There are two new names in the American Sailing Hall of Fame. Probably to many of you Alexander “Red” Bryan (1913-2002) and Cortlandt “Bud” Heyniger (1913-1992) won’t say anything, but they are the inventors of what, data in hand, is the world’s most popular sailboat. Which is not – surprise – the Laser(we were wrong too, let’s make amends!). We are talking about the legendary Sunfish. His story is a good one, and we let Gary Jobson, one of the best-known faces in international nautical journalism, a great sailor and president of the U.S. National Sailing Hall of Fame, tell it.
THE STORY OF THE MYTHICAL SUNFISH
“Any place where boats can sail, you will find Sunfish. More than 330,000 of these drifts (4.19 x 1.24 m) have been built over the years. Not surprisingly, this is the largest class of sailboats in the world, and it still continues to grow.
A pair of carpenters in their 30s were looking for earnings as the United States was recovering from World War II. Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Bud” Heyniger had first worked on an iceboat in the 1930s, then turned their attention to a small paddleboard to be used for the Red Cross as a rescue craft. Their first project was to put a sail on a surfboard, but the idea was rejected.
It was 1947 and the two partners worked on a flat deck boat made of plywood with a lateen sail, ideal for self-building. After testing the boat, they founded the Alcort Company (a crass of their names) and named their new project “Sailfish.” A great friendship had quickly developed between the two, and they loved working with wood. In addition, both were skilled in business.
AS FROM “SAIL” IT SWITCHED TO “SUN”
The boat was a surprise success because it was affordable, easy to launch, fun to drive, and inexpensive. However, Bryan’s pregnant wife, Aileen, felt uncomfortable sitting on the flat deck with water flowing over it. So, in 1952, Bryan and Heyniger redesigned the hull with a cockpit with enough room for the skipper’s legs. The new boat was easier to maneuver and sales took off. The new version was named “Sunfish.” Alcort offered both Sailfish and Sunfish as wooden kits. Then came the fiberglass.
Alcort chose this material for the mass production of its boats, even though members personally preferred wood. Dacron fabric replaced cotton for the sails. That was the end of the kit supply and the beginning of the steadily increasing sales of the Sunfish. The first Sunfish was sold for $195. One of the most famous images of a Sunfish depicted him sailing downwind in a strong breeze in front of a ship in 1976. The boat was pleasant to drive and glided easily over the water.
It was inevitable that sailors would want to compete with the Sunfish. In 1963 the first North American championship was held, and in 1970 a world championship was organized. Both events are still popular today.
The slogan “Fun in the Sun” was replicated 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 reality was called AMF Alcort. The Sunfish brand has been acquired several times over the years.
The class association has updated the rigging, rudder, centreboard and accessories to keep the boat current. The original vision of Al Bryan and Cort Heyniger has held for 70 years. The Sunfish has prompted both beginners and international champions to sail and compete in this class. In 1982 Bryan told a Sports Illustrated writer, ‘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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