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We’ve seen the America’s Cup winner before—25 years ago

2021 June 1

New ESCAPE 75. First customer is TNZ.”

That was the headline above two photos that appeared on a Facebook page last fall. One of the pictures was of the just-launched 75-foot Team New Zealand America’s Cup boat. The other was of an 11.5-foot sailboat launched 25 years earlier. Except for the size difference, they look pretty much alike,  which was the point of the ironic headline. The little boat, designed in 1996 as an easy-to-sail daysailer for novices, flaunted the same flared chine swooping in a dramatic curve from transom to stem that would be seen on the winner of the 2021 America’s Cup. 

The boat that pioneered that look was an Escape dinghy, the brainchild of one the most innovative minds in the world of sailing, that of Garry Hoyt. 

Hoyt was so far ahead of conventional thinking in sailing that it would not have been surprising if his Escape had foils like the TNZ boat. Perhaps he thought of a foiling dinghy and rejected the idea because the market wasn’t quite ready for it.

He knew about the market because selling things was one of the compartments in the crowded box of expertise Hoyt had assembled as an international manager for the giant ad agency Young and Rubicam, world champion sailor and Olympic competitor, yacht designer, widget inventor and book author. 

Garry Hoyt, now 91 years old, is an authentic Renaissance man of sailing.

The Escape was his answer to what he viewed as the main impediment to the growth of sailing as a recreational pastime—its perceived difficulty. 

The Escape was simple to sail, but that didn’t mean it was a simple sailboat. A fair amount of technology went into making it a boat the uninitiated could jump onto and sail away.

The mast was an elegantly tapered carbon fiber spar with an integral roller-furling drum. The single sail slipped over the mast and was held in place with velcro. The boom, rather than being attached to the mast, was curved down at its forward end and was secured in a mounting in the deck. A device just forward of the mast featured a wind indicator that spun over a color-coded diagram that matched colors circling the base of the boom to indicate proper trim for the apparent wind angle. It struck me as something that would confuse more than help sailing tyros, but Hoyt thought the gizmo took so much of the mystery out of sail trim that he named it the AutoSail system.

Those TMZ/Escape photos were posted by Peter Johnstone, a member of the prolific boat-producing Johnstone clan who was head of the Sunfish Laser operation that marketed the Escape. He told me recently he always wanted to work with Hoyt to develop a bigger version of the Escape. But probably not a 75-footer, I’m guessing.

In 1968, Johnstone told the New York Times, “Sailing never moved forward after the 60s. All that we’re about is removing the barriers to entry. Our whole schtick is to make it so simple that anybody who thought about sailing would try it.”

Back then, I had been thinking about sailing for decades and doing it in some fairly sophisticated boats, but when Garry described his Escape invention to me, I bought one of the first off the production line. It spent many summers on our beach, always rigged and ready to go for a jaunt on Lake Michigan. That was one of its charms, thanks to a sail stored on the mast that could be unfurled with the pull of one of the two lines on board (the other was the sheet). 

The boat, alas, now resides in a landfill. Escapes were built of rotomolded plastic, which kept the price down at the cost of limited longevity.

But I couldn’t bear to part with that elegant carbon fiber mast, so it survives in the storage building that serves as a museum for my ever-growing collection of disused sailing pieces and parts. The Escape boom is there too.

Among the 10 patents Hoyt holds is one for the Hoyt Jim Boom, which is a variation of that clever boom on the Escape. Designed for cruising boats, the carbon fiber boom makes the jib self-tacking and acts like a vang when the headsail is eased. 

I saw firsthand how effective it is while racing with Hoyt in the Jib and Main Division in the New York Yacht Club’s Spring Regatta at Newport, Rhode Island. On downwind legs, while other boats waddled with eased, twisted genoas luffing, ours sailed with alacrity, its jib perfectly trimmed for the broad reach, poled out with its clue held down by the Jib Boom. A trophy resulted.

That boat was an Alerion 38 yawl, another sailing product that bore the Hoyt marque. For more than a decade starting in 1994, Hoyt managed the marketing and expansion of the Alerion line of sailboats famed for their gorgeous classic lines married to high-performance underbodies.

That wasn’t his first foray into the cruising boat market. In 1976, he founded Freedom Yachts and introduced the Freedom 40, a cat ketch with freestanding masts that led to a series of Freedom boats that demonstrated the appeal of offshore boats free of jibs and standing rigging.

That was the same year he made his third appearance racing in the Finn Class in the summer Olympics. As in his competition in the 1968 and 1972 sailing Olympics, he represented  Puerto Rico, where he lived at the time. Between Olympic campaigns, he won the Sunfish world championship.

In this busy life he made time to write four books. He also wrote a short essay whose stylish language about the philosophy of sailing belies the fact it was written by a hard-core sailing competitor and savvy businessman and salesman.

He starts the piece entitled The Freedom of Sail with this handsome sentence: “The Freedom of Sail is not strained, it flows freely in matching degrees to the skill and passion of the hand that seeks it.” In another, he observes: “Sailing’s total reliance on natural power breeds a sensory intimacy with the surrounding aquatic world and . . . innate respect for clean air and water.” He concludes, “The Freedom of Sail can be both a link to a storied past and an enduring passport to new horizons.”

Renaissance man of sailing, indeed.