Sunfish: The True Love Boat
Published on April 16th, 2018
Sports Illustrated magazine has been serving sporting enthusiasts since 1954, and had this gem in its vault from their magazine issue dated September 20, 1982:
The story is fraught with all the melodrama of one of those good old Saturday afternoon B movies of the 1940s in which a couple of wholesome, happy-go-lucky (but likably shrewd) all-American boys set up shop in Pop’s garage, work hard and wind up inventing the world’s first perpetual-motion machine out of old bicycle wheels and broken mousetraps.
And they go on to become legends in their own time—famous and rich, paragons of the capitalist establishment—the Eli Whitneys, the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords of their day, freckle-faced examples of the best that the American Dream could ever hope to produce. And not only that, their product is designed to do nothing but make people happy!
That, in slightly different form, is the story of Alcort Inc. and its two founders, Alexander Bryan and Cortlandt (Bud) Heyniger (the Al and the Cort of the firm name), both now 69 years old. They got together after World War II in the loft of a lumberyard in Waterbury, Conn. and eventually invented and mass-produced the Sunfish, which is the most popular sit-down-and-ride-in-it sailboat on the planet.
Almost twice as many Sunfish have been sold as its closest competitor.
Sometime last spring—or maybe it was early summer—the 200,000th Sunfish was sold. No one knows when it came off the production line, and no one knows where it was shipped; in fact, no one is sure of anything about the 200,000th Sunfish except that it was produced this year.
The reason for all this uncertainty is that, believe it or not, no one knows when Alex and Cort began making them—1951? 1952? 1954? (The best bet is 1952.) Like good red-blooded B-movie heroes, the Alcort boys were more interested in the raw-meat stuff of production results than they were in the dull, dusty chore of keeping accurate books or records.
The second-most-popular sailboat is the Laser (a 14-foot, high-performance racer) with sales of just over 100,000, followed by the Hobie Cat 16 (the zippy catamaran designed by Hobie Alter) with 75,000. The Windsurfer, the stand-on-it sailboard which swept across American waters in the late 1960s and early 1970s and spread to Europe with similar impact more recently, now outnumbers all manner of wind-propelled craft, with roughly 250,000 in use.
But the sailboard isn’t a true sailboat.
For years, brassbound racing salts and lots of weekend sailors, perhaps suffering from delusions of their own grandeur, have looked on the Sunfish as little more than a beach toy. There is plenty of evidence to refute this, of course. World class racers such as Dennis Conner, of America’s Cup fame, and Gary Hoyt, who developed the Freedom class and won the first Sunfish Worlds in 1972, learned to sail at the slim wooden tiller of the Sunfish.
This year the class had its 13th World Championship, at San Mateo, Calif., on the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. There were 71 competitors from no fewer than 21 countries. The Sunfish class is officially recognized by the U.S. Yacht Racing Union (now US Sailing), and the international union (ie, World Sailing) is expected to accept the class soon. Sunfish racing is by no means confined to the U.S.
Racing sail numbers have been issued to 55,000 Sunfish owners, and there are registered fleets all over the world. Oddly enough, the largest fleet is in Saudi Arabia, where an armada of 300 flits about the Persian Gulf, skippered by every type of individual, from expatriate American oil worker to oil-rich Arab aristocrat.
Obviously, the appeal of the Sunfish—which costs only $1,259 and can be sailed by a reasonably smart 6-year-old—cuts through a lot of social, economic and ethnic strata. This fall The Sunfish Book will be published by Sail Books. The author is a Hartford p.r. man and sailor named Will White, 52, who was the North American Sunfish champion in 1966 and 1968.
According to White, “The Sunfish is pure sailing—the sail in the wind, the board in the water, and you in the hull in between—one hand on the tiller, the other on the sheet and the wind in your hair. Pure sailboat racing, too. For the racing sailor, it is the essence of yacht racing.
“It was the first truly one-design boat, rigidly controlled by the manufacturer, with even the sails limited to one loft and very little that could be done in the way of adding expensive go-fasts. No need for a new set of sails every year. No need to keep buying or changing expensive hardware to keep up with the latest sailing theory. Even if you attach the best of everything allowed by the class rules, you’ll have a hard time spending more than $100.”
Whether for racing or recreation, the Sunfish has come to be one of our more familiar images—almost as recognizable a symbol of carefree vacations and sunshine fun as Santa Claus is a symbol of Christmas. It’s said you can’t watch a TV screen anywhere in the U.S. for 24 hours without seeing at least one Sunfish go by.
The saucy little boat has appeared on enough Sunday-supplement covers to rank right up there with puppies and Princess Di. It has come to be the prescribed jolly beach backdrop for print ads and TV commercials from Air France to S&H Green Stamps, from Buicks to Wamsutta sheets, from the National Geographic Society to tourism in the state of Utah.
When Bryan was asked to explain this phenomenon, he said, “I think there’s something friendly about the appearance of these boats. Something unpretentious. Nobody is ever jealous of a Sunfish, and I think that probably works to make other people’s products not look snobbish.”
Whatever the reason, the Sunfish is everywhere, and one never knows where it might pop up. In 1968, the tiny island of Montserrat in the British West Indies issued a 5¢ stamp honoring the Sunfish, and two years later the Bahamas came out with a 12¢ Sunfish.
In 1959, FORTUNE picked the 100 best-designed products of all time—including such classics as the Model T Ford, the Kodak Brownie, the Rolls-Royce Phantom II and the Ben Franklin iron stove. The Sunfish was a very new product then, and it didn’t make the grade in that august company, but when FORTUNE came up with a new list, in 1977, of the 25 best-designed contemporary products, the Sunfish was right there along with the Trimline Touch-Tone telephone, the Porsche 911 S Targa and Adidas running shoes.
But all of this high-tech accolade and worldwide marketing clout isn’t really the Sunfish story, not at all. No, its origins lay in the minds of “two nice guys sitting in the middle of a pile of shavings,” as a Hartford adman described them after his first sight of the Alcort partners in the 1950s. Bryan and Heyniger were boyhood pals who began collaborating as builders with a collection of “huts,” the Waterbury version of the classic tree-house or clubhouse.
The Alcort boys were into super-huts—one was three stories high and had running water—as well as even more complex projects. “We built a glider once, but it wouldn’t fly, not even with our lightest friend,” Heyniger recalls. They never had any formal training in woodworking—”We sort of taught each other,” says Bryan—but they were obviously smitten with the craft at an early age. As Heyniger said recently, “The best Christmas present I ever got as a boy was 10 pounds of nails.”
Bryan and Heyniger went to different prep schools (Lawrenceville and Hotchkiss) and different colleges (Yale and Dartmouth) but they both wound up in the late 1930s caught in the backwater of the same Depression. Bryan ended up at the Scovill Manufacturing plant in Waterbury as an apprentice machinist, and Heyniger went to work on the production line at the Waterbury Buckle Company for 35¢ an hour.
In the autumn of 1941 they built a single-seater iceboat, then six more like it. The winter of 1941-42 provided, in Cort’s memory, “the best iceboating in history.” They had a ball on the lakes around Waterbury, but then World War II intervened. Bryan flew with the Army Air Corps Reserve in South America, and Heyniger joined the Navy and served in both the European and the Pacific theaters.
Four years later they went home to Waterbury. While they were gone, Bryan and Heyniger had learned that the barn in which they stored their beloved iceboats had burned to the ground. Fortunately, the barn and its contents were insured and the boys had some money coming, roughly $5,000. While they were at war, Bryan had written Heyniger to tell him of the insurance money and to suggest that they go into business together. “Let’s build something,” he said.
For their iceboat business they picked a perfect spot in the winter of 1946—the ice-cold loft over a lumberyard. The place was heated by two oil stoves but got so cold at night that sometimes glue would become as brittle as glass. But the rent was only $75 a month. The first thing they did was choose a name for their company.
“We thought Alcort sounded a lot better than Cortal,” says Bryan, “and also we knew that it would come first in the Yellow Pages.” And that was about as sophisticated as merchandising got around Alcort back then. The boys were much more interested in the excitement of big-time, full-capacity production, so, says Bryan, “We went downstairs to the lumberyard and bought planks for a workbench, and then to the hardware store across the street for some tools.”
Their first order wasn’t for an iceboat: It was for a dozen wooden drawer pulls, at 10¢ each, for Heyniger’s girlfriend. But they did get into the boat business that winter, building seven iceboats of plywood and Sitka spruce. They also began to make rowboats. They sold some, but for all of 1946 they grossed only $4,700.
In early 1947 they hired their first employee, a gangly local kid named Carl Meinelt. Boats didn’t bring in enough revenue, so they branched out, making other things, such as portable ironing boards, baby swings that hung in doorways and a child’s game called the Klickity-Klack Marble Track.
The big breakthrough order that ultimately set them to making sailboat history wasn’t very impressive at first glance. A man from the local Red Cross came by and asked if they could make a small surfboard for lifesaving use. He had a plan, and Alcort came up with an estimate of what it would cost—around $75. The Red Cross man said the price was too high, and left. Meinelt says with a wink, “I think he really wanted us to do it as a contribution to the Red Cross.”
As it turned out, it was the Red Cross that made the contribution to Alcort. “He made the mistake of leaving the plans behind,” says Heyniger, “so we decided to make a surfboard anyway. Then Alex put a triangular Old Town canoe sail on it, and we stuck on some aluminum bars. It was only 22 inches wide, and we couldn’t make it do anything. We needed more beam, so we made another one 32 inches wide. I could never get it to work at all. Carl was more agile, but it was still like trying to sail a log.”
Finally, after fiddling around with several models, they installed a rudder and a dagger board and widened the beam to a manageable 36 inches and the length to just short of 14 feet. They kept the equilateral triangle sail. And the boat worked just fine.
They first called it the Sailboard, but that seemed fairly uninteresting, so they picked Sailfish—possibly because, as Heyniger recalls, “The thing sailed under the water about as much as it did on top—which was like a sailfish.” Something like that.
When White asked Heyniger how much the company had charged for the first Sailfish, Cort just wasn’t sure. “We didn’t keep records,” he said. “We’d get so cluttered up with stuff that we threw a bunch away. But I think the first Sailfish cost $128.50. The first Sunfish, I think, was $200—no, $195. To keep it under $200.”
Despite the change in the name, the Sailfish was in fact a’ sailboard. A person sat on a flat surface, legs stretched out in front, with the sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, and had a very wet ride.
The early models were made of plywood and the buyer had a choice between a readymade boat or a cheaper do-it-yourself kit. This made for some wildly varied finished products. Heyniger recalls, “The brochure suggested that a kit could be assembled in a few dozen hours, but a real perfectionist could spend a whole winter at it, while some people slapped them together in no time and they’d have leak problems for the rest of their life. We found some people were installing screws with a hammer instead of a screwdriver.”
Alcort started selling Sailfish in 1947 and moved about 100 the first year. “We knew practically every customer by his first name,” Heyniger says. But they were beginning to think a little bigger and they contacted an ad man, who wangled a very small patch of space for their very small boat on the floor of New York City’s Grand Central Palace, where the 1948 New York National Boat Show was being held.
Fortuitously, the Sailfish—that cute little wood chip with its perky lateen sail—wound up sitting right next to a 57-foot Wheeler yacht, the largest boat in the show. The glorious contrast between the two made the Sailfish the talk of the town.
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.
Bryan says, “We had been aware of fiber glass for quite a while. Lots of people had tried to use it to make boats and had failed. The material itself wasn’t consistent and the surfaces would be uneven. We were dubious, but the truth is our company didn’t amount to very much until we started molding our boats in fiber glass. Then they were faster and lighter and much prettier—and we were a much different company.”
Along with replacing the wooden hull with fiber glass, Alcort utilized other up-to-date, if less lovable materials such as aluminum for the formerly spruce masts and Dacron for the formerly 100% cotton sails. The rudder and dagger board remained mahogany, but the tiller was changed to ash (though stained the color of mahogany) because that wood happens to be sturdier.
And the company grew and grew. In 1964 it moved to its fifth and present plant, built on a seven-acre plot deep in the bleak factoryscape that is Waterbury’s industrial complex. The plant is cheerily topped with a couple of Sunfish on the roof, but, seemingly for miles in every direction there are dozens of shutdown or limping factories, melancholy symbols of the economy.
At Alcort things are O.K., if not terrific. There are 150 employees, 40 of whom work on the production line, efficient in effect but Rube Goldbergian to look at: Fiber glass boat molds hang from lines like fish as they move along ceiling trolley tracks from process to process until, ultimately, a gleaming, finished boat appears.
When things are going at top speed, a Sunfish can be completed—from first spray coating of the stripes across the deck to the final sealing of the cardboard box it will be shipped in—in just over six hours. Sadly, the original 12-foot Sailfish, granddaddy of the whole current $12 million-a-year operation, was dropped from the line back in 1966.
A 14-foot Super Sailfish managed to stay alive and marketable between then and 1980, but it’s also now extinct. However, the Sunfish sail on. The average production has been close to 10,000 a year for almost 20 years. The highest figure was 15,000-plus in 1974, the low just over 7,000 during the recession of the mid-1970s. What with this year’s economic woes, the total probably won’t rise above 7,000 either.
Still, through thick and thin, the firm goes on, and most of its employees have been around for a long time. Meinelt is still there; he’s now quality manager. Among the missing, however, are Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger. They sold the whole Alcort shebang to American Machine and Foundry Co. in 1969. At the time, AMF was busily acquiring sporting goods and recreational firms by the handful. Alcort fit their plans perfectly.
And, as it turned out, AMF fit Bryan’s and Heyniger’s plans even better. “Selling to them was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Heyniger. Bryan agrees: “We had gone from scratch—absolutely nothing—to being a business that was quite valuable. Neither Bud nor I were managers. We’d been wonderfully fortunate, but we knew we had all our eggs in one basket.
“We were worried that we were vulnerable to having all sorts of big companies move in and take our business away from us. We were so small. So rather than get deeper involved in protecting ourselves, we sold to AMF. We’d had other offers, but theirs was just right. I felt real comfortable with their executives.
“Also, I’m a golfer and I was intrigued with the fact that they had Ben Hogan advising them on golf clubs. We had no regrets. We’d made so much more money than we ever dreamed we’d earn.”
Alex and Cort thought they might continue to work with the AMF people, but both rather quickly dropped out of active participation in Alcort—Bryan within two years, Heyniger in three years. As the latter says with a shrug, “You can’t work for someone else when you’ve spent your whole life working for yourself.”
Since the founders’ retirement, AMF Alcort has produced or marketed a number of sailboats other than the Sunfish—from a 26-footer for $22,000-plus, the Paceship, in the mid-’70s (now discontinued) to a sailboard called the Windflite for $895 (a good seller today). The Force 5, a sleek and classy Laser-like boat, sells well at $1,995. The Minifish is a smaller, shallower Sunfish for $895 and is only mildly successful, as is the Puffer, a 12½-foot day-sailer for $1,995; a 15-foot model is in the works. The Sunbird, a day-sailer with a rather tubby look, hasn’t done well at $3,995 and may be phased out. A couple of new catamarans—the Trac 18 ($6,500) and the Trac 14 ($2,695)—seem ready to catch on.
With a volume of about 12,000 boats a year, AMF Alcort is the world’s leading producer of sailboats in terms of sheer numbers. Yet, as Jim Ronshagen, vice-president for sales and marketing, points out, “Yes, we’re the biggest producer—by far. But the sailboat business is very fragmented. There are probably 4,000 so-called manufacturers in the U.S., but 1,400 of them make one or two boats a year. About 200 of them—the big ones—build between 10 and 25 a year. But the cheapest boats in those yards will be $20,000 and they go up to a million dollars, or more. We sell to our dealers for under $1,000. We have to build a lot of Sunfish to get the same revenue those guys get on one boat.”
Over the years, there have been many assaults made on the Sunfish market—imitations, cheaper imitations. And none has made a noticeable dent. Why? Ronshagen answers with the predictable, self-serving—yet inescapably true—pitch of a Sunfish salesman: “It’s a great product, and it has been from the start. Sailing has always been considered a rich man’s sport, but the Sunfish removes that stigma from it.
The boat is inexpensive, easy to transport, easy to learn. The wind is free. Maintenance is almost nonexistent. Unlike golf, skiing, tennis and other sailing, there aren’t constant, expensive technological changes. You can race in it, loll in it, let children use it without anxiety. It’s just a great product. It’s good for everything.”
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.”
Alex Bryan spends his winters in Middlebury, his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, playing golf whenever he can—”except at night.” To Bryan, the phenomenon of the Sunfish still seems a little unreal, as if it had happened to someone else.
“Bud and I never had any real goals in business when we started,” he says. “We just wanted to be on our own. We were just looking for something to do, something fun. I always thought it was too bad we had to go into fiber glass. Everything changed then.
“It changed from the nice smells of sawdust and shavings and wood to something really stinky and smelly around the shop. Sure, the fiber glass took us to where we got to be a big operation, big and rich. But, somehow, it also took the fun out of it. I really missed the fun when it was gone.”
Of course, the fun wasn’t ever really gone—at least not for the satisfied owners of 200,000 Sunfish.