other sailboats, and they changed the face of the sport. The Sunfish was created – designed makes it sound too serious – by iceboaters Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger, would-be iceboat manufacturers who were looking for another product to keep their little woodworking business afloat. Using the plans for a surfing paddleboard that a prospective customer had left behind, they created a unique boat with low freeboard and a low aspect lateen rig from an Old Town canoe.
Bryan and Heyniger’s creation – first known as the Sailboard, then the Sailfish – was just 36in wide and so basic that it didn’t even have a cockpit, but it was light, simple to rig, fun to sail and cheap. The boat was sold in small numbers as a fully-equipped boat, in kit form or just as a plan. Sales were steady but unspectacular until a staff member of “Life” magazine, then one of the most popular mediums in the USA, chanced to have a ride on one in 1949. She got Life to fun a photo spread on the “World’s Wettest, Sportiest Boat“, the phone in Bryan and Heyniger’s factory rang off the hook, and the Sailfish took off as a beach toy. It was soon followed by a larger version, the Super Sailfish.
The Sunfish itself was born in the early 1950s, some time after Aileen Shields (daughter of big-boat champ Corny and a national women’s champ) had married Bryan and had got fed up with trying to sail a Sailfish while pregnant. The company’s first employee, Carl Meinelt, drew out the shape of a beamier Sailfish in the sawdust on the factory floor, and added a cockpit so Aileen Shields Bryan could sit more comfortably. That doodle in the dust was all that was needed to launch 50,000 Sunfish, and many thousands of imitations. By 10,000 Super Sailfish, 5,000 Sailfish and 5,000 Sunfish had been built and the class was growing at 2,500 a year.
The Sunfish and Sailfish took North American sailing away from the staid yacht clubs and onto the beaches. They transformed America’s image of sailboats from yachts to beach toys, and created a model for sailing as a mass-participation sport. As Ben Fuller points out, the fiberglass Sunfish’s simple two-piece construction also set the model for later boats like the Laser.
Almost as if to underline its status as a beach toy, the Sunfish didn’t become a racing class until the late 1960s, long after other “boardboats” it had inspired were racing as classes in places as far afield as England and Australia. It seems to have been the first class where the manufacturer supplied big fleets of identical boats for the world titles, setting the model that was to be followed by classes like the Hobie, Laser and Windsurfer.
The Sunfish still hasn’t spread too far afield. “The Sunfish class is not as strong or as competitive as the Laser in North America, but it is more popular in the Caribbean, Central and South America” notes former manufacturer Steve Clark. “The group is quite a bit different, but winning the Sunfish worlds is a serious accomplishment”.
The Sunfish must also have been an inspiration for the even cheaper styrofoam Snark, which sold through department stores. Well over 400,000 Snarks were built, although the construction method apparently meant that many had short lives. They’re slow and tippy, but a poll on one of the world’s most popular sailing websites (Sailing Anarchy) showed that the Snark gave many keen sailors their entry into the sport. The Sunfish was also a yardstick for Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer when they decided to make the Windsurfer in 1969 as a simpler “boardboat” with a greater sensation of speed.
The Sunfish story has an echo in the tale of other popular American boats like the Hobie and the Westsail 32 cruising yacht, which became huge successes after exposure in Life and Time magazines respectively. It chimes in with something I learned when talking to those behind the success of classes like the J/24 and Laser, and reading about the Windsurfer’s early struggle. The enormous size and diversity of the US and its market require a unique approach. The Holt/Moore formula won’t work as well as it did in smaller countries such as the UK and Australia, nor will the European style of creating official national classes. To achieve massive success in the US market seems to require a very nimble approach; one that listens closely to what the customers want, and will be able to react quickly to any stroke of luck that comes along.
The Sunfish still out-sells even the Laser in the USA. “The Sunfish has a bigger recreational market than the Laser, that explains why they sell better” explained Clark, who reckons that it came out on top on objective criteria every time they tested it against modern “beach boats”. Perhaps the boat’s niche is protected by its age; few designers nowadays would be brave enough to create a boat with a lateen rig and yet the low centre of effort and downwind power of such a rig make it a good match for the low, slender hull. The Sunfish is a tale of a lucky marketing break meeting a builder who had a good and innovative product, and who was willing to make it even better.
The language divide means that the French Vaurien is little known in the English-speaking world, but it was one of the most popular boats in early days of the dinghy boom. Its genesis was linked to the dark days of WW2, when Paul and Helene Viannay became heroes of the French Resistance. After peace arrived, the Viannays searched for a way to maintain the spirit of adventure and fraternite that they had found among the Resistance, and to heal the psychic scars of the war. On the beautiful but rugged Glenans archipelago they founded a very basic holiday camp that evolved into a sailing school. The emphasis was, and still is, on teamwork and adventure; this is not a slick resort style operation driven by profit, but a charity intended to breed cooperation in a challenging sailing environment. Glenans is now the largest sail training organisation in Europe, training more than 14,000 people per year, and it’s credited with playing a major part in democratising and popularising sailing in France.
In the winter of 1951-52, Philippe Viannay sponsored the construction of the first Vaurien. It was designed by Jean-Jacques Herbulot, a two-time Star Olympian and a co-designer of the 9m2 Sharpie, and named after a stray dog he had adopted. “Vaurien” translates as “scamp” or “rascal”, and the name fitted the unpretentious little boat well. Like so many boats of the early dinghy boom era, the Vaurien was a cheap plywood all-rounder. “The whole conception of the class was of extreme simplicity and one that would sell at the absolute minimum price” it was said. “And yet the boat had to be tough, a good performer under a sloop rig, suitable for complete beginners and sailing schools, capable of taking an outboard motor and also providing first-class one-design racing.”
Although the Vaurien’s “mission statement” was similar to that of boats like the GP14, Enterprise or Snipe, the French class was very different in two significant ways. One was the unique hull shape. The bottom was flat all the way from the bow to a point about 1.7m (5ft5in) from the transom. From that point to the transom there was a Vee-shaped “dart” in the bottom panel, which allowed the stern to take on a gentle Vee shape to reduce transom drag and the normal tendency of a flat-bottom hull to change balance dramatically depending on heel. The hull was sheeted in 6mm plywood and was light by 1950’s standards at 209lb, allowing a small jib and mainsail of just 87 sq ft to drive the boat along at a satisfactory pace. The rudder and centreboard had efficient high-aspect outlines but were produced from plywood to reduce cost.
After successful trials at Glenans the sailing school ordered a batch of 100 – a huge number for that era. This emphasis on professional batch production, rather than home-built one-offs, marked the Vaurien’s second departure from the other major hard-chine classes of the era. Because the accuracy of the shape of the “dart” had such an effect on the shape and performance of the hull, only licensed professional builders who sold the boats at a stipulated maximum price were allowed to build Vauriens. Fittings, equipment and even the paint was covered by strict one design rules, and only sails could come only from licensed sailmakers.
The rules forced builders to adopt batch production if they were to make a profit, but the result was an extremely cheap boat. The early Vauriens cost only as much as two standard bicycles, and as late as 1964 a Vaurien was less than half the cost of a Firefly or 420 and the same price as the much smaller Mirror.
The Vaurien put France afloat. Post-war laws required large businesses to run leisure and sporting clubs, which encouraged working and middle class people to look for a sporting outlet. Many of them found it in sailing on the huge sand pits, created by the post-war reconstruction and building boom, that were used to form artificial lakes around places like Paris and Rouen. The Vaurien became the backbone of many new clubs on these lakes. “It is quite remarkable how some clubs have developed on account of the Vaurien” wrote Britain’s Dinghy Year Book in 1964. “The Vaurien has brought into the sport of yachting an enormous number of people who would otherwise probably never have been afloat at all.” As early as 1956-57 there were 875 Vauriens launched within a year, and by 1964 there were 14,000 Vauriens, making it the Snipe’s rival for the title of the third most popular dinghy in the world.
Among those who honed their skills in the Vaurien was Eric Tabarly. His win in the 1964 singlehanded transatlantic race was seen as a French victory in an Anglo-Saxon ocean. It earned Tabarly the Legion D’honneur medal and made singlehanded professional ocean racing into a French passion. English-speaking observers today often believe that the popularity of the sport in France is based on the high profile of pro sailing. French sailors tell me the opposite – that pro sailing relies on the fact that organisations like Glenans and the Vaurien association had already made sailing a popular, egalitarian sport.
The Vaurien is yet another class that was driven by a desire to use sailing as a tool to improve the wider society by attracting new sailors into the sport. The same motivation created such successful classes as the International Cadet, the Mirror, the Optimist and the US branch of the Moth. Given their success, it’s easy to think that boats designed with a clean sheet for such powerful motives may tend to be more successful than those created with the narrow aims of being faster.
The Vaurien started to decline in the 1960s. The hull’s flat sections made it unsuitable for early single-skin ‘glass construction and the accent moved to newer boats like the 420. But although the class is long past its glory days, there are still fleets of Vauriens racing in several countries. The Vaurien may not inspire today’s designers with its shape, but any boat that can sell 36,000 hulls and launch the careers of many of the world’s top pro sailors deserves respect.
Like the US breed of Moth, the world’s most popular dinghy was inspired by a father who was concerned that idle youth would become caught up in “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. In the 1940s, US media such as Life Magazine identified a strange new creature – the “teen-ager”. Changes in education and the economy and the freedom given by cars led commentators to speak of an entirely new species, perched between child and adult.
The newly-identified life form was the target of yet another of the recurring moral panics about Kids These Days. This time the fear was not about alcohol or acid, but about comic books. The new genres of crime and horror comics were ruining teenaged minds, said the experts; if you left it to Beaver he’d turn into a psychopath.
In 1947 Major Clifford McKay of Clearwater in Florida gave a talk to a local service club, the Optimists, about protecting teenagers from “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote in Southwinds magazine many years later, his father looked at the enormous success of the “soapbox derby” and the joy his son had sailing with the local Snipe fleet. Major McKay proposed that the Optimist club should sponsor a class of cheap little sailboats, each subsidised by a local merchant in the same way as the soapbox derby carts.
Building and racing “soapbox” gravity racers was a popular way to keep kids on the streets in the 1940s. Bridgeport Library pic.
McKay asked local boatbuilder Clark Mills to build a simple boat that would cost less than $50. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote, Mills created gave the boat a pram bow to keep it short enough to be carved from an 8ft sheet of ply, and a spritsail rig which was more forgiving for amateur sailmakers. He built the boat in a day and a half and had it ready for the Optimist club to adopt at its next meeting.
The Optimist is so pervasive these days that we struggle to stand back and assess the design with clarity. It’s interesting to see that when it was spreading worldwide at the height of the dinghy boom, it was recognised as the most stable and easily-handled of craft. The British Dinghy Year Book noted that it was “so stable that it is exceedingly difficult for a child to capsize” and “as near foolproof for a child’s first dinghy as it is possible to get”. The stability is obvious, but it’s also noticeable that the centreboard is set further aft than some other prams, which suffer badly from getting caught in irons.
I have to admit that when I first saw an Optimist while I was at a high-performance windsurfer world championship at Lake Garda in Italy, I was appalled. The speed of the boat seemed to be a cruel punishment given the skill with which they were being sailed. It was not until years later, when I saw them being used by beginners in Australia and my own kids started sailing, that I realised how well Mills’ design worked. While my kids and I had seemed to spend hours stuck in irons with the boom whacking our heads or capsized, the Opti kids were just having fun. The beginners found that an Opti was easy to sail, the club found that they were easy to afford, and the future champions found lots of competition in a simple boat. Our club (Dobroyd in Sydney) had Opti sailors who were at the front end of the national fleet, but none of them were the spoiled brats of the stereotype; they loved their little boats and the ease at which they could launch them and through them around for a high wind training session.
As Clifford McKay Junior wrote many years later, “the dreams and expectations for the Optimist Pram were always large, as large as the boat was small.” Even when only one boat had hit the water, his father was planning a national championship. Fifteen sponsors signed up to the programme in the first week and by November 16th, 1947, a fleet of eight “Optimist Prams” was racing in the warm, calm waters of Clearwater Bay. The fleet grew quickly. Even a disastrous clubhouse fire that destroyed most of the fleet’s boats became a promotional opportunity to launch the class further afield. Within seven years, there were a thousand Optimist Prams racing in Florida alone.
In 1958 Axel Damgaard, a Danish ship captain, saw the Optimist Pram while on a trip to Florida. With Mills’ permission he took the plans to Europe, modified the class rules to allow a more sophisticated sail and fittings, and the Optimist Dinghy was born. In the 1980s, the growing popularity of the International Optimist Dinghy finally killed off the original Optimist Pram class in its home waters.
So why did the Optimist catch on so well? It was not the first tiny training pram. Just before the war, The Rudder magazine had published the plans of the Sabot dinghy, which had been modified into the Naples Sabot and the El Toro in California and also adopted in Australia, where it was fitted with a bigger rig. Debate still rages about the merit of the Sabot (which is still popular in California and Australia) and Optimist, although it seems fair to say that the Mills design is slower but easier to handle. The Sabot and its variations was not the Optimist’s only competition – in 1951 it was claimed that over 20,000 examples of the 8ft Sea Shell pram were afloat, and there was at least some class activity. There were also many other junior dinghies, like the little Dutch Pirat (with a flat floor like that of an Optimist, but a conventional bow and a lug rig), the Turnabout and of course the International Cadet.
Perhaps the Optimist succeeded because the class did not splinter into small groups that concentrated only on local sailing, like the various classes derived from the Sabot had; perhaps its success can be seen as the ultimate demonstration that ease of handling and safety attract more sailors than speed.
But like the other classes that sparked off the dinghy boom, in the end the main ingredient of the Optimist was the vision, generosity, and (sorry to say) optimism of those who created the class. Like the other major classes of the time, the Optimist was created to cater to the society in which it lived, rather than as a narrow technical exercise in boat design. From the start, the class was driven by the optimism of volunteers like Major Mackay and his backers. As Clifford McKay Junior wrote, the creation of the Optimist class “was a labor of love. Dad conceived a plan so all kids could sail and promoted the Pram around the state….Clark Mills designed it, built many of the first hulls, and donated the copyright to the Clearwater Optimist Club. The Clearwater Optimist Club with Ernie Green’s tireless leadership spent countless hours with the program, supervising races, working with the boys and girls, and transporting them to regattas….No one received royalties or any remuneration. Dad’s plan worked. It provided inexpensive boats sponsored by merchants for every boy to spend hours and hours on the water, with no time to think about getting into trouble. The goal of these men was that boys and girls could have fun sailing, and grow up to be good citizens . . . and that alone was their reward.”
Sea Shell information from “The Sailboat Classes of North America” and MotorBoating magazine. In December 1951 the latter claimed that over 20,000 had been built, while Sailboat Classes speaks of 2,500 to 5,000. Since the Sea Shell was sold in kit form as a rowing and outboard dinghy with an optional rigging kit it seems likely that the smaller number referred to the number of kits sold with rigs. The Sea Shell had a class association and seems
While the arrival of new technology played a major role in the postwar growth in dinghy sailing, many older classes such as the Snipe and Lightning kept on growing. Despite the arrival of the new boats, in the early ’60s the Snipe was still the second most popular class in the world, with 14,475 boats. The Lightning (8,700 boats) sat in fifth spot in the popularity rankings. So what kept these older boats popular, in an era when dozens of lighter, simpler and faster classes were emerging?
Part of the success of the older classes was simply that they already had critical mass and a high level of public awareness, but I started reading archives copies of the Snipe class magazine from the late ’40s and early ’50s to find out what else was involved. Coming from an era when dinghy sailors face dwindling fleets and endemic pessimism, going through the Snipe Bulletin’s back numbers was a rather strange and poignant experience. Month after month, the Bulletin spoke of new fleets being formed and new boats being launched by the dozen. There was the same flavour of unconscious optimism that we windsurfers felt in the early to mid 1980s; an assumption that the sport would always keep on growing and that the future would always be bigger better than the present.
It took a while to realise the three important underlying messages that were coming from the words written so long ago by men like Crosby and Wells. The first message was that even in those bountiful years the class’ continuing success wasn’t just the product of its maturity and critical mass meeting the sociological factors that were creating the dinghy boom. Even though the Snipe entered the boomtime as the world’s strongest class, it still relied on the selfless passion of volunteers who were determined to inspire new people to take up the sport and who were prepared to start new fleets, lend the class money to finance technological developments, loan their boats for regattas and do all the other jobs on which the whole sport depends.
Secondly, the class benefited from leaders who were not only champion sailors, but also keen to maintain the class’ low-budget one-design ethos as they steered it through the changes that came with new technology like fibreglass, dacron and alloy. Time and time again one sees that they put the priority on maintaining the competitiveness of old boats. They handled the challenges so well that the new technology made the Snipe more popular and the boats more even, rather than dividing the class into new boats and old ones.
Thirdly, even at the peak of the boom, even the world’s strongest class remained a cottage industry. Most manufacturers appear to be small operations, and so was the class itself. In the early 1950s the International Snipe association earned about about $3000 per year (about $30,000 in today’s values) and still barely broke even. Much of that income came from generous members, such as the ones who had lent the class $1500 to buy the Snipe’s plans and rights from Rudder magazine, or Well’s gift of royalties from his popular book. In 1951 Crosby, who was still involved in the class, earned just $939 in royalties. In an era in which the richest professional group (self-employed professionals such as doctors) earned $7400 and the median male income was about $3000, Crosby’s royalties would be nice to have but hardly enough to make one rich.
The challenges of emerging technology and class growth seem to dominate the Snipe’s history through the early years of the boomtime. In the early ’50s, the Snipe Bulletin reported that the class had an unusual problem – despite the increasing cost of labour and materials, demand for race-worthy new boats was so high that builders could not build the planked mahogany hulls quickly enough, and costs were rising dramatically.
In a complaint that finds many echoes today, it was also noted that many people lacked the skill or work ethic to maintain their planked wooden boats. “A great many people do not have the time, the place or the skill to do this work themselves, and it is becoming terrifically expensive to hire this work done” lamented the class Bulletin as early as April 1953.
One solution was allowing plywood hulls, which were permitted from the early ’50s. Around the same time, the class took a more innovative step. Worried that “the development of a fibreglas hull for the Snipe was the only way to keep the Snipe class from gradually dying out as a result of the increased popularity of fibreglas boats” the association started exploring moulded boats as early as 1953: just six years after the first fibreglass racing sailboat, Ray Greene’s Rebel, had hit the water. Considering the strength of the class and the novelty of the technology, it was an impressively far-sighted move. It may also have been significant that the class management turned to the members for feedback and found it almost unanimously in favour.
Although the class recognised that Crosby’s shape wasn’t ideal for ‘glass – “the flat sections of a Snipe hull require the use of much thicker fibreglas material than the curved sections of a hull designed specifically for fibreglas” – they took tight control of specifications and moulds and seemed to ensured that the early plastic boats were just as fast as the best timber hulls, but no faster.
The next challenge was synthetic sailcloth, which really hit the scene in the mid ’50s. Sailors knew that cotton sails had major problems. They had to be carefully and gently “stretched in” for hours when new, they could take on permanent stretch if they became wet and the adjustments were not eased, they suffered from mildew, and were so stretchy that top class racers needed specialist sails for light and heavy winds. On the plus side, cotton sails were a well-developed product and if they were well cared for, they could last for ages – Snipe world champ Ted Wells reckoned they had a racing lifespan of 10 to 15 years, which will make those who own many modern sails weep with envy.
When sailmakers and top sailors like class president Ted Wells and sailmakers got experience with dacron, they quickly found a significant bonus. The first Dacron sails were no faster than cotton, but the synthetic material’s lower stretch meant that one set could handle the whole wind range, instead of two or three sets as with cotton.
Further experience highlighted other benefits. “Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder” wrote sailmaker Wally Ross in the magazine of the Lightning class, which was facing the same issues. Sailmaking in cotton could be easier, because the stretchiness and shrinkage often hid a maker’s errors. Dacron’s stability gave no such latitude, wrote Ross; “small errors on cutting do show up and remain in the sail, making Dacron very sensitive to small changes in design”.
Dacron’s reduced stretch didn’t just allow (and require) sailmakers to create better shapes. The synthetic material’s stability also allowed fast sails to be replicated effectively for the first time. “The biggest handicap with cotton was that it required a “breaking in” process which was not at all consistent, and made it impossible to either duplicate a sail, or have it set exactly as designed” wrote Ross. With Dacron “once the correct shape is attained, the finer tolerances and more detailed designs allow the highest degree of duplication.”
Although the advantages of Dacron sails were soon obvious, they were also about 10% more expensive, and threatened to make existing sails obsolete. True to form, the Snipe class showed concern for its members’ pockets and phased in synthetic sails over a few years, first permitting them at club level, then at minor championships and only then at the worlds.
One interesting and apparently surprising result of the new technology was that competition got closer. Many boats were still kept afloat. Fibreglass hulls, fibreglass sheathing and plywood helped stop the moored boats from leaking and soaking up water, allowing them to compete with their dry-sailed sisters. Alloy spars were less affected by natural material variation and humidity than wooden masts. Dacron’s low and consistent stretch allowed sailmakers to reproduce known winning shapes and therefore make fast sails available to more people. Although the Snipe did not use the emerging technologies to increase speed, the racing got better and owning a boat got cheaper.
One issue that established classes like the Snipe and Lighting could not really address was their weight. By the 1950s, the Snipe was already recognised as a heavy boat, but time and time again the class put the priority on maintaining its one design rules to ensure that the thousands of older boats stayed competitive. The results show that it clearly worked. Snipe Number One was still racing well in 1955, and as late as 1954 Snipe Number 23 was still well up at the national titles.
In truth, the Snipe never really had a choice. As Frank Bethwaite has pointed out, if the Snipe went on a crash diet its heavily rockered, heavily Veed hull would lose too much waterline length, and it would still have too much curve to plane easily.
The weight may actually have helped make the early fibreglass boats compete with the wooden ones. The class’ tight controls on its sail numbering shows that it was still genuinely growing strongly, and the reports from the fleets show that the vast majority were still strong and full of old boats that would have been killed off by a major weight reduction. Designer and founder Bill Crosby was still actively beating the one design drum by pointing to classes like the Wee Scot, which had hundreds of active boats before it was radically “updated” and then collapsed. As some Snipe sailors said, the class would simply have to accept its weight handicap and concentrate on its strengths. By keeping up with technology but maintaining the competitiveness of old boats, the Snipe maintained its position as one of the world’s most popular boats.
The Snipe’s archives gave me an important lesson. Subconsciously, we may think that it was easier to run a class in those days of growth, optimism and emerging technology. The truth is that even then, the health of the sport relied completely on the time and enthusiasm of volunteers who kept their eye on ensuring affordable sailing for club level sailors.
“”Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder”. ‘Hard Sails’ by Wally Ross, Lighting class yearbook, 1957