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DeWitt Dinghy

2001 June 7
The best thing about the small lake was that there was a big fleet of Optimists, and it was aboard one of these blunt-bowed boats that I first learned to sail. The pleasure of casting off and heading for the far shore has never left me. The boxy Optimist provided a safe platform for many years of daydreaming, and today, with a few circumnavigations in big boats under my belt, I can still look back and be thankful for small, safe boats.

That familiar feeling came back with a rush the moment I stepped aboard the DeWitt Dinghy last summer in California. Granted, San Francisco Bay is a long way from my homeland, but the familiarity and freedom I felt as I sailed the DeWitt Dinghy on smooth water felt like home. I was grateful for the memory it provoked, although not exactly pleased to note that my knees no longer withstood crouching for long periods of time.

The DeWitt Dinghy is a new twist on an old idea, and if the dinghy's designer, Jim DeWitt, has his way, there will be many of these squared-off yellow boats on waterfronts around the world. To reach a broad market De-Witt produces his dinghy in three styles, the first of which is called the Competition model, and is for more advanced sailors with a two-piece carbon mast and a mainsail cut for speed. The second, called the Sport, is targeted at the family sailor and comes with an aluminum mast and a mainsail that has vertical battens, allowing it to be rolled around the mast to reduce sail area. Finally for the real novice, there is the Resort model with basic features and simple fittings for easy sailing. It is here that DeWitt hopes to have the biggest impact as new sailors try out sailing for the first time. He claims the boat is safe and stable for novices, unswampable, indestructible and therefore perfect for schools and resorts.

DeWitt has not invented something new. He has just taken a good idea and improved upon it. DeWitt produces his boats from polyethylene in a unique and interesting manner that he has named "Rototuff." The boats are manufactured using a two-tier grade of rotomolding that involves a strategically-timed infusion of an inner foam layer. The result: higher strength, more uniform thickness, torsional rigidity and longevity. In other words, a boat that is light enough for two kids to carry, but one that can sail with two adults and is rugged enough to bounce off rocks, docks and other boats. The dinghies can perform with stability and look good for many years with little maintenance. In fact an occasional hose down with fresh water is all that is required to keep the boat looking good.

In place of the Opti's gaff-rigged Dacron mainsail, the DeWitt Dinghy sports a high-tech, high-roach, full-batten main on a tapered carbon fiber mast (Competition model only). The shiny fabric looks a bit incongruous against the blunt lines of the boat, but once you sheet the sail in and feel the boat heel to a new breeze, you are glad for modern ideas. The sail provides plenty of power, and during my test sail, I soon had the boat skimming across the water in just a few knots of wind. Any water that came over the bow was quickly removed by the self-bailer. The performance was definitely where the similarity with the Optimist ended.

DeWitt is well known in sailing circles, but it is not for his boat design expertise. It is instead for his vivid paintings that adorn many walls. He singlehandedly thrust marine art into the public eye by capturing the excitement and grandeur of yacht racing with bold colors and swift brush strokes. There is passion in his paintings, and there is no less passion in his desire to see that every family that lives near a body of water will have a chance to experience the magic of sailing. The DeWitt Dinghy is relatively inexpensive, easy to transport, easy to rig, and fun and safe to sail. If you happen to capsize, the boat is easily righted. It will not sink, and best of all it has a dry cubby just big enough for your cellular phone, dark glasses and sunscreen. There is also a handy place built into the hull where you can keep your cold drink so it won't spill. Add sunshine and a warm wind at your back, and what else do you need to get hooked on the freedom and excitement of sailing?