Outside magazine, July 1998
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.
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 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.
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.
Mike Steere wrote about the Dirt Camp mountain-bike school in the May issue of Outside.
Photographs by Andrew Kaufman