by Kent and Audrey Lewis
Seventy years ago, LIFE put the Alcort company on the map when the magazine featured the Sailfish sailboat in an article titled “World’s Wettest, Sportiest Boat,” published in the August 15, 1949 issue. Two years earlier, Alcort had expanded their market from iceboats to the little Sailfish, a lateen-rigged wooden hull that measured just under 12′. The boat was easy to handle, affordable, and offered a sporty, splashy ride to America’s post-war market of recreational sailors.
In 1946, Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger had combined bits of their first names to create Alcort, Inc., and the first sailboat that they designed, in 1947, was the 11′ 7″ Sailfish, built in Waterbury, Connecticut. The Sailfish had a beam of 31-1/2″, a crew capacity of 300 lbs, and weighed 82 lbs. The volume of air enclosed by the hull and deck made the boat virtually unsinkable. A 65-square-foot lateen sail provided ample power.
The boat gained immediate popularity after the LIFE article, and within a few years the original design was lengthened to 13′ 7″ and widened a bit to 35-1/2″. The larger Sailfish flew a 75-square-foot sail, weighed 102 lbs, and had a crew capacity of 400 lbs. The original Sailfish was then labeled the Standard Sailfish and the big sister named the Super Sailfish. Production of the two models of Sailfish was brisk, and in 1960 Alcort added a fiberglass version, the Super Sailfish MK II. The MK II hull was the same size as the Super Sailfish, had the same capacity of 400 lbs, and used the same rig, but weighed 98 lbs. Alcort was also producing the wooden Sunfish, which used the same sail rig, daggerboard, and rudder as the Super Sailfish line, and a fiberglass Sunfish with a longer daggerboard and taller transom.
The Alcort literature promised the Sailfish would deliver “thrilling speed, brilliant performance, perfect portability, and swamp-proof safety.” The hull, deck, and frames were made of marine plywood, with mahogany sides, transom, rudder, tiller, and daggerboard. Wilcox and Crittenden in nearby Middletown manufactured the bronze and brass fittings for all of the Alcort boats. The spars on the original Sailfish were cut from Sitka spruce, mid-generation masts were a hybrid aluminum base with wooden top, and spars from the late 1950s on were aluminum.
Alcort offered the Standard Sailfish, Super Sailfish, and Super Sailfish MK II as factory-built boats, and they sold precision-cut knockdown kits for a wooden Sailfish through the late ’50s through the mid-’60s. The Standard Sailfish was phased out in the mid-’60s and the Super Sailfish kit was last seen in the late ’60s. Along the way, a two-page set of plans was produced by Alcort with measurements and a materials list for the frames hull, rudder, daggerboard, spars, and sail. Armed with the plans, an intrepid home builder could build the boat with locally sourced lumber and hardware. We had occasion recently to replace the bottom panels on a factory-built Super Sailfish, and while we had the panels off we validated the measurements in the plans, and all were within a 1/32″ with only one exception. The factory boat’s bow was swept up just under 1″, a design improvement that helped reduce submarining.
The Sailfish kits came with all of the wood, hardware, sails, and line needed. Finishing kits with primer, putty, paint, and varnish could be purchased as well. Alcort provided eight pages of well-written instructions with 16 photos. The first two pages of the instructions contained a list of parts included in the kit with numbered photos. The hull was assembled upside down using the shipping crate as a strongback. The first step was to attach the 13′ 3-3/4″ deck longeron to the stem, the seven frames, maststep, daggerboard trunk, and transom. The parts were coated with a sealer, and then screwed together, and the deck was then temporarily attached to the skeleton frame and the solid-wood sides were screwed on, attached first to the stem and pulled into place on the transom with a rope windlass. The inner keel longeron was attached to the frames, and it and the sides were beveled to accept the plywood bottom panels. They were attached with glue and bronze ring-shank nails.
The assembly process was easy. Alcort advertised that it could be done over a weekend with a hammer, rasp, plane, screwdriver, handsaw, square, brace, drill, and bits. A jigsaw would be helpful for building a hull from plans.
The Sailfish delivers on Alcort’s promise of fun. We have sailed all of the models and have only capsized once when a sail caught a puff and the sheet pulled Skipper off the deck. The sheet had no fairlead or cleat, so it was either let go of the sheet or go for a short swim. One sailor joked that “the Sailfish was the boat that you learned to swim on.” The shallow-V hulls of the Super Sailfish and especially the Standard Sailfish with its 31-1/2″ beam, require more balance than the Sunfish. When sailing Sailfish, we tend to sit more amidships and hike out by laying backward at an angle, rather than perpendicular to the centerline. Handrails on the deck serve as foot braces to help maintain control of the boat while hands are busy with the sheet and tiller. Some of the models had a small toerail, which is also helpful for maintaining a grip on the flat, cockpitless deck. The sheet also works as a tether to help keep skippers aboard. Some of the Sailfish had nonskid on the deck, but it quickly wore out pants bottoms. One trick that we’ve come up for tacking is to lean backward instead of forward—while you’re wearing a PFD it is harder to bend forward on a Sailfish than on a Sunfish, which has a cockpit to tuck your legs and feet into.
The Sailfish 65-square-foot sail for the Standard and 75 for the Super are appropriately sized, neither too small to provide fun, even exciting sailing, nor so large as to be overpowering and leading to frequent capsizes. All of the models power up quickly. We’ve found that tacking is improved with a longer daggerboard, similar to the one found on the 1960s fiberglass Sunfish. The mast is easy to step and even kids as young as eight can raise the sail. Our Sailfish moves well even in the lightest of breeze; we enjoy the fingertip control on the tiller and setting coffee cups set on deck, without them sliding over the side. Once the breeze picks up to 5–8 knots, a little more activity is needed to balance the boat and get through tacks smoothly. At 10–12 knots we are moving quickly to stay on course and work the puffs, and above 12 knots we have sailed the Super Sailfish with two on board, one at the tiller and the other serving as movable ballast.
Alcort made a lot of promises with the Sailfish and delivered on all of them. We’ve even come up with a few more uses for the boats. The Sailfish, with its deck unbroken by a cockpit, makes a respectable stand-up paddleboard, and with a 400-lb capacity, it is well suited for larger paddlers or for an adult taking little crew members out paddling. The deeper hull design has a greater capacity than a normal paddleboard and makes for a very stable platform. The small keel strip helps the boat track straight under paddle power. We can paddle our MK II out in flat calm, and set sail if the wind picks up. I took the hull out once with a low-slung beach chair lashed to the handrails, and it made a fine sit-on-top kayak, a very useful fishing platform or picnic boat. We have also seen folks add outriggers and take their pets out for a ride with plenty of room for the whole pack.
The Sailfish is a proven design. Alcort made thousands of them, and there are still many good boats out there. As the big sisters to the still-available Sunfish, they share most of the same parts, including the sail rig and daggerboard, so building a hull would be an easy way to get into small-boat sailing. The ease of portability and small storage footprint make the Sailfish a fun boat. It’s a nice swim platform for kids, and a wet, wild ride for adults. The up-front investment is minimal and there are no slip fees necessary—just add water!
Clark and Audrey Lewis blog about and maintain a fleet of vintage Alcorts that include a Standard Sailfish, Super Sailfish, Catfish and a wooden Sunfish, along with several fiberglass Sunfish. They also maintain the Yahoo group Sunfish Sailor and publish The Sunfish Owners Manual.
|Sail Area||65 sq. ft.|
|Sail Area||75 sq. ft.|
The kit assembly instructions can be found in the Files section of the Sunfish Sailor Yahoo group (after joining the group) and are very helpful when repairing wooden Sailfish, or for building a new Sailfish from the plans, found in the same Files. Sunfish sails and spars to fit the Super Sailfish can be ordered from Sunfish Direct. The Sunfish is manufactured in fiberglass by Laser Performance.
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