On any given summer evening Mary Motto Kalich and her 14-year-old son, Micky, can be spotted loading up their Sunfish en route to Peconic Bay. The lightweight fiberglass hulls are easily lifted onto a double trailer and transported to the shoreline, where the boats are just as quickly rigged and ready to sail.
Portability is one of the reasons the Sunfish is so popular.
“It’s a family-friendly boat,” said Motto Kalich. “It’s easy and fun for people to use — that is the value of this sport that has endured for years and years.”
The Sunfish is woven into the fabric of the North Fork. During the 1970s, fleets of colorful sails glided along Peconic Bay during informal sailing gatherings organized by homeowners associations.
“The culture of owning Sunfish on the North Fork has been around forever,” said Motto Kalich, who grew up planning such impromptu community outings with her father. “There used to be five or six Sunfish at the end of the block for the community to go out and race. That was a part of the social network out here.”
Those scenes are less common today. The Mattituck and Southold yacht clubs continue to offer Sunfish lessons and races. Both volunteer-operated organizations carry on the tradition many of their members grew up with. “The kids should learn to enjoy and be a part of the water,” Motto Kalich said. “You learn to sail — it’s what we do out here.”
Youth sailing programs can start with those as young as 5 years old. The kids learn the basics on land first and graduate to the water with a partner aboard. By age 13, they can sail solo.
“It’s a wonderful boat for children learning to sail,” said longtime Sunfish sailor and Southold Yacht Club member Joe Sullivan, who helped launch the nonprofit’s youth sailing program. “A parent can get a child a Sunfish and that child can keep that Sunfish throughout their teenage years into adulthood and after they get married. They can keep it in the family, because you never really outgrow the Sunfish.”
Sullivan speaks from personal experience. The 81-year-old frequently travels around the country to participate in Sunfish regattas.
“I have a sailing buddy who is in his 90s and we’d go on trips to Texas, Mississippi, Chicago and upstate New York with our Sunfish on the trailer to these regattas,” he said. “You meet a lot of nice people. A lot of them have been sailing Sunfish for more than 25 years.”
Many of these longtime sailors head to Southold each summer for the annual World’s Longest Sunfish Race, which Sullivan also helped establish. The 25-mile course around Shelter Island draws upwards of 30 Sunfish sailors of all ages. This year’s race, the 48th, will be hosted by the Southold Yacht Club and is scheduled for Saturday, July 14.
Since its inception, the race has grown to include other classes of boats including the Laser, C420 and Catamaran. These classes accommodate the latest generation of sailors, who are trading the simpler Sunfish in for new technology, said Charles Boyars, who sits on the board of governors at Southold Yacht Club.
“The takeaway for small-boat sailing on the North Fork, in general, is that there is a vibrant juniors program with hundreds of kids sailing many classes of boats for fun and racing competitively,” Boyars said. “There is a small old-guard keeping the Sunfish class going.”