Buying a Used Sunfish

Max Richardson and his first boat. Too bad about the name. Photo by ## Tom Richardson##

Last summer, my son Max, then 6, took his first sailing lesson at the community sailing program in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. Those Matt Sail instructors did a fine job—maybe too fine—of teaching young Max to sail, as he soon declared his intention to purchase his own sailboat.

As a longtime powerboater and fisherman, this was akin to my son announcing his desire to take up farming in Kansas. Worse, I know little about sailing and sailboats. Where to start?

Fortunately, since I live on the banks of Buzzards Bay, I have a lot of sail-savvy friends and neighbors. These knowledgeable folks quickly helped me narrow down the choices when it came to selecting the right boat for a first-grader and his clueless dad.

I know it’s not the safest way to do business, but I had a gut feeling that this was the boat for Max.

The model we settled on was a Sunfish, that ubiquitous production sailboat first introduced in the early ‘50s by Alcort, Inc. and still going strong. The Sunfish met all of our requirements: First, it could accommodate 2 people. Second, it would not sink, and could be easily righted after capsizing (something I foresaw much of). Third, it was light enough for 2 people to carry. Fourth, it could be sailed in shallow water. Fifth, it was low maintenance. Sixth, there were lots of used ones available.

Meanwhile, Max had been dutifully saving his allowance money through the winter (how had the kid managed to save $115?), and was hot to trot now that warmer weather had arrived. Clearly he wasn’t giving up on the idea of a sailboat. It was time to start shopping.

A Craigslist search turned up plenty of Sunfish listings—at least 2 per week. I also discovered that I wasn’t alone in my quest, as the decent boats were snapped up almost immediately. Clearly, I would have to be on my toes and ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

I began emailing various sellers and lined up a few trips within 50 miles of my house. The first boat I looked at—a 1974 model—seemed in good shape. The hardware was well bedded, the sail was clean and intact, and there was no visible hull damage. However, when I lifted it off the ground, I noticed the sound of water sloshing around inside. A lot of water. I grew wary.

That evening I registered with the Sunfish Forum and posted a question regarding water intrusion. Several people responded within a few hours, and confirmed my suspicion that a large amount of water inside the hull was not a good thing. I was also given the link to a wonderful source of Sunfish-buying information, which is posted here:  Wind Line Sails – The Small Boat Experts.

The next boat I inspected proved that Craigslist photos can be deceiving. This Sunfish, another vintage model from the ‘70s, had been repainted several times. But the deal-breaker was a crack in the hull bottom and the threadbare sail. I thanked the owner and returned home empty-handed.

After a few more leads failed to pan out, I received a call from a friend. He had been driving home when he spied a red Sunfish and trailer on the side of the road. Indeed, he was looking at the boat as we spoke. He described it in detail and managed to track down the owner’s phone number.

I know it’s not the safest way to do business, but I had a gut feeling that this was the boat for Max. I called the seller and we arrived at a price. Then Max and I drove to see the boat in person. It checked out, save for the name on the side of the hull. Somehow Max failed to see the humor in skippering a vessel named “Barbie’s”.

After Max proudly handed over his wad of cash and I signed the bill of sale, we hitched up the rig and headed for home, Max looking over his shoulder the whole way to make sure that his new ride was still behind us. When we pulled into the driveway, he dashed inside to get his mom and sisters, eager to show them his pride and joy. Few things compare to the look on a young boater’s face as he admires his new rig and imagines the nautical adventures that lie ahead.

Now I just need to figure out how to sail the thing…

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