Outside magazine, June 1995
God does not deduct from a man's life the hours spent sailing. At least that's what the bumper stickers, mugs, and needlepoint pillows in Florida's beach shops have always said. For years, however, I considered that aphorism only a half-truth. Everything was bliss once you were skimming along the water, but when it came to transporting, rigging, or climbing up the learning curve of small sailboats and sailboards, I often thought God was deducting from our lives--in double time.
But nowadays such vessels are as approachable as your local ATM. Starter sailboards require nary a knot to put on water and are at once benign enough to learn on yet sophisticated enough to grow into. Small sailboats have a minimum of rigging, won't pitch you in a gust, and come at a fraction of the price of any other sit-down sailing craft. Of course, both sailboards and small sailboats can be transported on a roof rack.
To make things even easier, most neophyte sailors need only consider buying from one sailboard category: longboards. Not to oversimplify, but consider a longboard as any model that has a centerboard. With that keel in the middle, beginners and intermediates get a modicum of additional stability and have an easier time navigating in flat water or chop.
However, there are still some details to consider, namely board volume, sail size, and local weather. Since board volume roughly equals flotation, and flotation has a lot to do with how easily a board can plane, the general rule is that the heavier you are, the more board volume you'll want. If you're under 140 pounds you needn't worry--you can float on a 135-liter wisp of plastic. But anyone heavier will want more; a 170-pound sailor will find an 11- or 12-foot, 200-liter-plus board more to his liking, and it can still be plenty fast.
Weather and sail size pretty much go together: The bigger the winds you'll be sailing in, the smaller the sail you'll want to handle. A five-meter slalom sail, with a few camber inducers in place to help catch the wind, will let you get up some speed in moderate wind and is easy to uphaul. Six-meter and bigger slalom sails are better for consistently light winds or for the occasional big sailor who can control a lot of sail in gusts. But this advice is only for starters--ultimately, boardsailors end up with a quiver of sails, including slalom sails, wave sails, and race sails, all in different sizes for different conditions.
Enough shop talk. Let's move on to four boards that are easy to get onto, as well as grow into (prices include sail rigs).
The Mistral One Design ($2,199) may be the designated sailboard for the 1996 Olympics, but it's also proof that novices and elite athletes can find happiness on the same plank. A beginner can ride the One Design, with its sliding mast track and multiple footstraps, right over its generous, 25-inch wide center. As that same sailor improves, she can garner plenty of speed by setting sail and stance toward the tail. The One Design board is stable (12 feet, two inches long; 235-liter volume), but its concave bow and stern get it planing in a heartbeat. And at just over 34 pounds, the Mistral feels decently light underneath you. However, many beginners will find the seven-meter sail to be cumbersome; swap it for the company's 6.6-meter model.
Mistral's Escape ($1,675) is almost as stable as the One Design but will suit a lighter athlete. It's actually wider than its Olympic-bound sibling by about half an inch, but it's only 11 feet, three inches long and has a volume of just 190 liters. With a squatter design and a nearly flat bottom, the board needs a bit more wind to plane. But when you slide the mast and standard 6.4-meter sail way back and get the board up on its heels, it's sprightly, and there's a slight vee in the stern to give you slalom-type steering. Weighing only 29.8 pounds, the Escape is also good for learning shortboard techniques like water starts and jibes.
The Bic Rumba has the potential to be more playful still. A quick glance at the stats shows the Rumba to be a great value in a longboard for a lightweight sailor or even a teenager: For $999 you get a 24-pound setup that's stable (23 inches wide), short (ten feet, two inches), and has a smallish sail (5.5 meters) and a low volume (150 liters). Indeed, with a centerboard steadying the way, the ride is solid, and I loved the screw-down adjustability of the battens--it's a foolproof system for tightening up the sail. But the centerboard is removable, and when you replace it with an optional gasket ($18) the Rumba becomes a slalom board: The somewhat aggressive, squared-off rails suddenly help you make snap turns and tacks. Only heavy beginners, who will find the svelte board unsteady, should steer clear.
The F2 Xantos 310 ($2,190) is a genuine slalom board, but an athletic beginner or intermediate will find it sufficiently stable and addictingly fast. The F2's nimble capabilities have to do with its tossable dimensions (ten feet, two inches long, 19.5 pounds) and the unusual distribution of its 143 liters of volume: There's barely any mass in the nose, lots in the beamy (24-inch) midsection. Thus I found the F2, which was wearing a 6.4-meter slalom sail, easy to jibe and quick to plane, even in moderate ten-knot winds. Some beginners may find the board skittish, but if you can get past the initial uncertainties, the Xantos is one of the liveliest rides around.
In the interest of user-friendliness I drafted a friend who has little tiller-in-hand experience to assist me. The first tests for each boat went well: With two of us sharing the work, all vessels were easy to lift and took less than 30 minutes to rig.
Steep chines and a beamy, five-foot-wide figure make the Sunfish Laser Zuma ($2,800) as unintimidating as a sailboat gets. It's stable, sits high in the water, and without any cleats has nothing to catch the sail and tip you disconcertingly in a gust. In light, eight- to ten-knot winds my friend was quickly comfortable with tiller in one hand and mainsheet in the other. The Zuma also offers many thoughtful details. The 12-foot, nine-inch craft comfortably holds two, the rounded seat tanks (the decking to either side of the cockpit) are wide and comfortable, and the deck fittings are flush--there's nothing for anything to snag on.
Switching to Sunfish Laser's Laser ($3,620), my friend came to a couple of quick conclusions: "It's wet. And it's fast." With the standard 76-square-foot sail (about 15 percent more sail area than on the Zuma), relatively narrow beam (four and a half feet), and quick-planing hull, the hugely popular Laser offers a lively ride. That can be scary for those just starting out--the 13-foot, nine-inch boat initially felt a little unwieldy to my stand-in skipper--but that's why the company has recently begun offering the Laser with 51- and 62-square-foot sails for kids, lighter sailors, and wary beginners. Such versatility makes the Laser the small sailboat to grow into. With the boat also holding down its own international sailing class, and with Laser racing debuting in next year's Olympics, it's evident that the boat's speed is limited only by the proficiency of the sailor.
The new and downsized Hobie Wave ($2,995) is as much about kicking back as about catching wind. The 13-foot catamaran has a seven-foot beam and a generous trampoline, which accommodates a small family or up to four adults, and Hobie has installed built-in drink holders for four of your favorite beverages. However, if you want to sail, the company couldn't have made it simpler: The Wave's sail forgoes a boom for a lightweight batten, so there's no fear of getting thwacked on the head during jibes. One handle controls both rudders, which also kick up, and thanks to the Wave's wide, floaty hulls, it's nearly impossible to pitchpole the boat. The company even throws in a how-to video with your purchase--how to sail the Wave, that is. The tanning is left to your own trial and error.
Nancy K. Crowell is the former editor of Windsurfer magazine. She currently writes and makes films in Florida.