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Sunfish

There are two new names in the American Sailing Hall of Fame. Alexander “Red” Bryan (1913-2002) and Cortlandt “Bud” Heyniger (1913-1992) probably won’t mean anything to many of you, but they are the inventors of what is, according to the figures, the most popular sailing boat in the world. Which is not – surprise – the Laser (we were wrong too, let’s make amends!). We are talking about the legendary Sunfish. We’ll let Gary Jobson, one of the most famous faces in international nautical journalism, a great sailor and president of the US National Sailing Hall of Fame, tell us the story.

THE STORY OF THE LEGENDARY SUNFISH

Just about every place you will find a sailboat, a fleet of International Sunfish Class dinghies will be nearby. Over 330,000 of these nifty small boats have been built. It is the largest class of sailboats in the world, and it keeps growing.

Alexander "Al" Bryan and Cortlandt "Bud" Heyniger

Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Bud” Heyniger

A couple of carpenters in their thirties were looking to find some additional income as the United States was recovering from World War II. Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Bud” Heyniger first worked on an ice boat in the 1930s but shifted to working on a small paddle board to be used by the Red Cross as a rescue craft. Their first concept was to put a sail on a surfboard, but that idea was rejected.

a 1963-built Sunfish

a 1963-built Sunfish

The year was 1947 and the partners worked on a flat decked vessel made out of plywood with a lantern rig to hold the sail. They thought aspiring sailors would be able to build their own hulls. Once they got the boat sailing they formed the Alcort Company (a combination of their names) and called their new design the “Sailfish.” The pair were friends from their earliest days and enjoyed working with wood. Both were skilled at business.

THE “SAIL”-“SUN” EVOLUTION

The boat was a surprise hit because it was affordable, easy to launch, fun to sail and inexpensive. However, Bryan’s pregnant wife, Aileen Shields Bryan, was uncomfortable sitting on the flat deck with water rushing over it. In 1952 Bryan and Heyniger redesigned the hull with a cockpit with room for sailor’s legs. The new design was easier to sail and sales took off. The new version was called the “Sunfish.” Alcort offered both the Sailfish and Sunfish as wooden kits. In the late 1950s a new material, called fiberglass, was developed. Alcort embraced the material for mass producing their boats even though the partners personally preferred wood. Dacron fabric replaced cotton for the sails. It was the end of providing kits and the beginning of ever increasing sales of the Sunfish. The first Sunfish sold for $195. One of the most famous images of a Sunfish was sailing downwind in a stiff breeze in front of a tall ship in 1976. The boat was a joy to sail and easily planed on top of the water.

sunfish competition

“WE WANTED TO CREATE SOMETHING FUNNY”

It was inevitable that sailors wanted to race the Sunfish. In 1963 the first North American Championship was held, and a World Championship was run in 1970. Both events are well attended to this day.

sailing boats

An old Sunfish advert. There was also Minifish, for children.

The slogan “Fun in the Sun” was splattered on T Shirts, cars and of course, boats. Alcort continued to grow and Bryan and Heyniger sold the company to the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) in 1969. The new entity was called AMF Alcort. The Sunfish brand has been acquired several times over the years. The class association has updated its rig, rudder, dagger board and fittings to keep the boat current. The original vision of Al Bryan and Cort Heyniger has held strong for seventy years.

The Sunfish has attracted novices and international champions to sail and race this enduring class. In 1982 Bryan said to a writer from Sports Illustrated, “Bud and I never had any real goals in business. We just wanted to be on our own. We were just looking for something to do, something fun.”


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