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Marji, though no spring chicken, knows how to show a sailor a good time

2011 October 3

You can count on it. After the Chicago to Mackinac Island race you'll run into someone on the island who will regale you with a tale of how his boat's electronic instruments blew out right after the start, and how he and his mates soldiered on with nothing more than a Windex, a handheld GPS and their intuitive sailing ability, and how they were certain at one point that they were winning their division, and how they would have finished in the money if they hadn't had the bad luck of sailing into a windless hole under the bridge, and how in spite of the disappointing finish the experience proved once again that if you're a good seat-of-the-pants sailor you don't need expensive electronics.
Right, and the tooth fairy makes house calls.

If seat-of-the-pants sailing means the tactician has a computer in his back pocket (easily done these days of iPhone-size data-processing devices), then it might work for racing. Otherwise offshore racing boats without electronic brains to tell the humans on board what wind angles, boat speeds and courses to sail in ever-changing conditions are destined to be also-rans.

Following the computer's instructions gets the most out of a boat, but with its brow-furrowing, eye-straining concentration it's harder than intuitive sailing. What's more, it's not nearly as much fun. I was reminded of that by a sailboat so simple it doesn't even have that most basic sailing instrument, a yarn telltale.

Here's how it happened:

My son-in-law Richard is a professional sailor who knows all about computer-assisted sailing on big racing boats, but he has a soft spot for simple small boats. He was beachcombing in search of a washed-ashore racing buoy when he ran into a fellow who not only had the buoy but something else that caught Richard's eye-a vintage Sunfish.

The boat had been used by his kids, the owner explained, but they'd left home long ago and the Sunfish, named Marji, hadn't gotten wet in decades. Still, he said, he was reluctant to part with it. Five hundred dollars overcame his reluctance and Marji ended up on the beach at what we call our family's summer camp.

Marji then proceeded to show us the joys of plain sailing. She can be rigged and launched in a few minutes, and just like that you're on the water-almost literally on the water with this boat that is basically a board with a shallow foot well. She gives the sensation of speed in almost any kind of breeze, rewards experts and tyros alike and will do just about anything you ask her to do without much effort by either boat or sailor.         The high point of the summer for Marji and our sailing clan was a day when Lake Michigan was in boisterous mood and the Sunfish took grandson Will, 13, on a memorable ride surfing on cresting waves with her lateen sail eased out like an open barn door catching tons of breeze. We could hear Will's excited whooping on shore over the roar of the surf.

It was good day for Will's 8-year-old brother Jack too. He now figures to get custody of the 10-foot Walker Bay sailing dinghy that his big brother had been sailing until he was spoiled by the flashier Sunfish.

Flashy? Now there's a surprising word to describe an old girl like Marji. Her serial number revealed that her birthdate was in 1967. When Richard found her she had a shoestring for an outhaul and a worn three-strand nylon mainsheet. She may look her age, but she doesn't act it. Imagine-a 44-year-old boat, built from a design that is at least 65 years old, producing all of that sailing fun.

For the legions of Sunfish sailors among SAILING's readers, of course, I'm preaching to the choir. This may well be the most loved sailboat ever produced. More than half a million have been built. In fact, though I came to Sunfish sailing only recently, I'm a member of the choir. In February 1995, at the sailboat show in the old convention hall on the Atlantic City boardwalk, I announced (from the deck of an America's Cup boat that was the centerpiece of the show) that the Sunfish had been selected as the first boat to be inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame.

I recall the deliberations of the Hall of Fame selection committee (all sailing  journalists, a contentious lot). There was plenty of disagreement about the other boats that would be part of the inaugural induction (they turned out to be the Triton, Bermuda 40, J/24 and Catalina 22), but about the Sunfish there was instant consensus.

The first Sunfish were built of wood in the early 1950s by their inventors, iceboaters Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger. The first fiberglass model appeared in 1959. It would be replicated hundreds of thousands of times as the Sunfish became the world's most popular sailboat, taking sailing, as the Hall of Fame citation recounted, "out of the yacht clubs to the beaches and public launch ramps."
Complicated sailing has its own rewards, but when you are skimming across the water on a Sunfish, simplicity seems the product of greater genius than computerized instruments and exotic materials.

Alex and Cort (their company was named Alcort) made rigging the Sunfish simple by giving it a short unstayed mast to support a lateen sail permanently attached to its two booms. The lateen rig is an ancient idea that can outperform some modern ones. It offers a big expanse of sail area, but naturally depowers when the sheet is eased. The boardlike hull planes in a jiffy, but is surprisingly stable. If it flips, say while jibing that big sail in a big breeze, the boat is easy to right.

So simple. So rewarding.

Despite the skepticism earlier in this column, I'm really a big fan of seat-of-the-pants sailing-as long as I can put the seat of my pants on Marji.