The Sunfish: A Perfect Lake or Urban Sailboat

Sailboat SUNFISH at mooring
Arthur Tilley / Getty Images

Hailed as "the most popular sailboat ever built," the Sunfish is still going strong after more than fifty years. Its popularity is partly due to its low price and easy portability, but it also sails well and is a lot of fun for both beginners and experienced sailors alike. This is a daysailer for active sailing, as it's mostly a single-handed boat. You're likely to get wet unless the water is flat and the wind is light, but for sheer fun and ease of sailing, the Sunfish is terrific. As long as you remember to move your body (the ballast) when you tack and gybe, you can't go wrong with a Sunfish.

The Pros and Cons


  • Very easy to rig and sail with a single control line (mainsheet)
  • Virtually the only car-top sailboat
  • Fast planing sailboat in good wind
  • Kick-up rudder and daggerboard allow easy beaching
  • Widely available and inexpensive as a used sailboat


  • Holds only one full-size adult (or an adult and child - or two teens)
  • Tiny cockpit and little freeboard makes for wet sailing
  • Not as much a racer as a Laser
  • Easily capsized by a beginner


  • Length overall: 13 feet 9 inches
  • Beam: 4 feet 1 inch
  • Draft: daggerboard up: 6-8 inches - adjustable down to 35 inches
  • Empty hull weight: 120 lbs.
  • Sail area: 75 sq. ft.
  • The cockpit is self-bailing with the boat moving
  • The lateen sail automatically spills wind when a gust hits
  • Races in International Sunfish Class

Replacement parts widely available at dealers and online

  • MSRP $4220, or in good condition for a few hundred used

A Perfect Lake or Urban Sailboat

First sold as a wooden boat and do-it-yourself kit, the original fiberglass Sunfish introduced in 1960 has not changed much in the half-century since. Over 300,000 have been built by seven manufacturers over the years, a phenomenal number for any boat. The stable hard-chine hull design and lateen sail rig remain the same and are integral to the boat's success. The lateen sail, compared to the taller Bermuda rig used on most modern sailboats, keeps the force of the wind low and causes less heeling. Another advantage is when a gust strikes, the lateen rig's mechanics allow some wind to spill, reducing the risk of capsizing. While racers prefer never to sacrifice any wind, and consequently many have gone to a Laser or a Super Sunfish (same hull but a Bermuda rig), the traditional Sunfish with lateen sail remains popular and sails well downwind and in light air.

It Stands up Well

While there have been some variations among Sunfish built by the different manufacturers over the decades, the hull has remained rugged and stands up well to abuse. It's not surprising to find a twenty or thirty-year-old Sunfish still in good shape regardless of scratches and dings in the fiberglass. Neophytes are sometimes surprised by the boat's buoyancy and stability, given its thin body profile. With a hollow body and small cockpit, however, the Sunfish floats high and is unsinkable when capsized. With the daggerboard in place, it can be righted fairly easily after a capsize once you learn how.

Responsive to Direction and Wind Changes

A key advantage of the Sunfish, its portability, is a limitation for some. While two small adults or teens can sail together, this is not a boat for social conversation or a quiet, meditative picnic on the water. Rather, a Hunter 140 or similar daysailer is more comfortable for two or three crew. Since the boat is so responsive to direction and wind changes, and to steering changes and the position of body weight, you need to pay attention to what you're doing at all times.

Except when things are fairly calm, it's not a good idea to cleat down the main sheet, as you want to be able to quickly let the sail out in a strong gust. With one hand on the sheet and the other on the tiller, and ducking below the boom while shifting your weight side to side every tack and gybe, you're kept busy, but that also makes for a more intense sailing experience.

A Great Boat to Stow Away

Overall, this is a great boat to keep at a lake, stow away in your garage or car-top to a nearby bay for an afternoon's great fun. Once you've learned the basics of sailing, anyone can sail a Sunfish. When the wind is good, even the pros can have fun zipping about over the water. If you eventually feel you want a faster, more exciting boat of the same size, consider a Laser.