My Class, My Story: The Sunfish

The endearing Sunfish, first built in 1955, has touched generations of recreational and racing sailors, and still tugs at heartstrings.

sunfish sailboat
Ask any sailor, and chances are, they've spent some time sailing in the Sunfish.Carlo Giambarresi/Morgan Gaynin

Barbara had never sailed until a week after we met in October 1962, when I invited her to go sailing on my Thistle off City Island, New York. It was blowing about 10 knots, and a friend joined us for additional ballast. ­Barbara was terrific. She hiked out, worked the jib sheet, and was enthralled with the spinnaker. She smiled the entire time.

Later, back onshore, my buddy whispered to me, “She’s a keeper.” Ten months later, we were married.

Six years and two children later, Barbara suggested I buy a Sunfish. I’d seen the multicolored sails racing on Peconic and Southold bays off the North Fork of Long Island, but I had never set foot on one. So in August 1968, we bought the first of 11 Sunfish our family would own over the next 49 years.

Months later, in April 1969, on a crisp spring day with a warm sun and 8-knot breeze, ­Barbara and I set off in our Sunfish across Little Peconic Bay. We were dressed for the occasion, and both of us were looking forward to our first sail of the season. It had been a long time since we’d sailed together, and if Barbara had any qualms, she concealed them well. We beam-reached across the bay, both of us enjoying it immensely. We landed at Nassau Point, and I pulled our Sunfish onto the beach so we could stretch our legs with a short walk. The air started to cool, and after 20 minutes, we opted to sail back.

The breeze hadn’t changed direction or strength, so I guided the boat into the water and pointed its bow out to sea.

The water was 6 inches deep at the stern and a foot deep at the bow. Barbara settled herself on the starboard, windward side with her feet in the cockpit while I held onto the traveler. The mainsheet hung loosely. As I turned around to reach for the boat’s daggerboard, which was lying on the sand about 3 feet away, I heard Barbara suddenly yell for help. A gust of wind was propelling her out to sea on a runaway Sunfish. I sprinted into the ice-cold water with the daggerboard in my hands. The boat was moving faster than I could run. I yelled, “Barbara, catch!” and tossed the daggerboard to her as hard as I could.

The board smacked the rudder and fell into the water behind the boat, but my catlike bride snatched it and dragged it into the boat. As she sailed farther away, I went from waist to ­shoulder deep in the frigid water.

“Put the daggerboard in the slot in the ­middle of the boat,” I hollered.

She did so immediately.

“Grab the rope that’s attached to the boom, and hold it loosely in your right hand,” I then yelled.

She did.

“Hold the steering stick in your left hand. You’re going to turn the boat around so it will head toward me.”

“OK,” said Ms. Cool. The boat was now about 30 feet away and sailing toward the horizon. “Keep the stick pointed in the middle of the boat, and slowly pull the rope toward you.” She did, and the boat accelerated away.

“On three, push the stick away from you as far as you can,” I called after her, my voice trailing away. “As the boat starts turning, move to the opposite side, and put the stick in your right hand and the rope in your left.” She followed directions perfectly, and the Sunfish came about.

As the boat started sailing toward me, though, Barbara’s foot became entangled in the mainsheet, and she slid out of the boat.

I thought for sure that this was the end of my marriage. I plunged into the water and took three or four strokes before the Sunfish sailed right to me. I pushed Barbara back on board, and with me holding onto the side, we sailed the 20 feet or so until I could stand and wade ashore. We made it home safely, in about a half-hour, but it was several years before Barbara agreed to go sailing with me again.

That summer, we joined Southold YC, where our children learned to sail and I helped co-found the “Annual World’s Longest ­Sunfish Race, Around Shelter Island, New York.” I joined the U.S. Sunfish Class Association, and as our children grew older, we participated in many regattas within 150 miles of Long Island. I’ll never forget when our two older boys, Joe and Sean, were 13 and 12 years old, and we competed in the North American Championships in Barrington, Rhode Island. They were racing with about 120 other boats in the ­consolation fleet. Sean was 90 pounds at the time. At the ­lobster dinner that night, we dined with several adult sailors, who talked about how they sat to leeward trying to blow air into their sails while some little kid was hiking out and sailing away from the fleet. That was Sean, of course, who ended up winning the race and finishing in the middle of the fleet with a score of something like 416 and 3/4 points.

After the children had grown, I teamed up with my sailing buddy, Dr. Dick Heinl. We traveled to regattas as far away as Mississippi and Texas, as well as throughout the Northeast. Among those on the Sunfish racing circuit, we became known as the “Thelma and Louise of the Viagra Set.”

Sunfish sailors always have a good time, and last summer, Dick, at age 91, the oldest competitor at the U.S. Masters Championship, received a standing ovation and a walker for his participation.

Over the years, Barbara accompanied me to regattas in Chicago, Upstate New York, Cape Cod and elsewhere. Eventually, she agreed to give Sunfish sailing another try.

We launched off Southold YC and frolicked for more than an hour, sailing on a beautiful and clear summer day with a gentle 10-knot breeze. On the way back to the beach, I asked how she felt.

“This is fun,” she answered. “Just the way I like it.”

“Then you’ll join me again sometime?”

“Yes,” she replied.

In those days, Southold YC had a small T dock extending about 10 feet into the water and then about 18 feet or so parallel to the beach. My plan was to sail alongside the dock and drop off Barbara.

The breeze was favorable for what I wanted to do, and as we approached, I noticed a few young children playing at one end of the parallel dock. I approached the other end. The water was shallow, and I asked Barbara to lift the daggerboard halfway. She did, and as we came slowly alongside the dock, one of the boys jumped right in front of the boat. I shoved the tiller hard away to avoid the child, and the boom swung over and hit the raised daggerboard. Barbara and I were both sitting to starboard, and the boat capsized in about 2 feet of water. Barbara did a backward somersault into the bay, stood up soaking wet with her hands on her hips, and glared at me in total disbelief.

She did forgive me, however, in the form of a terrific gift for which I shall forever be grateful: my email name “joesunfish.”

It’s the people and the stories that make each class unique. I invite you to share your story, your class. Write me at editor@sailingworld.com so I can share it and make old new again.

To read more stories about sailors who love their one-design classes, new and old, click here.