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.