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Boating Through the Ages – Pt. XI

Now, although I have attempted to relegate sailing to it’s rightful place in boating – that being a thing of the past long since committed to the abyssal regions which we’d all like to forget – I hereby admit that there are two particular sailboats that were, will be, or at least SHOULD have been a part of every young Boatnick’s education.

First, the Sunfish. There are many types of cute little freshwater fish that people refer to as “sunfish” or “sunnies,” but those of us who know better know that it’s the giant oceanic “Mola-Mola” (aka “Ocean Sunfish”) who’s name was borrowed. A Mola-Mola is a very weird and incomplete looking fish. In fact, it looks like only the cut-off head of a fish, with a big dorsal fin on top and bottom. These fish are often seen offshore, floating right at the surface, literally sunning themselves, hence the name. Like it’s namesake, a Sunfish sailboat is a rather blunt, simple, slow-moving and unimpressive boat, but that’s it’s magic. One mast, one sail, one halyard, one sheet, one tiller, one rudder. Period. Learn your sailing basics on a Sunfish and it’s just a matter of multiplying all those “one’s” and with practice, you can handle any other sailing rig with relative ease.

Next comes the sailing invention of a guy who was not only way ahead of his time, but also had just the right cool-sounding name to give to the boat he created. Though quite popular in most parts of the world now, the American consumer still just hasn’t fully embraced the concept of a multi-hulled boat. A multi-hull is just that, more than one hull, most commonly seen in a catamaran (two-hull) configuration. Due to the spread out “footprint” of a “cat,” it floats on two very thin hulls as opposed to one singlewide hull. This means it not only draws less water but, due to the narrowness of the hulls, drag is greatly reduced and they cleave more easily through the water so tend to be much faster, whether powered by propeller or sail. The downside to a cat is that, unlike a single hull which can heel over to 90-degrees and still be relatively easy to bring back upright, once a cat hull passes a 90-degree heel, it’s going to keep rolling over in search of it’s own equilibrium and will “turn turtle,” meaning totally upside down… and stay there. But that’s entirely acceptable when boating inshore as a trade-off for the best thing about a sailing cat: “Flying a hull.”

“Flying” is when enough wind is blowing to actually push hard enough on the sail to raise the windward hull right out of the water, and you with it. It’s exciting as hell, a real thrill, and impresses the heck out of the young schoolgirl you took sailing for her very first time. Whenever my adolescent friends and I took the gals sailing on a Hobie Cat, it was always one of THEM who first started pleading, “Let’s fly a hull!” We always obliged since it meant hearing them laugh and scream… and a young, tanned, shaggy-haired and shirtless boy in command of his own vessel streaking across the open bay with teenie-weenie bikinis aboard will do ANYTHING to see and hear them scream. Remember, guys?! Well, we all can and should thank Mr. Hobart “Hobie” Alter, a Californian surfboard-shaper-dude who got the idea one day from seeing an outrigger canoe while on vacation in Hawaii. In the early 1950’s, Hobie set out to build a fast, light and simple boat that you could launch right off the beach. No other sailboat in history has been produced as much as the Hobie Cat… several hundred thousand of them in fact. You still see them on beaches around the world. And of course, neither the Sunfish nor the Hobie Cat had any teak.

It’s of little wonder that after a century and a half, the most famous racing contradiction in the world (a sailboat race) has decided to utilize multi-hulls, that being the America’s Cup, now incorporating hundred million dollar hydro cats and trimarans. True, there probably won’t be any young girls on the boats screaming for the skippers to fly a hull, but I for one think there should be. But most likely the boats will all be crewed by Aussies and Frenchmen with no sense of humor and who take sailing way too seriously all for the sake of getting a fancy watch sponsorship.

Now then, just when we thought the greatest bane to modern boating (TEAK!) was once and for all expunged from the waterways, an even more irritating, insidious and evil thing was lurking upon the drawing boards in the R&D department of some Japanese multi-national corporation back in the late 1970’s. Only the same culture that brought us Godzilla, Kamikaze piloting and who consider jellyfish to be an aphrodisiac delicacy, could have conceived of it:

• It was made of fiberglass, floated and had a motor, but any further resemblance to true boating stopped there.

• It took effort and skill to operate.

• It didn’t have a cooler, not even one drink holder.

• It had no propeller to fear and could only accommodate one person.

So, what sick, twisted and tormented sort of minds could design such a craft? Yes, the company was Kawasaki and the demon seed sketched upon their drafting boards spawned…(shudder with me here)… the Jet Ski! Finally sail and power boaters, long since emulating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, were finally brought together to engage a common enemy.

Call ‘em “Floating Chain Saws,” “2-Stroke Mosquitoes,” or just “Those God Damned Things”, each moniker holds true. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you were one of many such victims), enough people finally realized that you weren’t supposed to crack your sternum or have your front teeth knocked out while boating, so the Jet Ski was ignominiously retired from the boating world. It was replaced with what’s generically known as the wet bike and they have become a bit more tolerable mainstay of “personal watercraft”, but at least you can fit more than one person on them and they will accommodate a cooler.

Next Time Part X11: Epilogue