Local Sailors Add a Modern Twist to a Classic Sailboat

Julian Shapiro (L), James Merrell and Gloria Fraze compete in a Sunfish regatta with newly-designed sails on June 23, 2019, in Sag Harbor. Lori Hawkins photo

By Sarah Alford

If you’ve wondered about the fleet of sailboats with translucent sails darting around Sag Harbor, you’re not alone. They’re a fairly recent addition to the assortment of boats in a harbor with hundreds of years of sailing history. The high-tech creation even caught the eye of a sailboat engineer for Team New Zealand, the racing team that won the last America’s Cup.

The story behind the sail reflects the creative spirit that is the lifeblood of Sag Harbor.

I joined this group of inventive sailors after they’d already decided to design a new sail for their Sunfish. My goal was to improve my dinghy skills by racing with a smart and casually competitive fleet. Learning firsthand how sail shape effects boat handling and performance was an unexpected bonus. I bought a used Sunfish, a boat I hadn’t sailed since my childhood, and went along for the ride.

The Sunfish celebrated its 65th anniversary year in 2018, a remarkable milestone for one of the humblest designs to be honored with a place in the American Sailboat Hall of Fame. Since its maiden voyage in 1953, the Sunfish hull has been upgraded a few times — from wood to composite to fiberglass, enabling it to move faster. The sail shape hasn’t changed in 30 years, when a racing cut was introduced in 1989. That’s the nature of a one design fleet, and especially true of a class with active regattas. Locally, there’s a group that races Sunfish in Shelter Island. Who would consider changing it?

One Design Re-design

This sailing group has a history of tinkering with sail design, and previously created a new sail for a different one design sailboat, the Europe. TheEurope was a former Olympic-class boat, and the Sag Harbor sailors appreciated the sailboat’s agility and character. When sourcing replacement parts for the Europe became challenging — requiring overseas orders and waits for new parts — the fleet switched to the Sunfish, explained Gloria Maroti Frazee, a wine expert and seasoned sailor. “It was a pragmatic decision,” Frazee recalled. Like many members of the fleet, she has a deep fondness for how the Europe handles, and how each boat has a slightly different feel.

Trading the Europe for a Sunfish was an adjustment. The Sunfish doesn’t respond as swiftly as the Europe, and the sailors noticed fighting more weather helm and delayed acceleration after tacking. The broad beam of the Sunfish and easy sail shape makes the boat forgiving for sailors of all abilities, but less fun for sailors who want to be challenged. James Merrell, an architect and long-time member of the sailing group said he “wanted to sail a boat that was more responsive, more technically interesting.”

While many would just shrug their shoulders and sail on, the fleet discussed options during a post-sail picnic. Scott Sandell, an artist, wine maker and avid sailor, was used to seeing possibility through change. Previously, Sandell had designed new sails for the Europe as well, although that process was based on a sketch and a set of three test sails that were cut and re-sewn until they achieved the desired shape.

This time Sandell assessed the sail shape and worked with Kevin Farrar, a sailmaker from Farrar Sails in New London, to create computer-aided design concepts to consider. They reviewed Farrar’s AutoCAD renderings of various options that included versions with up to three battens and alternate geometries.  The 3D models helped assess air flow, camber and how the sail shape would perform under various wind conditions. They also evaluated the merit of sailcloth choices for durability and ability to hold their shape. Sandell shared three sail options with the fleet, which selected a version that offered an optimal balance of cost versus performance.

Field Trip Across Long Island Sound

The group joked about sailing across Long Island Sound to pick up the new sails but opted instead for a breezy and scenic ferry ride from Orient Point to the sail loft in New London, Connecticut. Farrar Sails is located a few blocks from the ferry dock and occupies what was once playwright Eugene O’Neill’s carriage house, reflecting the layers of history in the waterfront town. Inside and up a steep set of stairs, the rustic floorboards, solid beams and turn-of-the-century character contrast the colorful rolls of high tech sailcloth and drawers of parts that punctuate the long workspace.

Touring the sail loft, we marveled at the powerful sewing machines set level with the floor, with benches cut into sunken holes that enable long swaths of sail cloth to be maneuvered and stitched together more easily. The Sunfish sails were dwarfed by the expansive room, reflecting the spectrum of sail sizes the loft accommodates.

We gathered around an oversized computer monitor to see 3D renderings of the Sunfish sail, models that looked as technical and detailed as those created for larger and higher-performance vessels. We leaned in to watch as Farrar rotated the image, showing sail shape under various points of sail.

Sensing we were a curious bunch, Farrar continued the sail loft tour to the floor below which houses a gleaming white table with a surface covered by small perforations. The table was so long it barely fit in the bowling alley-shaped room.  The holes enabled a vacuum beneath the table to hold sail cloth in place with suction, so that a computer program that syncs with an AutoCAD rendering can maneuver a sharp blade for automated precision cuts.

Sandell recommended that we add a few extra grommets to the foot to tweak the sail shape, and so we took turns sitting at a low bench to pound the metal discs through the sail. This was a subtle reminder that no matter how high tech the fabric or design process may be, sail making still incorporates simple and steadfast elements.

Afterward, we rolled up the sails, hoisted the bundle on our shoulders and walked in a straight line down the street back to the ferry. No one in the seaside town seemed to bat an eye at us with our new sails.

Design Considerations and Performance

The new sail design sought to solve a few issues common in sailing: weather helm, pointing and deceleration after tacks. Steering a traditional Sunfish sail in stronger winds can require so much muscle to counteract weather helm that a wooden tiller arches. Working against all that force on the boat can make for tiring sailing.

Changing the sail geometry from the Sunfish’s traditional shape, Sandell and Farrar’s design shortened the foot (bottom edge) by 18 inches and added sail area aloft to catch higher and cleaner breeze. Because of this accentuated roach, two battens were added to allow the sail to maintain its curvature. Less sail area in the stern of the boat along the foot reduces weather helm. With the wider roach, Sandell sought to move the center of effort forward so the boat wouldn’t round up so much.

For sail cut and cloth, Sandell and Farrar opted for Kevlar and monofilm, with ten bi-radial panels to add shape to the sail geometry. The cut enables the sail to stay flatter. Whereas the traditional Sunfish sail’s Dacron can become baggy when wet, Kevlar and monofilm have minimal stretch. To explain it in layman’s terms: as the boat accelerates, the sail stretches, and the stretch then causes the boat to decelerate.

The transparent Kevlar material also enables full visibility — tall sailors no longer have to crane their neck to look through the rectangular window that’s placed too low for adults. And yes, it definitely enables us to keep an eye on the competition when we race.

Nothing else was altered about the rigging and the new sail was designed to fit onto the existing lateen-style spars of the traditional Sunfish design. Some Dinghy Club sailors opted to cut their boom since the new sail is 18 inches shorter, but I kept mine as-is in case I race with the competitive Sunfish fleet nearby on Shelter Island.

The end results? The sailboat points higher and moves with more zip. The boat accelerates noticeably faster after a tack. On the flip side, the sails require quicker response to puffs and wind shifts, so boat handling skills need to keep up. By switching out the sail, it’s like having two different boats: one that is great to learn on and another that sails faster and requires faster response time.

The gossamer sails have caught the eye of sailors coming and going out of Sag Harbor, including Eduardo Sanchez, an engineer for Team New Zealand’s successful 2017 campaign for the America’s Cup.

“I was intrigued,” he said, “They were so cool looking. Really, really cool.”  And Sanchez knows a thing or two about cool sails, as he’d raced Lasers while growing up in Argentina, but had never sailed a Sunfish. It goes without saying that he knows a thing or two about more complicated rigging.  “It was easy to rig, easy to hike and just fun. You can push the boat like a Laser to get more performance out of it.”

After “they look so cool!” the second most common exclamation about the sails, is “but they’re not legal!”  Even if they’re not class legal for Sunfish regattas, they don’t break any rules of the sea. If anything, the inventiveness of a group of sailors assessing boat design and performance embodies the sailing spirit.

No doubt I’ve improved my helming skills since joining the dinghy club, yet I’ve also enhanced my understanding of how sail shape helps to optimize performance.  It’s not just time on the water that helps, but experiencing the nautical curiosity to dream, tinker and try.