If one were strolling the shoreline of Bristol, Rhode Island, in late 2020, one might have admired a small craft gliding across Narragansett Bay. Low to water and swift, it was a dinghy for sure. But what the heck was it?
A triangular lateen-looking sail with thick red, white and blue stripes might lead one to believe it to be a Sunfish. Or even a Sailfish. Nope. It was the new Fulcrum Speedworks Rocket prototype. It may have looked old school from afar, but as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving.
The prototype launched that day by Dave Clark, the young entrepreneur and boatbuilder responsible for the pint-sized UFO foiling catamaran, has plenty of back story, and we’ll get to that shortly, but first, we must face the big colorful elephant in the room. Yes, that would be the Sunfish, the most iconic recreational centerboard dinghy of all time.
The Rocket is kind of like a Sunfish, but is not a Sunfish. It is a Sunfish that has been modified in very targeted and specific ways to make it perform better while maintaining simplicity and low cost. Steve Clark, David’s father and co-developer, says this is the combination of attributes sailors and small-craft dealers across the United States are seeking today. If anyone would know, it would be Steve, past president of Vanguard Sailboats, once the dominant builder of one-design dinghies in the States—including the Sunfish. According to both father and son, the Sunfish’s builder, LaserPerformance, has not met this demand and there is an opportunity to deliver “an alternate fundamental product in the marketplace.”
“With the UFO, we already have a very technologically advanced and different product,” says Dave Clark. “It sells well to people who want tectonic change. We wanted to add a boat for those who the UFO doesn’t appeal to as much. The sailing market on this continent gets showered with ‘smarter’ boats time and time again, and for hundreds of thousands of board boat purchases, those people have passed.”
Why, Clark then posits, do so many sailors today still choose to buy iconic boats of the past— new, used, beaters and all? That’s easy: “Simplicity, safety, ease of use, cost.”
With a demand accelerated by a pandemic-induced rush on small boats, Clark’s company, Fulcrum Speedworks, had been looking for an opportunity to add something to its line. The opportunity presented itself when he came across a collection of small-boat tooling listed on craigslist. A score he identified in the pile of molds was the tools for the 14-foot Howmar Phantom. He and a buddy promptly rented a Penske truck and beelined to Bethel, Maine, where he forked over $1,800, dragged molds out of the barn and drove away with a bed full of fiberglass history and the start of his next venture.
“There’s always been a need for a new-model year of this thing,” says Clark who has an obvious fondness for what he says is “a uniquely potent example” of a good board-boat hull. “For those who don’t know the Howmar Phantom, it’s the second-most successful board boat ever introduced—after the Sunfish,” he says. “They sold about 1,000 of them per year for about a decade through the late 70s and early 80s.”
The elder Clark, a student and professor of high-performance sailing, says the Sunfish, Phantom and others of its ilk fall under the category of “board boat,” which he likens to the various scows preferred by American lake and flat-water sailors. “[Board boats and scows] are hard bilged with a bow whose primary entry angle is parallel to the water plane,” he says. “They could also be considered sharpies. In particular, V-bottom sharpies like Lightnings, Windmills and Snipes, but the low freeboard and beam-to-length ratio place them more in the scow genus. Board boats and scows both feature generous low-aspect-ratio sail plans. The result is a high sail area-to-displacement ratio and sail-area-to-wetted-surface ratio with a very low center of effort.”
Translation: they’re wickedly versatile boats across the wind range.
The Phantom was marketed as the recreational family sportsboat at the time, Clark says. During the 1970s, there were numerous attempts to capture a share of the board-boat market and take a slice out of Sunfish’s dominance. Builders littered the continent with cheap clones that were not as good; the Howmar Phantom was an exception. “It was not just a cheaper Sunfish but a slightly larger board boat that brought new performance and features to the party,” says Steve Clark. “I could design a new hull, and I flatter myself that it would be better than the Phantom hull, but we would have to go to some effort to prove that claim.”
So rather than start from scratch with an entirely new design, they simply improved upon the Phantom. “We saw the opportunity to salvage a storied and well-thought hull, and reconfigure it within its own legacy,” says Dave Clark. “This boat was destined to be constantly improved and renewed, so we are carrying on that journey into the 21st Century.”
How so? You have to see it to believe it, as I did on a recent raw winter’s night, meeting Dave Clark after dark at the family farm in Warren, Rhode Island. Inside a barn, alongside a half-restored wooden International 14 and an almost complete new International Canoe, the white-hulled Rocket prototype sat on its dolly, its sail and spars piled atop, ready to launch at any whim. The most noticeable feature is the deck layout—Clark did away with the Phantom’s crammed and enclosed cockpit and stretched it wide open from the centerboard trunk all the way to the transom. Through saving weight with a modern laminate and materials and ensuring it has durability (and yes, he smacked the deck forcefully to show me it could take a bit of blunt-force trauma), Clark says he now has a board boat that “will perform better and be a better family boat than before.” Better foils will certainly help, too.
In the process of 3D scanning the tooling, he says, they started to question a lot of the highly-improvable areas of the boat. Consequently, he butchered the old deck mold to get what he wanted: a more comfortable, more practical, and better-looking craft. The original Phantom eventually weighed upwards of 130 pounds (dry) so Clark set out to shave that down considerably, for the obvious reason that a proper beach boat better be easy to move around and put atop the family wagon.
“Make something light and strong and you’ve already done the best thing for it,” he says. Using a vacuumed-bagged vinylester resin and thermoplastic honeycomb core laminate, he has the hull weight reduced to a respectable 90 pounds.
Light. Strong. What else could he possibly do to redeliver a universal centerboard dinghy that a wide-range of sailors can relate to? That’s easy. He preserved the lateen rig (although, technically, Steve Clark points out, it’s a crab-claw sail), iconic and simple in its setup and trim: one mast, two lightweight spars linked with Spectra strops and a single halyard. “There were countless conversations about putting something more modern on it,” he says. “I can walk up to this thing and start it like a lawnmower. Pull the string, cleat it, and off we go. There’s not a simpler rigging system on the planet than a lateen mainsail. It’s a throwback but for a really good reason.”
Clark says the first hulls of the Fulcrum Rocket will be punched out in January 2021 and he’s already taking orders ($4,600 including North Sails Dacron sail and Fulcrum-made dolly). He’s forecasting a production run of several per week, so step right up, he says, because this Rocket launch is going to the stratosphere. And if, by chance, your goal is to go higher, ask him about the optional “Interceptor” upgrade…the one with the rudder elevators. Because good is never good enough.