The Sunfish has its roots planted firmly in 1947 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Friends Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Cort” Heyniger (the Al and Cort in Alcort) pondered, “How to put a sail on a surfboard?” The answer involved a rejected design for American Red Cross waterfront rescue surfboards, leading to the Sailfish – a lateen rigged, flat-decked, plywood marvel. In 1951, Bryan’s pregnant wife found its flat deck somewhat uncomfortable. The addition of a cockpit and widening of the hull created the Sunfish. The logo was created by Heyniger, who traced a nickel and added fins, the tail and an eye. Early wood Sailfish and Sunfish were available assembled or as kits.
In 1959 the introduction of fiberglass and the low cost and ease of production led to the proliferation of Sunfish everywhere. Other improvements included aluminum spars replacing spruce, Dacron sails replacing cotton, ash replacing mahogany for tillers, resulting in increased speed, performance and reliability. Sunfish racing started almost as quickly as two or three boats came together – the first North American Championship was 1963, the first Midwinters was 1965. Bryan and Heyniger sold “Alcort Sailboats” to American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) in 1969.
AMF/Alcort Division hired Steve Baker, and later Lee Parks, to organize events and racing leading to establishment of a Class Association. For almost 20 years Sunfish racing and AMF/Alcort were synonymous. In 1971 the original brass rudder fittings were replaced by the spring-loaded kickup system developed for the Minifish. Two daggerboard shapes were introduced in the 1970′s: the “new” style, which was swept back, had less area, and proved unpopular with racers, and the “Barrington” style, developed by the frostbite fleet, which proved equally popular as the original “round” style. As the Class matured, it applied to the then – International Yacht Racing Union and gained International Class status on January 1, 1984.
In mid-1985, Irwin Jacobs of Minstar Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, bought AMF, intending to spin Alcort off, and saw no benefit in continuing to support the Class organization. On July 18, 1985 the International Sunfish Class Association assumed Class management from the manufacturer. On Febrruary 14, 1986 David Loveless and Jerry DeGarmo purchased the business, naming it Alcort Sailboats, Inc.
In October, 1986, Alcort Sailboats, Inc., agreed to work with Hans Fogh, then with North Sails, to develop a consistent and ultimate sail shape. At the same time, ultimate daggerboard and rudder shape development was launched. In 1988 Loveless and Degarmo sold the company to Pearson Yachts of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, led by J. Gordon Clayton. Pearson acquired rights to the Laser separately.
On September 19, 1988, Pearson introduced the current hull design, featuring: a 3-1/2″ wider and 1/4″ longer cockpit; a rolled flange replacing riveted aluminum rails; non-skid on the deck on either side of the cockpit; and a standard hiking strap. By January 1989, today’s aerodynamic Racing sail was approved. It is approximately 10% larger in area with shaping fullness, has a 20% bigger window, a Cunningham cringle, is made of longer-lived and more evenly stretching cloth, and reduced equipment differences. the daggerboard had further design attention in 1989. In 1991, Pearson filed for bankruptcy protection. SunfishLaser, Inc., led by Peter Johnstone, was formed in 1991 from the small boats assets of Pearson, with primary funding from North Marine Group, parent company of North Sails.
Production control implemented by “SLI” resulted in hull weight consistency of 128-130 pounds. On January 1, 1994, today’s 3-3/4″ longer and foil shaped daggerboard debuted. It is liked for being forgiving to bad tacks, quicker, with less side slipping, at a cost of the sailor having to work a little harder in a breeze. This saved racers from constant build up and refinishing of wooden boards to get them up to tolerances. Sail America inducted the Sunfish into The American Sailboat Hall of Fame in 1995 in recognition of “a boat that has earned lasting recognition by fostering new enjoyment and growth in the sport of sailing through excellent design and production ingenuity.” In March 1997, Sunfish Laser, Inc. sold the Sunfish to Vanguard Sailboats Inc., led by Chip Johns and Steve Clark. In 2007 Performance Sailcraft Europe and Vanguard merged to create Laser Performance. The boat continues to be manufactured by LP to this day.
In 2001, with over 300,000 boats worldwide, the Sunfish’s 50th birthday was celebrated at Newport, Rhode Island. An out-of-the-box Sunfish was sailed at the regatta to the win.
The International Class organization continues its development. Sunfish gained Pan American Games status in 1999 and has been in the Games since. This has caused significant development in Pan American countries. There are three continental and nine national championships regularly. Efforts are ongoing for events for cruisers and racers alike, including a continuing commitment to an annual World Championship. Sunfish sailors stay dedicated to the “fun in the sun” mantra! – Gail M. Turluck