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Boating’s small secret

These seven builders specialize in boats that can get you on the water fast - whether sailed, paddled or pedaled

This Canadian-built Whitehall Spirit can be sailed or rowed.

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Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on small boats. Last month we looked at powerboats. This month, it's boats that can be sailed or rowed.

As sailors adapt to the "new economy" and a host of obstacles that have made boating less accessible, they are getting wise to the lure of small trailerable sailboats. The buzzword that defines this budding small-boat renaissance is "crossover."

"Dramatically different hull forms were developed over centuries, dictated by specific uses," says Dave Robertson, founder of Gig Harbor (Wash.) Boat Works, a family business that builds classic trailerable dinghies that can be rowed, sailed or motored. "We refine them and make them appealing to people who want to do different things when they are on the water."

Selling small multipurpose boats might seem counterintuitive in a culture that embraces specialization, so the focus has turned to customers who want the most bang for their buck. And then there's the fitness aspect for boaters who can turn on the "ash breeze" when the wind takes a break. "Getting out on the water has to be a quick affair, otherwise people won't do it," says Harold Aune, co-founder of Whitehall Rowing & Sail in Victoria, British Columbia. He compares boating to biking: Go when the mood strikes, even if it's only for an hour during lunch. And make it a part of your fitness regimen. "People still sail," Aune says, "but once they have tried sliding-seat rowing, they fall in love with this low-impact workout on the water." So why not make boats that do both?

Small boats are important to the sport of sailing, but barriers will have to be removed by providing easier access, reducing or removing the burden of ownership, and making entry-level boats appealing to beginners and experienced sailors alike. Rotomolded hulls and colorful sails are helping with that mission, but customers who love traditional looks in a small boat are in luck, too.

Here's a look at seven builders that offer a range of small boats designed to get you on the water without a lot of hassle.

Gig Harbor Boat Works

Gig Harbor Boat Works is one of the U.S. builders of traditionally styled small boats, with models from 8 to 17 feet, including a 14-foot Whitehall, 16-foot New England dory and 15-foot Maine lobster boat, all built of fiberglass. The smaller models are also offered in Kevlar/fiberglass composite.

Robertson - the company founder, owner and designer - and his small staff are turning out approximately 100 boats a year that they sell around the country (mainly on the East Coast) and around the world through their website. "We hardly do any boat shows anymore," says Robertson. "It's gotten too expensive and the Internet and word of mouth seem to be working well for us."

Gig Harbor Boat Works build traditionally styled boats from 8 to 17 feet. This is the 17-foot Jersey Skiff.

All boats can be rowed and sailed or equipped with small outboards. Robertson outsources the glasswork and finishes each hull in the shop on his property. Customers can outfit their boats for individual use, either as pure rowing boats with single or tandem sliding seats, as rowing/sailing skiffs, or with outboards for fishing. Gig Harbor Boat Works also offers a rudder-mounted electric outdrive as an option.

Built from modern composite materials, these boats are light, so they sail and row well and are easy to trailer behind a family car. "Simple  but not dumbed down," Robertson says. Pricing starts at $1,200 for a basic Nisqually rowing dinghy and reach $15,000 for a Jersey Skiff with sliding seats, sailing rig, trailer and accessories.

Gig Harbor Boat Works, Gig Harbor, Wash.,   (253) 851-2126.

Hobie Cat

Hobie Cat, the iconic Southern California company that pioneered the beach catamaran in the 1960s and '70s, has seen its share of ups and downs through the decades, but it has always shown a knack for comebacks and an eye for unique products. While the company continues to produce fiberglass beach cats like the Hobie 16 and high-performance cats like the Wild Cat F18, it emphasizes recreational sailing.

"Kayaks kept us going strong through the recession," says product manager Greg Thomas, himself a successful catamaran racer.

Hobie's Mirage Adventure Island is a kayak that can be paddle or pedaled - outfitted with amas for sailing.

The boat that has done well for Hobie is the Mirage Adventure Island, which Thomas calls a "cross between everything." It is a rotomolded kayak (single or double) that can be paddled or pedaled. It also can be expanded with amas to become a trimaran that carries a simple sailing rig. It is not as fast as the Weta and doesn't have the classic elegance of a Whitehall, but it has proven popular as a beach boat, for camping trips or fishing.

The Mirage Adventure Island competes with entry-level sailboats and Hobie is trying to capture a bigger slice of the kayak fishing market. With the volatility of fuel prices and water access becoming more difficult, Thomas believes crossover boats will appeal to different water sports enthusiasts and can help novices get into sailing because they can paddle or pedal back to shore if they don't feel confident to do so under sail.

The Mirage Adventure Island is priced at $3,400 (single) and $4,700 (double).

Hobie Cat, Oceanside, Calif., (800) 462-4349.


Formed in 2007 through the merger of U.S. builder Vanguard Sailboats and Performance Sailcraft Europe, LaserPerformance is the world's largest small-sailboat builder. The bulk of business, according to vice president of marketing Chip Wilkerson, is the "old standbys," such as the Laser, Sunfish and Optimist, the world's most popular youth class.

Although racing continues to be popular, LaserPerformance sees more growth potential in recreational sailing. "Today, we talk more about the lifestyle of sailing," Wilkerson says.

To get new and former sailors on the water, Wilkerson says it is important to give them a place to sail and ways to do it without the upfront cost. The company has been pushing into the recreational market with daysailers like the Funboat, Bug, Pico and Bahia. Made from rotomolded plastic, these boats are heavier than similar-sized fiberglass boats but are also more durable and less expensive.

LaserPerformance has been pushing into recreational sailing with rotomolded daysailers like the Pico.

The standard version of the Bug sells for $2,625, while the Laser Bahia goes for $9,700. LaserPerformance also operates four Sail Laser centers in the United States that introduce newcomers to the sport through classes and rental programs. "It's about making sailing easier, providing access and breaking down barriers," Wilkerson says. The bet is that allowing people to sail without the burden of ownership first will turn them into buyers later.

LaserPerformance, Portsmouth, R.I., (800) 966-7245.


Some of the "cruisiest" small sailboats are built by NorseBoat of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Influenced by sea boats of the Norse sailors and beach skiffs used by New Jersey anglers in the 1800s, the lineup ranges from a 12-foot tender to a 21-foot cabin model. The company's most popular boat, the NorseBoat 17.5, debuted in 2004.

Company founder and president Kevin Jeffrey developed the concept of a seaworthy multiuse boat that lends itself to sailing, rowing and motoring, and naval architect Mark Fitzgerald designed the hull. Jeffrey equipped the boat with a carbon fiber gaff rig, fully battened main and optional jib and gennaker.

NorseBoats are popular for racing and camp-cruising.

NorseBoats are popular for adventure races, camping cruises and extended cruising. In fact, two Royal Marines sailed, rowed and dragged a NorseBoat 1,400 miles through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Mariner Expedition of 2009. NorseBoats are used by the Seattle Catholic Youth Organization's summer camp program in southern Puget Sound, where they replaced larger cruising sailboats.

"For us, it is less maintenance while the kids learn to work as a team while sailing or rowing, which is more exiting than motoring," says associate program director Jamie Fredrickson.

NorseBoat also offers its boats in wood, with traditional lapstrake planking, or as DIY plywood kits from Chesapeake Light Craft ( Prices range from $13,000 for a basic NorseBoat 12.5 to $33,500 for the wooden 21-footer. Kit boats range from $ 6,500 to $14,000.

NorseBoat (sales and marketing), Belfast, Prince Edward Island, (902) 659-2790.

RS Sailing

Incorporating performance features into entry-level boats, U.K.-based RS Sailing has ascended to the world's No. 2 builder of small sailing dinghies behind LaserPerformance.

"We have to compete against other activities and make sailing more exciting," says sales director Riki Hooker.

To achieve this, RS builds its rotomolded boats from a three-layered laminate that reduces weight and increases stiffness. The company's entry-level models include the RS Terra, RS Q'Ba, RS Feva and RS Vision daysailer, and the line segues into high-performance fiberglass dinghies, skiffs and keelboats. For sailors who are growing their skills and want more performance, RS offers crossovers with different rig packages so sailors can upgrade before switching to larger, more challenging boats.

RS Sailing focuses on young sailors with its entry-level rotomolded sailboats like the Feva.

Without legacy designs, the company has to develop class structures for their boats and works with national and international sailing organizations. On the recreational level, sailing schools can get special status as "RS Academies" if they use and promote RS boats to turn students into future buyers. Much of the company's attention is trained on youth.

"The scarcest commodity [in this industry] are teenagers or young adults before they drop out of the sport," Hooker says. "The longer you can keep kids in a boat, the better the chance to keep them sailing forever."

Retail prices start at $2,800 for the RS Terra and go up to $9,000 for the RS Vision. U.S. dealers are listed on the company website.

RS Sailing, Southampton, England.


In the 1960s and '70s, thousands of sailors took to the water with simple, exciting, affordable Hobie cats. Today, the 14.5-foot trailerable Weta trimaran - conceived by a father-and-son team in New Zealand and built in Guangzhou, China - hopes to do it all over again.

The 220-pound multihull derives its stability from an 11.5-foot beam and carries a large sail plan. It disassembles for storage or road transport. The boat's rated payload capacity is 440 pounds, and Weta's West Coast importer Dave Berntsen calls it "equally well-suited for racing and family sailing because it can be sailed alone or with a crew and a couple of kids."

Berntsen markets the boat as a performance one-design trimaran and targets dinghy sailors who crave speed and keelboat sailors who want to rekindle their small-boat passion with a dash of excitement. He favors a direct-marketing approach and makes extensive use of the Internet and video, "because male customers are visual types." But he also taps into the enthusiasm of existing owners as a volunteer sales force. Berntsen says he's not paying cash commissions to these seller-sailors, but he compensates them with accessories for their boats.

The father and son behind the New Zealand-built 14.5-foot Weta trimaran hope to recapture the spirit of early Hobie cats.

The Weta trimaran, including beach dolly and trailer, retails for $12,200.

Weta West, San Francisco, (415) 686-4583.,

Whitehall Rowing & Sail

On the west coast of Canada, in British Columbia, Whitehall Rowing & Sail was inspired by the Whitehall skiffs to build high-end crossover dinghies for rowing and sailing. Company co-founder Aune was involved in building luxury yachts and sailboards before falling in love with classic small boats when a customer showed him a traditional Whitehall tender.

"We looked at the recreational market and wanted something smaller and simpler," he says. He started building dinghies and skiffs full time around 1985.

Today, the company offers a classic line from 9 to 17 feet - boats that can be outfitted with sliding seats, bronze hardware, outrigger oarlocks, teak trim and free-standing sailing rigs. But the focus of Whitehall Rowing & Sail is on sliding-seat rowing, which the company markets as healthy, low-impact exercise for all ages.

With entry-level buyers and small-boat clubs in mind, Whitehall recently introduced a line of thermoformed plastic boats. Pricing starts at $7,000 for the basic Tango 14 single-slide and reach $44,000 for a top-of-the-line 17-foot Classic Expedition fiberglass row/sail model. This is not pocket change, but Aune says enduring quality gives owners a good return on investment, either through high resale value or by passing down the boat from generation to generation.

Whitehall Rowing & Sail, Victoria, British Columbia, (250) 361-2628.,

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.