Review: The Small-Boat Revolution

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1998

Review: The Small-Boat Revolution

Single-handed sailing's golden age is upon us, thanks to the wonders of plastic
By Mike Steere


The "groove," sailors call a magic line of equipoise, where wind and sail and rudder all come into balance so that the boat wants to go where you want it to go. Get in the groove, and neither you nor the boat want to get out of it. Ever.

There are, of course, grooves within grooves. One of mine runs through sailing itself, and I happen to be in it right now, fiddling a tiny, single-sail vessel along the tony archipelago that hops and skips from Miami to Miami Beach. I thread through a harbor full of sailboats rigged for the open ocean. These cruisers, bristling with sea-butch stuff like self-steering vanes, radar, and solar panels, are a call to 10,000-mile dreams — weeks of blue water between landfalls, heroics in storms, my brother the albatross.

This may seem perfectly appealing — romantic even — but I'm less than interested in this version of sailing. For one thing, there's the big-boat cash bleed. Mere accessories on these magumbas go for more than the boat I'm sailing. For another, there's the work. Look at the guy on the hulkish cruising catamaran, who's been banging a hammer for hours, or the woman hauling around bedding on the swanky blue sloop. They're doing chores; I'm fooling around.

Real emancipation comes with a minimal but yare little sailboat — light enough for one adult to wrestle onto a car top. I own such a boat, but my rig is custom-built. Until recently, factory-built pickings were slim: You had the Sunfish, which dates to 1952, or the Laser, born in 1970, both of which are constructed of fiberglass, a material that's fast becoming outmoded in this realm.

Variety came only in the last few years, after boatbuilders started rotomolding plastic, more or less the way the Industrial Sanitation company makes Johnny On The Spot portable toilets. Kayak makers were already heavy into rotomolding when sailors essayed their first plastic designs. The new material launched a new fleet of boats that are fun and cost half what they would in fiberglass, thus allowing manufacturers to offer more capable riggings and more sophisticated hull designs. Now you can get a catamaran or trimaran for the same price as a traditional, single-hulled dinghy. Fancy mountain-bike dollars — several thousand, say — put you into a boat that is unprecedentedly friendly to use yet still entertaining. Unlike fiberglass, plastic hulls are stout enough to withstand bangs and scrapes on beaches and rocks, even neglect; plastic requires very little maintenance.

I sailed four plastic boats and put a Sunfish through its paces, for old time's sake, in a schizoid week of Florida weather in which the wind swung from 30-knot gusts to near calm. It's hard to compare these models because they're all so different. Which one suits you is more a matter of inner sailor than of competing features. One note worth mentioning: Each of these bright new boats is billed as a multipassenger craft, and in fact each can carry a couple of adults — just not necessarily in comfort. Generally, adult-and-child is the most viable two-person combo. The best combination of all, though, is you, yourself, and a stiff breeze.

Escape Captiva
One look at this boat's screaming yellow plastic hull in the water, and you can't help but have kiddie bathtub flashbacks — Rubber Ducky lives! But this ain't no tub toy. With 20 knots of wind, the Captiva ($2,200) puts its leeward shoulder into the bay, the hull growls like a rottweiler, and the bow bashes the waves to pieces. It doesn't try to capsize, though, and it gives a feeling of security I've never known aboard a dinghy. Quite simply, the Captiva does for sailing what shaped boards do for alpine skiing — it builds in proficiency and confidence that heretofore came only from experience. While the bow is V-shaped, the hull flattens toward the stern, giving the boat amazing stability under sail. Furthermore, the thing actually tells the clueless what to do. A built-in wind direction indicator, sort of a wind vane-cum-pie chart, points to colored sections that correspond to markings on the mast. Sheet in or out until the colors match, and just like that, you're sailing. Another brilliant original feature lets you roll the mainsail in or out like a window shade so you can reduce the sail area — "reef," in boatspeak — when the wind is too much for the sail's 62 square feet. For all its stability, you obviously give up potential speed. In all, the 11.5-foot Captiva is perfect for autodidacts who want to teach themselves sailing, parents who want to teach their kids, or anybody who prizes the essentials.

WindRider Trimaran
This tri-hull number poses an interesting metaphysical question: Can something float on water, fly on the force of the wind, and be something other than a sailboat? Blasting around in the WindRider ($3,350), I feel like I've a discovered a new water sport that has yet to be named — and that I'm crazy about. You sit face-forward in a fighter-jet-like cockpit, complete with an optional windshield, and steer with foot pedals, just like in a sea kayak. Changing tacks is a simple matter of steering across the wind's eye — no starboard-port leaping, boom-ducking, tiller-hand switching. However hard the wind whales on the sail, the WindRider keeps its secure wide-legged stance, like a huge, sci-fi water spider. It may be most appealing for those who've never sailed, who don't come with single-hulled preconceptions. Kayakers in particular feel immediately at home in the 16-foot, 1-inch boat whose mama was a sea kayak retrofitted with outriggers and a mast, stepped just forward of the cockpit. If you spring for the spray skirt ($85) or the windshield ($99), it metamorphoses into the coziest boat in this review. The craft weighs 250 pounds and knocks down easily, with the heaviest piece weighing just 100 pounds, so it's car-toppable. But the $700 trailer sure makes road trips less of a workout.

Laser Pico
Coming from the company that's still bringing us the Laser, it stands to reason that the Pico is just as manageably small (11.5 feet long) and light (148 pounds rigged) as its peers. But this $2,095 monohull aspires to largeness. Its ambitions show in two sail-tweaking adjustments that — depending on what mental tack you're prone to taking — will seem either too complex or just plain cool. I, for one, am jazzed by the authentic presence of the boom vang and the mainsail Cunningham, arcane controls that allow the master sailor to flatten or belly-out the sail. I never touch either one, but I like that I could. The Pico also has an optional, clip-on jib ($150), which adds 12 square feet of sail to the mainsail's 64, and I do find occasion to dink with the trim.

Though the hull's material may be nouveau, its fairly rounded shape harks back to traditional sailing dinghies. It's plenty stable, but does feel twitchier than the others. Of course twitchy, if you don't mind it, can feel like high spirits. And the Pico passes one of the toughest tests of sailing: It converts a puppy-dog breeze into great entertainment. Its maneuvering is so balanced and authoritative that I fantasize that I'm skippering a schooner. The fit, at least for my six-four frame, is a pinch, and in that light wind I have to sit on the bottom to balance the boat. If it fits, though, this is a winning first-boat buy, particularly for those intending to move on to yachts or high-performance small boats.

Hobie Cat Club Wave
The endo is my fault, not the Club Wave's. I have — duh — this poor 13-foot catamaran pointed way downwind, sail heeling out starboard, with the winds gusting better than 30 knots. A blast rear-ends the cat, which buries its bow beneath a little wave and flips it forward into a somersault. I'm swimming. But I'm delighted to discover how little effort it takes to right the Club Wave and remount. In the lore of Hobie Cat sailing, an outlaw branch to begin with, pitchpoling is something of a defining event, so I feel initiated. Avoiding a repeat, I go on to break all personal records for speed on a boat this small.

The Club Wave ($3,545) gets its oomph from 95 square feet of batten-stiffened sail, not that the slender plastic hulls do anything to slow it down. And though catamarans are notoriously poor at tacking upwind and balky at coming about, this model does a creditable job of both, perhaps because the forward mast placement makes for surer handling. With its padded seats on the hulls and a wide fabric trampoline in between, this is, moreover, the only one of these boats on which I like carrying a passenger. In fact, without a sailing buddy to help counterbalance the wind-push on the towering sail, I might do more unsynchronized swimming. The 225-pound Wave breaks down into six pieces, the heaviest weighing 75 pounds, making it quick work to hoist.

But for this hallowed craft — which taught the world to love tiny, cheap sailboats — there might not be any new plastic boats. The Sunfish ($2,638) began life in 1952 when two boatmakers working out of a Connecticut lumberyard grafted a cockpit onto a crude proto-sailboard for their pregnant wives, who wanted something more commodious. Recast in fiberglass, the Sunfish became the hula hoop of the sea.

I expect my time on it to be more valedictory than fun, but the Sunfish holds its own fairly well against all these whiz kids. Its flattish hull is deft enough at coming about. And the 75-square-foot lateen sail gives it formidable power, which is great so long as you don't need to back off on it — you can't reduce the sail area or really reshape it. As for retro charm, this model is hot-looking, with Pontiac GTO stripes — red-white-red — running the boat's 13-foot, 9-inch length.

Weightwise, the Sunfish competes with its plastic grandkids — 129-pound hull, plus 15 pounds of rigging. And it may be the fastest-rigging craft in boatdom. But on a pure cost/benefit basis, any one of the plastic boats will easily edge out the Sunfish: Fiberglass simply can't take the same sort of beating. Yet I can't help but respect this boat. I, like a zillion others, first took sheet and tiller in hand in a Sunfish. Indeed, ask its makers and they'll admit that today's buyers are Sunfish veterans. But for the rest of the sailing world, the future really is in plastics.

Where To Find It
Escape, 800-724-5663; Hobie Cat, 800-462-4349; Sunfish/Laser, 401-683-0960; WindRider, 800-311-7245

Mike Steere wrote about the Dirt Camp mountain-bike school in the May issue of Outside.

Photographs by Andrew Kaufman

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