A Sunfish Custom Cruiser

by Thomas E. Lisco
Illustration by Marya Butler

Small Boat Journal #46, December/January 1986

"We couldn't believe the amount of stuff you got out of that itty-bitty boat." This is the response I received when we pulled up and unloaded at the Hardscrabble Point campsite on Maine's Moosehead Lake. We were in the midst of a three-day camping trip in my Sunfish, which I had rebuilt to make the interior space available for storage. In fact, we had about 120 pounds of gear including tent, sleeping bags and pads, light and heavy clothing, cooking materials, food, paddles, life jackets, and foul weather gear. It was luxurious camping.

Such luxury was the culmination of an almost year-long project to transform my Sunfish into a cruising/camping craft. I had long held the desire to have a boat that not only sailed well, but was also car-toppable and could hold camping equipment. I knew of no such boat commercially available; therefore, I had to make my own.

In customizing the Sunfish, a number of problems had to be solved to achieve a suitable design. The original flotation blocks not only supported the deck but also occupied my planned storage areas fore and aft of the cockpit. For replacement flotation, I used Styrofoam blocks shaped to fill the bow and stern sections of the boat and the open areas on both sides of the cockpit. For deck support, I built a series of Airex-cored bulkheads.

Solid bulkheads separate flotation from storage, except in the forward part of the boat, where two open-framed bulkheads create one large storage area. The tops of these open frames are reinforced with three layers of Airex fiberglass mat sandwich.

In order to accommodate the forward hatch, the splash guard had to be moved forward about a foot, almost to the mast. Both hatches have glassed Airex coamings above and below deck for strength and freedom from leaks. Over the aft storage area, the entire underside of the deck was glassed with Airex foam to support the deck without internal frames. The hatch covers themselves were constructed of molded fiberglass mat and roving, again covered with layers of Airex foam. Neoprene foam rubber seals the hatches and the hatch covers, and bungee cords attached to the bottom of the boat and the undersides of the covers secure the hatches in place.

Customizing a Sunfish for cruising is a rewarding though sometimes difficult project. The deck must be carefully separated from the hull (I used a hacksaw blade) and a cradle built to hold the hull rigidly in place during interior construction. Fiberglass work is required to build the bulkheads, coamings, and hatch covers, and forms must be constructed for the molded parts. Also, reattaching the deck to the hull is a difficult job, perhaps best done by a commercial shop. Epoxy resin must be applied to the tops of the bulkheads and cockpit and along the hull flange, and the hull and deck must be aligned and clamped together before the epoxy kicks off. WARNING: Care should be taken not to breathe fiberglass dust or the fumes from uncured polyester resin.

All this construction added no more than 10 pounds to the boat's original 125pound weight. The front storage area has about 20 cubic feet of space, ample for almost any camping gear, even a twopiece double-bladed paddle. The 6-cubic-foot storage area aft holds a large supply of food. And because I moved the splash guard, the deck is more comfortable than before for sunbathing.